WIDOWHOOD IN NIGERIA

Losing a loved one most times engenders mental and emotional distraught on the relatives, friends and acquaintances of the deceased in varying degrees of their relationship with the deceased. On the bereaved wife, it is a vacuum created by the loss of a companion, a lover, a friend and a partner (in the marital union of two becoming one.) And so, the extent of her distraught can only be left to the imagination of the inexperienced. But how many really bother to consider the pain of a bereaved wife? If they do, why do they shut their hearts to it and worsen her condition by weighing greater burden upon the already grieving heart?

The plights of widows are a common feature in Nigeria, so much so that they are waved aside as a normal experience, which is also looked forward to, though with anxiety, by a wife should her husband die before her. Therefore, it is not unfamiliar to hear a widow lament her woes in the event of her husbands’ burial in his village, or people return from a burial to tell tales of the unpleasant experiences of the widow whose husband had just been buried.

Mrs. Nwakaego Okechukwu is an elderly woman and a widow from a community in Delta State. She has just completed her six months mourning as she recounted her plight in gloomy recollection of her husband’s burial. She said, her husband was a traditional chieftain but had verbally denounced this title and pagan membership before he died, but the community claimed to be unaware of such denunciation. And so, he was buried in the pagan manner by this group of title holders and his relatives (brothers and sisters). This realization caused her to faint. Five days after she came to in the hospital, the ‘Umuadas’ (that is, the female members of the deceased husband’s community) came to her hospital bedside to shave her hair in spite of her condition, in accordance with the norms of traditional title holders. When she was discharged, she was asked to go and sit on the bare ground frontage of her husband’s relatives. But she managed to do this in only one relative’s: the late husband’s immediate brother. These, she said, they claimed, are their customary norms towards widows married to their native chiefs. Asked if the same treatment is applied to the widowers, she answered – ‘No’. This happens to be just one case of a widow in Delta State, among others. Some other people gave some enlightenment on this topic as it is practiced in their regions.

An elderly woman cleaner (Mrs. Osagie) who is also an indigene of Delta State, said a widow is required to sit on the floor for 5 days or more till her husband is eventually buried. This depicts an honest feeling of loss of her beloved husband. But a widower is not required to do the same. She said, if the widow is suspected of infidelity or responsible for her husband’s death, she is fined or asked to drink the water used in washing the deceased corpse.

Mrs. Osagie continued by saying that, in her town, a widow who was married to a traditional titled man, is placed in isolation for 3 months in a secluded room (made of palm fronds), separate from the main house or building. This is another form of mourning, whereby everything she uses cannot be used by another, and are burnt or destroyed after the isolation. The clothes she wears within the period are washed in dirty water. After all these and the burial, there is a second burial one year after, whereby the widow is required to put on only rags and stay unkempt for this one year preceding the second burial. If she dies in whatever circumstance before this second burial, she is buried in the “evil forest” for the reason of having a hand in her husband’s death (The ‘Evil Forest” is said to be an isolated forest, infested by wild and dangerous animals, and rarely, except on occasions like such burials, approached by people). The widower is not subjected to these.

Finally, regarding property, she said, the widow is not dispossessed of her husband’s property in her community. But in some other communities in the Eastern Nigeria, the relatives of the deceased husband sell off the deceased’s property in the guise of raising fund for his burial. After the burial, the naïve widow is left with nothing to raise her children. None of these relatives care whether she also invested in this property or did not.

Mrs. Bose Akintunde, a secretary by profession, and from Kwara State, said, to the best of her knowledge, a widow in Yoruba land is hardly treated differently from the widower, unless her husband’s relatives simply get malicious towards her. She said, a widow is subjected to 3 or 5 or at most 10 months mourning period, while the widower is not at all. On the suspicion of being responsible for her husband’s death, she is simply prevented from attending the burial; and this applies to the widower too. Where the husband dies intestate, the relatives (brothers and sisters) of the deceased take charge of the deceased property, sell them and divide the proceeds between the widow (only if she has children) and themselves. She said this also applies to the widower if the relatives of the deceased wife are aware of her owning some personal property before her death.

Mallam Yusuf Muhammed, owns a convenience kiosk in Ebute Metta, and he said, customs concerning widowhood are dictated by the Holy Quran in Sokoto State where he comes from. Hence, when a wife is bereaved, she mourns for 3 months and 10 days by staying indoors, bathing without soap, applying no cosmetics and dressing shabbily. If she must go out (out of necessity), she must put on a hijab (a dull coloured long and free frock with a covering for the face) so as not to be identified. But in the widower’s case, he mourns for 3 days by remaining indoors, also without bathing with soap, nor applying any form of cosmetics, and dressing shabbily. The difference in the duration, he said, is because, it is the man who married the woman into his home and provided everything she needed. She did not have to do anything in the house except tend to her children and husband. She did not work, or go out to fetch water. She was even provided with house help to do the domestics. For the reason that he provided and catered for his wife, his length of mourning is shorter than the widow’s who only tended to his needs and bore his children. After this mourning period, the widow is then given the freedom to bath well, apply makeups, dress fashionably and go out of the house to wherever she pleases, so as to find another suitor if she decides to marry again.

Concerning property, the widow retains her husband’s house with her children, and no relative can take it from her. But those property that can be divided, are shared among the widow, her children and the deceased’s parents if alive (and not his siblings). If the husband left a will, his property would be shared accordingly.

Some relatives (the deceased’s siblings), Mallam Yusuf said, do play foul at times. They can pilfer or plunder certain property undetected, leaving the widow with little or nothing to fend for herself and children. But, he asserted, they cannot chase the widow from her late husband’s house. If the widow reported this plunder to the Alfa, the accused would be called to affirm or deny. If they deny, their judgment is left to God if the widow has no evidence to back her claim; he concluded.

The above depicts a clear picture of double standard, whereby native traditions relegate, oppress and stigmatize the woman as a lower being compared to the man. Although the country’s 1999 constitution states that all persons (man or woman) are equal, hardly is such provision respected or acknowledged by these traditions or customs, possibly handicapped by lack of enlightenment or the clinging to the old belief that the women are substandard to the men, or meant to be subservient to men. Hence, the limitation of expressions of mourning and punishment of infidelity, to the woman. The man is precluded from expressing as much sense of loss, or elevated above the liability of infidelity – a travesty of justice.

Mr. Kolade Obafemi, a lawyer, said the laws of the country provide protection for a widow who was married in the Registry or/and a Church licensed to wed (an unlicensed church is only regarded as having conducted a ‘mere celebration of marriage’, which is not tenable in a law court). In the event of the death of the husband intestate, the widow is by law entitled to 1/6th of the husband’s estate and other percentages go to the children. But where there is no child, these other percentages are shared among the late husband’s relatives (such as the brothers and sisters). And where a couple had a joint collaboration in business (known as ‘tenancy in common’), the death of one leaves the other the sole inheritor of the business, because the couple is regarded as one under the law concerning marriage.

For a woman whose marriage is solely conducted under customary law, in the event of her husband’s death, she is subjected to the customary practices that go with such event, as enforced by that customary law.

In view of the plights of widows which he termed ‘trial by ordeal’ in legal parlance, such ordeals can only be prevented if the widow was married in the agencies recognized by the law court, such as the registry and a church licensed to wed.

Mr. Obafemi said the ordeals widows are subjected to are bad and prejudicial, because the law of the country makes no distinction between the man and the woman. He said, a widow simply has to refuse being unjustly intimidated but stand her ground to protect her dignity and honour. She should call for police protection if need be. And if overwhelmed to undergo these ordeals, she has the right to sue the offenders to court. If she has no means to sue, she should solicit the assistance of Non-governmental organizations relating to women’s affairs or rights, to help fight her battle against these oppressors/offenders.

There is need for education for all, as this aids in enlightening people of their rights and protection of their honour, as well as enhance the respect one has for the other’s dignity. All the people, but one, interrogated on this topic, responded that the awful treatments of widows are bad. The only one exempt simply tried to justify the ordeals widows encounter in his region as a check on the woman in a man’s world. Mr. Obafemi said a woman has to be enlightened enough to determine the kind of marriage she wants: if she chooses to be married solely under customary law, then she is subjected to the customary practices of the community she finds herself; but if she chooses the registry and/or a licensed church, then the estate law is applied to her in the event of the loss of her husband if he died intestate.

Finally, Nigerians have to loosen themselves from the trappings of old practices to the freedom of love for the other and the tempering of justice with mercy. Infidelity should be demystified and its condemnation should not be limited only to the woman. Each party of the couple has the capacity of being hurt by the act by one of them.

Traditional lawmakers should review their laws intermittently to suit the changing society and to reflect consideration for the human person, which lack of enlightenment in the past had loaded with great burdens and mystification of inconsequential phenomena. In this case, tradition should proscribe differentiation and preference in the description of mourning practices or judgment of offences. Rather, the union of a couple as one in any kind of matrimony (whether customary,, registry or church) and the equality of man and woman in the country’s law should be recognized and respected in prescribing such mourning practices, taking into consideration the grief already existing in the sense of loss by the surviving partner. And so, if at all there should be any laws or clauses separate from which a widow experiences, they should be to alleviate the grief and not add to it. Better still, if a man is exempted from expressing this inhuman and humiliating practices of mourning, so also should the woman. Each one would express himself or herself as his or her heart dictates, and not by prescription from a third party.

The two Delta women above corroborated the following story at separate interviews. They said there is a Delta State indigene, whose mother (an old widow) died in her mourning period before her husband’s second burial and so was buried in the “evil forest”. The indigene went to the village and exhumed her mother from this forest and gave her a decent burial. This generated controversy in the village and she was fined (the fine was in form of a cow, chicken, a dog and other items) for cleansing the land of what they considered an abomination. The indigene explained that her parents had lived happily as man and wife and raised all their children to be successful. How could anyone now think her mother killed her father who died at a ripe old age, because she followed almost immediately, possibly due to heartbreak or being very old herself? This argument brought the relevant customary lawmakers together into considering and reviewing this particular law. Though they came up with a fine to cleanse the land, but defying such draconian custom has loosened its leverage on the people and widows who will now take advantage of this precedence set by this courageous and defiant indigene. Positive change does occur when somebody challenges an injustice. It may not necessarily be revolutionary. This is because gradual change arises from dialogue and empathy, which enhance enlightenment, understanding, peaceful coexistence and healthy development, rather than the shock, force or violence evoked by a revolution.

Traditions are good as they identify and esteem a community, but how reputable is a community which traditions are prejudicial and detrimental to a particular sex for the sake of distinguishing the other. Just as racism is condemned round the globe, so also should all sorts of prejudices against the woman. She should be respected as human as the man, and her condition as a widow be considered rather than used to victimize or intimidate her. Perhaps if we begin to see one another as equals like our Father in heaven sees us and as the constitution states, we might begin to merit in the values, abilities and potentials of the other irrespective of gender.

By Ifeanyi O.C.

[Published in Aug/Sept 2006 ‘Dominicos’ by the Catholic Dominican Family Publication]

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