By Emeka Mamah, Vincent Ujumadu, Chidi Nkwopara, Anayo Okoli, Nwabueze Okonkwo and Chinenyeh Ozor
Widowhood practices, which, to some people, violate the fundamental human rights of women through culturally prescribed seclusion, exist in most parts of Igbo land. In Nimbo, in Uzo Uwani Local Government Area of Enugu State, wives of kings mourned their husbands for seven years before they were buried and another one year after their interment.
However, the advent of Christianity has helped to water down most of such practices against widows such that except in rare circumstances, Christian widows are no longer subjected to the old practices.
In the olden days, widows were meant to mourn their dead husbands for upwards of between 10 months and two years during which they would remain in secluded area in Anambra State.
In some communities in the state, the widows would also not take their bath for upwards of three weeks, after which they would be accompanied at the dead of the night, to a river where they were shaved and then bathed. During such journeys, people were not supposed to see them as they would be naked since they would swear by the river that they were not responsible for their husband’s death, before the shaving exercise.
Should there be any suspicion that the woman had a hand in the death of her husband, she was usually forced to drink the water used in washing the body of the dead man. She was also expected to wear black attire throughout the duration of the mourning period and all her needs were provided by her neighbours. The situation varies in other parts of Igbo land, especially the areas where there are no rivers or streams.
But thanks to the coming of Christianity, all those practices had gone. The usual practice these days is that widows are shaved as soon as the remains of their husbands were interred and, depending on the widow concerned, she could resume her business or work at the expiration of the mourning period, depending on the customs and traditions of the areas concerned.
Because of the controversies generated by the issue of widowhood practices in this area, some communities adopted certain measures to ensure that peace reigned. For instance, in some communities in Anambra, where a man left behind many wives, some communities decided that rather than the late man’s brothers going to scramble for them, each male child of their mothers should give a cock to his own mother to act as “her husband” till death.
By so doing, the tension generated by the relations of the late over their late brother’s wives have drastically waned in many communities. However, there is still one issue that is causing ripples between the church and the community and that is the dust –to –dust burial rite. In the Catholic Diocese of Awka, many people in the area object to their women pouring sand into the grave of their husbands as the tradition of the church demands. Despite the intervention of the traditional ruler of the town, Obi Gibson Nwosu and notable Christians, including the Knights of the church, the issue still lingers.
A story has it that the people of Awka object to the ritual because of the fear that by pouring sand into the grave of her late husband, the widow would still naturally be bound to the late husband and that there could likely be natural consequences for any man that has canal knowledge of the widow. To avoid such consequences, the community has consistently objected to the dust –to dust ceremony.
The Catholic Church has, however, stood its ground on the issue, arguing that the rite was not being forced on anyone, but only on Catholic adherents that requested the Church to bury them. “The Church cannot comprehend how the dust –to-dust ritual has become a problem for the Awka natives,” a Reverend Father, Patrick Chukwuma said in the heat of the crisis.
An indigene of Awka, Chief Michael Okafor said: “The community has made it clear that the customs of the town must not be tampered with, but the Catholic Church is forcing our wives to perform this rite of pouring sand into the grave, which is not acceptable to the society.
“In Awka culture, a man is not allowed to pour sand into the wife’s grave in the case of death and the wife is not allowed to pour sand into the man’s grave in the case of the man’s death, but the Catholic Church is trying to turn around the custom of the people.” He could however not say why Awka people are scared of pouring sand into the grave, arguing “it is not our culture.”
But Rev Chukwuma, who is the Administrator of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Awka insists the community has no right to interfere because the Church only goes to burials on invitation. In Onitsha, the commercial nerve centre of Anambra State and other neighbouring communities like Idemili North and Idemili South Local Government Areas of the state, the widowhood culture is almost the same, except for some few differences.
There are two categories of widowhood for Christians and non-Christians. Reduction in period of mourning, wake-keep and lying-in-state: In the olden days, the mandatory mourning period for a widow or widower in these areas used to be two years but at a stage, it was reduced to one year before it was further reduced to six months.
This reduction in the mandatory mourning period which became effective about 10 years ago, also reduced the period of wake-keep in some communities from all-night to 6 a.m. on the burial date, while some communities expunged wake-keep completely from their burial arrangements. Also, the period of lying-in-state was either reduced to four hours only, as against all-night or completely abolished in some communities.
South East Voice gathered that the reason for these reductions or abolition, was to reduce continuous contact with the remains of the deceased in a bid to reduce the spread of contagious diseases in the case of prolonged wake-keep and lying-in-state. Apart from this, the reduction was also aimed at reducing the hardship encountered by survivors in the case of prolonged mandatory mourning periods since the mourner is restricted to social and business activities.
There are also some reported cases of maltreatment of widows ranging from the denial of rights or privileges, physical assault, seizure of husbands’ properties, both moveable and immoveable. Such maltreatment are however, resolved through the intervention of appropriate authorities like family unions, kindred (Umunna), village councils or town unions, on their merits.
Prevention of widow or widower from participating in burial ceremonies
If there are proven cases of couples not living together as a result of protracted quarrels, disputes or divorce before the demise of the men, the widow can be prevented from participating in the burial ceremony of her deceased husband. It is also the same situation in some cases where the woman is alleged to have committed atrocities and was required to perform some cleansing rituals before being allowed to participate in the burial ceremony her spouse.
Oath-taking and covenant
Again, this is when the woman must be under sanction for offences which needed to be addressed. This includes extreme cases, where the woman is accused of being directly or indirectly responsible for her husband’s death, thus requiring the administration of oath to prove her innocence. Christian widows take such oaths with their Bibles while non- Christians are led to shrines for covenants, Igbandu, before being allowed to mourn her husband.
In the case of non-Christians, widows could be made to drink some sizable quantity of water used in bathing the corpse of her deceased husband or by dipping a cola nut into such bath water and chewing same. Alternatively, such widows could be made to embrace her husband’s corpse three times, Ndakpo Ozu.
According to Dr. Boniface Agbala, a private medical practitioner based in Onitsha and embattled Igwe-elect of Uke community in Idemili North Local government Area, it is assumed that if the accused is guilty of the allegations levelled against him or her, he or she would die within a period of two years of the oath taking but if after two years and the accused did not die, he or she would be declared innocent and the accusers would compensate him or her, (Nwucha Aru) in accordance with the tradition of the particular town.
In Abia communities, what widows go through varies from communities to communities. Also, the duration of mourning vary between three and six months. Most communities have reduced the mourning period from one year to between six and three months to enable the widow continue with her work or whatever she does for a living.
But the problem of widowhood is not about how long they mourn their departed husbands but the issue of having access to whatever property was left behind by their spouses. This is a major problem which many widows have passed through. In some cases, it has led the woman and her children to be forced out of their family house.
Though many communities with the support of churches and non-governmental organizations have been fighting against harmful widowhood practices, such ugly incidents are still prevalent in several other areas. According to the wife of the Archbishop of the Ecclesiastical Province of Aba and Bishop of Umuahia, Anglican Communion, Ezinne Patience Nwosu, the church totally condemns the ill-treatment of widows by their family members and has been fighting against it.
She said that it is ungodly and sinful to make a widow undergo further agony after losing her husband by depriving her of the right to inherit the property of her late spouse with which she would take care of their kids. “The church condemns it because it does not show love. We encourage families to accept and stand by widows and assist them to even train the children instead of maltreating and alienating them,” she said.
While condemning and preaching against harmful widowhood practices, Nwosu said however that the church usually provided some palliatives to assist widows that are in need. For instance, she disclosed that in some cases, they build five-bed rooms; three or two-bed room apartments, as the case may be, for indigent widows, and follow it up with constant visits and prayers. Also, in some cases, they are assisted with funds to start any venture that creates means of livelihood for them.
However, because of the inherent greed of human nature and to avoid the ugly issue of subjecting widows to the pressure of struggling over the inheritance of their husbands’ property, a woman activist and lawyer, Mrs. Cordelia Ichie advised men to always go for statutory marriages, which are recognized by the courts and which protects the right of inheritance by the widow in the event of the death of her husband where Wills are available.
Presently, there is no law protecting widows in Abia State, but the Deputy Speaker of the state House of Assembly, Cosmos Ndukwe said that the lawmakers would explore the possibility of initiating a bill aimed at protecting widows in the area. Perhaps, until that is done, the fate of widows will still hang in the balance and their succour will only come from churches and NGOs like FIDA among others that make out time to fight for them.
In Enugu, there was the case Mrs Obochi Asema (nee Agada) aged 102, was married to Chief Eze Nwasema of Umuokoro, Umuowaa Quarters in Imufu Communitys. Asema’s husband, Eze, 107, died on August 26, 1986. The widow was expected to mourn her husband for nine months but she died about three months into the morning period on December 21, 1986.
However, Mrs Asema’s death sparked off trouble as it was an abomination for a woman or man to die while mourning his or her spouse. Because Asema died in ishikpe, the wall of her room was broken at the back of the house so that her corpse would not be carried through her front door for burial.
However, the then traditional ruler of Imufu, Onyishi Omeh Nwokenyi, who was a next door neighbour of the Asemas summoned an emergency meeting of the council of elders to review the obnoxious practice which made it compulsory for women to mourn their husbands for upwards of between seven months and one year in the community.
Amid opposition from the council of elders, Onyishi Nwokenyi made a proclamation that both men and women should mourn their spouses for only one month and it had been so since then in the community. As at today, Imufu Community is the only place where both men and women mourn their spouses for only one month in the last 30 years, irrespective of their religion as widows in other parts of Enugu Ezike still mourn their husbands for between nine months and two years.
Some widows in various communities in Enugu north and west extractions of the state pass through horrible experiences after the death of their spouses as most widows were subjected to mourn their husbands for periods of one year, six months or more depending on the culture and tradition of the giving community.
In Ezeagu Local Government Area of Enugu West Constituency, widows in the 70’s and 80’s were subjected to mourn their spouses for a period of one year on black dresses, black ear rings and necklaces. They were usually compelled to stay indoors for a period of two months, before coming to any public gathering after observing certain rights of the community. In Ezeagu widows of the prestigious Ozo title holders observe more strenuous tasks while mourning their spouses.
Soon after the burial of their husbands, they were confined in secret rooms where no person could enter unless female virgins and older widows of the Ozo title holders who had attained the age of 70 and above. Such widows would stay at the secret room for a period of two weeks, where they were served food and water by virgins before coming out to observe other rights in which people from Nri Community in Anambra State who crown Ozo title holders in most communities in Igboland would be invited to perform certain cleansing rites before such widows would mix up with the community and the outside public.
However, with Christianity taking roots in many of the communities, widows no longer mourn their spouse on black attires but on white dresses, ear rings and necklaces. Some communities have, therefore, amended mourning periods from one to two months or less. Town Unions hall have equally keyed into the doctrine of churches to uphold the tenets of social justice for widows.
In Nimbo Community in Uzo- Uwani Local Government Area, where Fulani herdsmen unleashed mayhem on the natives recently, kings of the ancient kingdom were buried after seven years in caves. Widows of such kings therefore mourned their spouses for more than seven years as the corpses of such monarchs had to be preserved for seven years before the burial, subjecting their widows to remain incommunicado for seven years, and then for another one year of mourning before they would be free based on the tradition and culture of the community.
Up till date Christianity has not impacted on the community as their kings are still being buried after seven years of their demise. The incumbent traditional ruler of the community, Igwe John Akor, a former journalist, had promised to work for the amendment of certain customs and traditions of the community before the herdsmen invaded and killed about 40 people in the sleepy village of the community.
In Ibagwa Ani Community, Nsukka Local Government, widows mourn their late husbands for six months but were normally asked to marry uncles of their late spouseS, no matter the number of children the widow had before the death of her husband.
In Lejja widows equally mourn their spouses for six months but some may decide to mourn for one year on personal grounds. In Olo community Ezeagu Local Government, Christianity has changed mourning periods from one year to three months without any regard to the status of the dead man. Even the traditional Ozo title taking has been amended to conform with the Christian doctrines and not just for widows alone. Some communities institute stringent penalties on any person or group that would forcefully take over properties of widows on the grounds of culture and tradition.
South East Voice gathered that the practice is still on and even getting more sophisticated and excruciating with the dawn of every new day. Oral history has it that widowhood practice stemmed from an ugly tradition, which has subsisted till modern times. It was also gathered that the practice was forced down the throat of any woman who was suspected to be responsible for her husband’s death.
In other instances, people invoked the practice to severely punish a woman adjudged to be irresponsible, wayward and disrespectful to her husband and relations or even to the customs and tradition of the community.
The bizarre side of this practice is when, for instance, a man was never seen quarrelling openly with the wife or when the man could go to any length to support his wife but people still claimed that the woman held his late husband spell bound through diabolical means. The truth is that no man is deemed to have died a natural death because something must be linked with his death.
There is no known written constitution that controls or spells out what should be done or the limits of the practice. This explains why the practice varies from one community to the other. However, there are some of the practices that cuts across communities in Imo State.
In some Imo communities, widows are made to bath with flood water or water from traditional receptacles or any available dirty water. The story behind this practice is that “the woman’s pride, which is her husband, had been devalued.”
However, only married and single women are charged with the responsibilities of ensuring that this was carried out.
Similarly, widows are not allowed to eat with good plates. They are forced to use disused or disfigured plastic plates that are good enough to feed dogs, to eat. She is not allowed to eat with anybody. The spoon, plate, cup among her other cutleries are different from others.