By Yetunde Arebi
Early one morning sometime in 1992, I alighted from the bus at Secretariat bus stop, second gate, at Alausa, Ikeja. I was a reporter for the Vanguard, covering Government House, Alausa at the time. A car, which by the way it appeared, seemed to have stopped abruptly by the road side with all four doors open. Curious, I joined the small crowd gathered on the pavement, right in front of the car park around a middle aged woman. She looked distraught, weeping as she told a heart wrenching story. Initially, I did not see the object of the whole drama, a little lifeless snake, by the roadside.
The crowd pointed it out to me. Many of them began praying for her and giving her words of encouragement. It was from them that I heard the gist of what had happened. The lady had jumped down from her car when she spotted a snake that was about to attack her. Luckily, she had not been bitten. A couple of guys helped fish out the snake from the car and killed it while the woman wailed, cursing her in-laws into damnation. She was convinced that the snake was sent by her in-laws to kill her and prevent her from getting to her destination, the Ikeja High Court, that morning.
According to her, her in-laws had launched a war against her for refusing to hand over her husband’s property for sharing after his death. She said that it was after his demise that the family came up with the spurious story that he had another family besides her and her four children and therefore could not inherit his estate alone. The woman claimed that her husband never told her any such story while he was alive and that she was his only legal wife, mother of his children and co-owner of everything they had.
She and the children therefore became estranged from the family. She took the matter to court and each side swore to win the case. Now that it appeared the case might end in her favour, they were determined to take her life. Even back then, Nigerians were marvelous with prayers and soon sent her on her way. It was the first time I was hearing such a story and seeing a victim at the same time. The scenario etched itself in my heart and has sometimes been a point of reference for many of the decisions I have taken in the course of my life.
The plight of the widow in African societies and indeed Nigeria is no secret. Enough noise and advocacy has been done to bring it to the front burner as issues of Rights and humanity, yet, most of us have remained stuck in the woods as families and even individuals, for whatever reasons. And though, education, class/status, distance (those outside the country) common sense and compassion has acted as saving grace for some women, most are still at the mercy of their in-law and sometimes, conniving and vindictive husbands. A male friend once told me he could never make his wife and mother of three children, his next of kin.
His reason: that he is sure she would remarry after his death and then enjoy his money with her lover! He trusts his younger brother more with his money and children. I asked if he would not remarry should his wife die and he was all laughter, ear to ear. The excuse was that he owns the money because his wife is a housewife. Besides, as a man, he could not be expected to live without a woman. I almost wept as I sat him down to explain the absurdity of his position and the possibility of him never knowing peace in his grave if he went ahead with such a plan. I succeeded and for the first time in his life, he filled a form with his wife as his next of kin. Unfortunately, the wife died a few months later, after a brief illness. Awesome God!
Though practices vary between cultures, the main import is that the wife/widow is a stranger despite the number of years she might have spent tending to the whims and caprices of her husband and standing by or behind him, whichever way things went. Things are even more complicated in a society where writing of Will is still largely considered a doomsday prediction and an acceleration of one’s end. Besides, Wills provide two sides of a pendulum. While it might act as safe guard to the clutches of undesired elements from grabbing the fruits of one’s hard labour of several years, it could also act as catalyst to speed up one’s scheduled meeting with one’s creator where the beneficiaries become impatient and desperate.
But whichever way things go, the widow bears the brunt of the whole debacle, inheritance of the estate, the most destabilising and traumatic. Possible scenarios are similar to the story above, though now almost impossible among educated elite, the widow might find herself passed on to another male member of the family in a bid to guarantee her children’s future and inheritance. They could have her children and property distributed among family members under the guise of ensuring that their welfare is ensured, or they could simply throw out with her children to fend for herself.
The fact that one is the legally married wife often does not automatically guarantee outright or sole right to one’s husband’s estate. This is even more seriously contestable especially as Nigeria’s laws constitutionally recognises many of the variables that may be used to upset a legal wife’s position, such as the rights of children born outside wedlock. Perhaps, faced with this gloomy fate and uncertainty of who the real enemy is; the husband, the other woman or the in-laws, more women are now taking the bull by the horn, defending themselves and their children in the best possible ways they know.
Except with some cases of established matriarchs, very few wives can boldly beat their chests and declare that they know what their fate would be after this great exit. This is why some smart women are now adopting the popular slang “sukunmus siranmus” into their widowhood survival strategy. Simply interpreted, this means, you must also be observant even while crying. You must be sharp, swift and decisive in actions even though you are mourning. Though I have no idea where this adulterated Latin like slang originated from, it captures vividly the trend widows are now adopting against the menace of greedy in-laws.
Until the demise of her husband exactly a year ago, very few neighbours knew that the Nwakwo’s only child, a six year old boy was adopted. The couple were yet to have a child of their own. But while waiting on God, they had been able to acquire some level of comfort for themselves and were living in their own home.
The neighbourhood was thrown into deep mourning and sadness on hearing that Mrs. Nwakwo had gone into shock and was in critical condition following the confirmation of her husband’s sudden death. She was also on admission at the same hospital that her husband had died. No one was surprised the following day, when they said Mrs. Nwakwo’s elder sister arrived the house, loaded up several boxes and left with the little boy and their maid. Mrs. Nwakwo remained in hospital, unable to receive visitors until her husband’s body was taken to the village for burial without her.
On her discharge after the burial, the grieving widow due to her fragile health condition, moved in with her older sister for close monitoring and care. After all, no one wanted her to follow her husband to the grave so soon. It was here that she spent the next three months and received all her visitors, including her now desperate in-laws who wanted her to give account of what their brother left behind and made no bones to tell everyone the couple’s little secret that their son was adopted.
Both sisters insisted there was nothing to declare and that all that the couple owned was jointly accounted for. Not to display total disrespect to the dead and his lazy, greedy kinsmen, she paid a visit to the village, where she spent just one night in the nearest hotel, relying on health reports, and made her way back to Lagos the next day. Mrs. Nwakwo is now back in her three bedroom bungalow with her son and has picked up her normal life. Naturally, the sisters had a story to tell when close friends tried to find out what really happened.
Their big sister met her untimely death in the hands of her in-laws on the death of her husband. While she followed the corpse to the village with her four little children and commenced the mourning rites, his kinsmen stormed their room and parlour apartment in Lagos and carted away all their belongings to the village. Before her very eyes, they shared the refrigerator, fan, chairs and even his clothes between them.
They accused her of killing their brother and told her she had the option of leaving the children in the village for the family or taking them with her. She returned to Lagos to her now empty home with her children but she could not continue the struggle alone. Her two sisters had stood by her but were unable to be of much help at the time. So, they had sworn that they would watch their back at all cost and that such a tragedy must never repeat itself. Hmmm!! Do have a wonderful weekend!!