Culture, tradition and law have been identified as the bane to safe widowhood practices in most Igbo communities. This is the findings of ISIOMA MADIKE, who combed some of these neighborhoods in a two-week tour
Indeed, widowhood is a dreadful experience in Igbo communities. It comes with shock, pain, sorrow and often suffering. The communities are of the belief that a man can hardly die a natural death. Someone, especially their wives, are usually suspected to be responsible. In some of these cultures, the grieving period begins as soon as the man is pronounced dead.
That is where the whole drama starts. The wife and children are made to observe the compulsory traditions that are customary to her husband’s people. It is worse if she is not from the same place with him.
These practices vary from community to community. While some would have the woman and her children clean-shaved and wear white or black mourning robes, others are ostracised and barred from going to places of worship. In other instances, the widow is only allowed minimal work.
While the poor woman is battling with the confusion and the accompanying distress, preparations for the burial ceremony starts most of which are very expensive, often without recourse to what the family will live on thereafter.
If the man was rich, selfish uncles and aunts use such period to taste the forbidden fruit, which was, until his death, the wife’s exclusive preserve. Usually, they strategise on how these monies are spent.
However, if the man had a house considered not good enough, his people will build another or renovate the old one. The funeraor black mourning robes, others are ostracised and barred from going to places of worship. In other instances, the widow is only allowed minimal work.
While the poor woman is battling with the confusion and the accompanying distress, preparations for the burial ceremony starts most of which are very expensive, often without recourse to what the family will live on thereafter. If the man was rich, selfish uncles and aunts use such period to taste the forbidden fruit, which was, until his death, the wife’s exclusive preserve.
Usually, they strategise on how these monies are spent. However, if the man had a house considered not good enough, his people will build another or renovate the old one. The funeral isl is needlessly delayed, lasting in most instances three to six months.
Cows are slaughtered and lavish banquets held with good sums spent without recourse to the future of neither the wife nor the children. These happen without consideration that the intervention of death in life terminates lofty dreams, ambitions and aspirations of the couple. And that it brings final separation, leaving the living partner to carry on.
This is why pain, grief and depression are usually the companions of widowhood in these neighborhoods. It is more pathetic when the widow has no formal education, skill or business to fall back on.
It also represents a “social death”, which robs them of their status and consigns the women to the very fringe of society where they suffer the most extreme forms of discrimination, stigma and deprivation. Many of them fall within the poorest of the poor and least protected by the law.
And their lives, determined by local, patriarchal interpretations of traditions and customs. In the same Igboland, a widow, also known as nwanyi ajadu, usually passes through several stages of agony in life, as soon as she loses her husband, which invariably traumatises her and leaves her a nervous wreck. She first goes through the pain of taking care of her ailing husband.
On his death she is denied part in planning for his burial. Thereafter, the most excruciating pain of watching her husband’s siblings contest ownership of her husband’s property concludes her anguish.
This is why widowhood is an ordeal in the life of an Igbo woman. Her horror starts with the shaving of her hair, to isolation from people and even denying her a good bath for weeks. Her piteous state, occasioned by her unkempt body, leaves her looking like a mentally deranged
woman, And her outlook epitomises abandonment, rejection, neglect and ugliness. They are often left to raise their children alone. They also barely have time to grieve for long. More agonising is the discovery that in-laws are not as sympathetic as they should. In most instances, before the dead is buried, a big scramble has begun for his belongings with nobody consulting the widow. Incidentally, the dominance of strong held traditions in some of these communities have helped suffocate efforts at reform.
Yet, when a man dies, his wife, in these communities, is habitually perceived as a stranger, one for whom provisions were not made. Her late husband’s properties are forcibly taken from her without regard for her children’s welfare. They are left without help, rejected and forsaken to flounder in hopelessness, forcing some of them to resort to prostitution and begging. Many of them also find themselves at the mercy of their dead husband’s relatives, who often may want them as wives. At times, they may be as cruel as throwing the widow and her children out of the house if she refuses their advances.
This may be why the problem of widowhood makes women in Igboland the most vulnerable in the Nigerian society. They are exposed to indiscriminate abuses in all aspects of their lives. They bear the scars of their stigmatisation in a society whose sensibility has been lost to a jaded conscience. This practice continues to hold sway in many a community in the region. It goes from strange to bizarre and to the unimaginable; in some cases, archaic, barbaric and very cruel.However, one of the worst adversaries that could confront any Igbo woman is the cruel fate of being forced out of her one’s cherished home, especially in the event of loss of her loved one. Such a dreadful circumstance has become the collective dilemma of two widows in Enugu State encountered recently by Saturday Telegraph.
The windows, Virginia and Nkechi come from two separate senatorial zones of the state. While Virginia hails from Amebor village in Isiakpu community, Nsukka local government area, Nkechi, who would not want her full identity disclosed, is from a community in Nkanu land in the Enugu East Senatorial zone. The widows are under threat of losing their homes built by their late breadwinners at present. Virginia and her two sons have had to exile themselves in the meantime in the face of adversity. In the case of Nkechi, her children had encouraged her to retain their home.
The house, however, has been contentious because the relations of the dead want to acquire the land on which it was built. The parcel of land, according to Christian, one of Nkechi’s sons, was legitimately acquired by his late father. Barely literate, Christian does menial jobs while his distraught widow-mother is a peasant farmer. He said, “my brothers dey do this tins because de know say we no get moni to take dem to court.” According to him, his lecturercousin, along with his other uncles have been using their clout to thwart any move at settling the matter amicably.
“They have also prevented us from rebuilding our dilapidated house,” the boy lamented. Meanwhile, Virginia had to relocate to Abakpa Nike area of Enugu metropolis from where she occasion ally goes to her late husband’s house. She is currently consulting a rights group based in Enugu to help her fight her cause. Stella Ndukaku, a widow from Akabo in Oguta council area of Imo State has a sore tell also. Her life took a drastic turn for the worse when her husband died in 2000. After the death of her husband, her in-laws made her the prime suspect without any verifiable evidence.
“Because of this frivolous allegation, my husband’s relatives had to abandon the corpse of their brother for me to bury,” Ndukaku said. She had carried the burden of her husband’s ill health all alone, as none of her husband’s families gave any meaningful support while her hus-band was on his sick bed. After the burial, her relationship with her inlaws went from bad to worse. Ndukaku was harassed out of her husband’s compound, denied use of the family farm land and was left to fend for her children all alone. The resultant hardship forced her to send out some of her children as house helps.
Today, Ndukaku lives as a tenant in a dilapidated building, in the same village of her late husband. She only receives little help from her family and unnamed Pentecostal church in the neighbourhood. “I really don’t suspect that anything was afoot until my husband died.
Whether it was a conspiracy or just plain malice, I still can’t tell. What I know is that I am literally alone in this community with nothing to call my own and more mouths than I can afford to feed.
Sometimes, they make me wonder if I am really part of humanity for nobody seems to bother what I’m going through; nobody wants to talk about the injustice I have had to bear,” she said.
At present, widows are discriminated and denied the right to inherit the property in many parts of Nigeria. Though, Section 34 of the 1999 Constitution generally speak of right to dignity of human persons, it, however, does not touch on the specificity of women’s rights. That is to be free from harmful traditional practices, which includes widowhood practices, female genital mutilation, force marriage and others.
These have, over time, constituted a continuing threat to the lives of women in Nigeria. The constitution, supported by international law, also emphasises equal rights for women. But, paper rights, according to lawyers, are difficult to realise in societies where inequality is a long standing tradition, with men largely confirming that assets of women are ceded to the husband on marriage. Institutions where women and widows are instructed to seek redress and justice, regarding inheritance issues are scenes of contention between paper rights (as enshrined by law) and “living laws” (internalised by culture). Under Igbo Customary Law, only male children inherit their late father’s property on his death to the exclusion of the females and widow. The first son inherits his late father’s estate and could devolve to his siblings, at his discretion. Where there is no son, the deceased’s eldest brother or male relative inherits.
And where the deceased is a polygamist and has many sons from several wives, the eldest sons of each of the wives may take part in sharing of the estate. In the words of a gender commentator, Ushe Mike, “it is, indeed, agonising and pitiful that we still witness every day the incidence of a husband’s property being snatched away from the widow. What happens at the death of a husband is to accuse the widow of her husband’s death. “And while she is still crying over the loss and trying to sort out herself over the accusation, her husband’s property is being shifted somewhere unknown to her and before she realises what has happened, the property is no more hers. This is what happens daily in our ‘civilised’ society,” he said.
Source: New Telegraph