Widowhood: The story of invisible women (1)

The dilemma widows in some South-eastern neighborhoods face is dreadfully pitiable. They are condemned to a life of rejection, trauma, deprivation and poverty. However, the sufferings vary from quarter to quarter. ISIOMA MADIKE, who is on tour of this region, reports the broad patterns of these harmful traditional practices of widowhood in the communities visited,

Chidera was once cherished by her husband’s family. But, not any more. They now treat her as a pariah since her husband died in 2012. They convey through spoken and implied signs, a simple message to her: “You killed your husband.” Chidera, a native of Amawbia in Anambra State still wonders why it should be her.

“Why me? she mumbles every night with confusion and despair on the bed that once brought her comfort, joy and peace. She now battles with reality and wish it is all a dream. But, it never seem to go away. It was real; it is her reality, an unpleasant, heartrending reality. But, she is not an isolated case. Paulinus, who hailed from Nanka, also in Anambra State, died in 2009. Like Chidera, Adaeze, his wife has been in torment ever since the tragic incident.

Her husband’s people said she killed him. However, it did not stop at just mere accusation. She was forced to drink the bathwater from the corpse to prove her innocence. Her hair was shaved with a blunt razor and Adaeze was made to wear black mourning attire for one year during which she was confined indoors.

“I was made to sit naked on the floor for a week without bath with the corpse,” she recalled, amid tears rolling down her cheeks. Yet, Chidera and Adaeze are not alone in this ordeal. In the case of Theresa Okoye from Neibo in Awka South bra State capital where she started pure water business.

From the communities in Imo State, comes the same tale of woes and pains. The Igbos are a people whose values are strongly entrenched in their culture and traditions and when it comes to the issue of practices associated with widowhood, the story is the same all over. In Imo, these widows filed up in Local Government Area of the State, she was forbidden to see her husband’s corpse. She does not buy or sell in the market throughout her mourning period.

And she was circumvented like death; people saw her and ran away from her. Okoye, 69, was just 28 years when her husband died in 1974. Since then she has not known peace as her in-laws have constantly made life unbearable for her and her four surviving children.

For Rosaline, her in-laws confiscated all her husband’s property after he died. She had five kids with her late husband. “My husband left me and five children for one of his brothers and travelled to Lagos State to look for the proverbial greener pastures. When things did not work out as planned, he returned to try something else back home. But, a year after, he fell sick and died.

And his family accused me of killing him. “I was forced to sleep with the corpse for three days without food during which time native doctors were brought in to perform some rituals,” she said.

Yet, if this was all Rosaline had to go through, it would have been bearable but there was no stopping the in-laws. From verifying her culpability in the death of her husband, they went further to deny her inheritance rights. After her innocence was proved, she was forced out of her husband’s home with her children.

During this period her friends deserted her as her in-laws told them she was a witch. “I left everything for them. I now live alone in a small, uncompleted building,” Rosaline sobbed.

Just like Chidera and her likes, the story of Nkechi, is not different. However, not having a child compounded the woes that befell Nkechi when her husband died in 1999. Although, they lived a happy life, her husband’s family members from Nkpoo, near Onitsha, mounted pressure on him to do something about his childlessness.

He finally succumbed to family pressure and married another wife. “When he died, I was asked by one ofmy sisters-in-law to urinate in an open place and in the presence of everyone in the village in order to prove my innocence in my husband’s death.

My bladder was blocked because of the stress and the psychological feeling of doing it before the crowd. I only managed to do it an hour later, but the junior wife was not part of the ritual because they felt I was the one who killed our husband since I didn’t bear him a child.”

Nkechi said. Her hair was shaved and she was made to cover herself with a black wrapper for three-months after which she was given two sets of wrappers to wear for a period of one year.

She was alleged to have maltreated her husband and had not taken good care of him when he was on his sick bed. For this, Nkechi was made to crawl over her husband’s corpse known as ige fe ukwu ozu. Augustina’s case, from Ozubulu, the headquarters of Ekwusigo Local Government Area of Anambra State, is similar to that of Nkechi’s.

She also narrated how her husband of 20 years had died in a ghastly motor accident and because she had no child in the marriage, she was chased out of the compound. She promptly relocated to Awka, the Anam-bra State capital where she started pure water business. From the communities in Imo State, comes the same tale of woes and pains.

The Igbos are a people whose values are strongly entrenched in their culture and traditions and when it comes to the issue of practices associated with widowhood, the story is the same all over. In Imo, these widows filed up intheir numbers, bearing the brunt and gossip signs of their individual experiences. They typify the classification of those confined to a perpetual injunction of poverty and deprivations that is created by natural occurrence of death, which represents the social inequality in the Igbo culture. Horrible as the tales may be, though, the women themselves in most cases athe ones, who insist on executing these stipulated hateful customs and traditions on their fellow women. In most instances, they are enforcers of the sanctions themselves.

The patrilineal daughters (umu ada) are women related to the dead spouse, often his sisters. They play a unique role in the widowhood practice as they ensure that the widow complies with the demands of culture.

The number and cruelty level of rituals inflicted on the widow depends on the relationship she has with her in-laws. If relations are poor and plagued by jealousy, the period of mourning provides the sisters with an opportunity to demean their widowed sister-in-law. But, if she is lucky enough to have mature daughters, her treatment will be less severe, as through connection to their father, are part of the umu ada and can protect their mother from harsher treatment.

On the other hand, if the widow’s relatives are influential or wealthy, they can offer bribes to the leaders of the umu ada to be lenient towards the widow. Umu ada, most of the time are prejudiced against their dead relations’ wives for past disagreements or misunderstandings.

They see the widowhood period as a time for vendetta. However, the identification of fear and superstition appear to be the major obstacle to eliminating widowhood practices in this region.

There are beliefs that the spirit of the dead husband hovers around and would want to continue to associate with the wife. The spirits, according to the people, might be malevolent if the widow does not subscribe to widowhood rights. This may be why Rauphina Okwara of Umuokoroezike of Umunam Atta Autonomous Community in Njaba Local Government Area of Imo State had no option but to dance to the turn of her neighborhood’s cruel rituals.

Like those in Anambra communities, Okwara was denied her rights and was subjected to other inhuman treatment for refusing to marry her husband’s younger brother. “When my husband died, his family asked me to marry his younger brother.

And when I refused, they summoned a meeting to throw me and my only child out of my matrimonial home on the grounds that I refused to remain in their family,” Okwara, who lost herhusband in 1998, said. Okwara cannot understand why fate could be so cruel to her. “Life has not been fair to me,” she sobbed while narrating her ordeal to this reporter.

Her story has been that of hopelessness as, according to her, since her husband and only child died more than 17 years ago, the world has “crumbled on my head; all hope is lost.” Today, this 69-year-old woman, who now looks older than her age, lives in squalor in her thatched mud house that wobbles in the neighborhood. The house have several cracks that makes it risky to live in.

It could crumble anytime. “I have no alternative, that is why I am still in this place. I know it is not safe staying here but what do I do. I’ve lived here since my husband died. I moved in here when I saw that it was abandoned,” the old widow recalled. Adolphus (her son) was, according to her, “the light and hope of my life.” He was trading and doing well in Aba before tragedy struck about 10 years ago.

“He was about to change my pathetic situation before the devil snatched him from me. Since that time, I’ve not left this hut as I am hoping on God to give memore strength to live on till I die. You can see that I’m getting old and can no longer do many things,” Okwara said with a tired voice. She is engaged at present in broommaking as a trade to support her existence. She said that when the thatch roof gets bad and has leakages, which happens often, she would personally fetch raffia leaves to cover the leakages.

“As you can see, I’m aging fast and sometimes because of ill health, I can’t weave the raffia leaves to make thatched roof and that affects me a lot when the rains come,” she said. This may be why she is calling on the wife of the governor of the state, Nkechi Okorocha, to come to her aid and assist in putting a roof over her head.

“I’ve been hearing that the wife of our governor has been helping people in my condition. That gave me hope as I’ve also been praying to God since that news to use somebody like to her remember me. The way things are going, I may not last too long if I remain in this condition. I’ll be grateful if she can help wipe away my tears and years of suffering.

My heart longs for at least, a moment of joy and celebration before I die,” she pleaded. There was also a pathetic story of a widow, who died six months after her husband’s death in 2007. The Christian community, according to the narrative, gathered for her burial and funeral, but other members of her village resisted and insisted that the woman should be thrown into the evil forest without mourning for her since she committed an abomination by dying before the end of the traditional mourning period.

In spite of over 100 years of contact with western education and Christian religion, widowhood rites and practices considered to be dehumanising are still prevalent in many Igbo communities today. In recent times, though, there have been conflicts between families, traditional and religious groups when some of the rites and practices are being enforced, especially when working class or Pentecostal Christian groups are involved.

Such conflicts sometimes result to open verbal and physical violence even at the places of burial, resulting in disruption of social activities, ostracisation and sanctions among disagreeing groups. Apart from affecting community life, the widow is the centre of the crisis, a situation that worsens her physical and mental state. But, there are some courageous defiants. A young woman from Ogwu in Enugu State, who refused her name in print, was working in a bank in Lagos when her husband died in 2010.

She was required to restrict her movement and not go for work for six months and bein the village, confined to the compound in mourning dress. The young widow resisted this. She explained to the umu ada that she would lose her job and disrupt her children’s schooling in Lagos should she comply.

Unfortunately, her pleas fell to deaf ears as she was sanctioned for breaking the traditional norm of not mourning her husband for the customary duration (ilu uju). The umu ada fined her the sum of N 10,000.00 and compelled her to stay at her father’s house for one month as a punishment. Again, she stubbornly declined to obey. The umu ada then refused to shave her head because, according to them, she did not show enough sorrow that her husband died. They also alleged that she was conversing freely and even smiled with sympathisers during this period. It was a taboo for a widow to laugh or look cheerful when her husband has not been buried, they said. She was appropriately fined for the misdemeanour.

However, not shaving one’s hair for the husband is a sign of not mourning him and is feared to attract the dead husband’s wrath on the widow and other members of the family. But, the young woman called their bluff and returned to her base in Lagos to continue her normal life.

According to her, “nothing has happened to me since then. I believe this will encourage other young widows and together, we shall put a stop to this barbaric tradition.” Indeed, the young widow’s stance appears to be gradually paying off as more women are beginning to disobey the widowhood traditions.

For instance, Nkechi Okafor, 43, from Amachala community in Anambra State had three children for her late husband, who died in 2012. Like the defiant widow, Okafor told this reporter that she deliberately refused to be intimidated by her husband’s people during her mourning period. “Yes, I mourned the father of my children because he was a good husbandbut I never allowed anybody to humiliate me.

The battle started immediately he died when his siblings started making advances at me. I knew the consequences and they did not disappoint, but I gave it back to them. They wanted to push me out of the house my husband built and seized his properties.

Unfortunately for them, my husband never hid anything from me. In fact, we did everything together as if he knew what will happen at his death. “He handed over the properties’ documents to me shortly before his death and that was my weapon. Though, they threatened fire and brimstone, but I stood my ground and nothing has happened and would never happened.

I needed to do that to protect the future of my kids. The problem with our people is essentially, illiteracy; it makes it easier for the useless culture to mess them up. My advice to fellow widows is to be bold and fight for that which belongs to them,” Okafor said. Good advice, but the devastating effect and pain of losing her sweetheart was, however, more than just loneliness and boldness for Amaka of Oji in Enugu State.

She was, for a long time, logged in a legal battle with in-laws over her husband’s only property. To be able to make a legal claim to the home, Amaka said her in-laws forged documents claiming that her late husband willed it to them. “My husband didn’t write any will but they manufactured one to claim the only house he left behind. According to the fake will they manufactured, his landed property too should be sold to take care of his aged mother.

I wouldn’t have had problem with that if at all there was any will of my late husband. But, there wasn’t any,” she insisted.

The plot to dispossess Amaka of the house and landed property started shortly before her husband died. “When it became obvious that he will not survive the sickness, they came suggesting that the house be sold and the money used for further treatment.

My husband rejected that; he told them it was all he is leaving behind for his children and as such they shouldn’t touch it more so that he was not sure of surviving,” Amaka said.

Source: New Telegraph

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