Death brings us closer than life does. There is a togetherness, a unity that unfolds when a death occurs, a shared grief that gathers family, relatives and friends in a final farewell, the generous support sometimes extending to great lengths to ensure a befitting send-off; funerals can cost a million Kenyan shillings and more. But after the wailing and the howling that is fit to alert the dead to our mourning, the storm passes, the calm returns and the bereaved are left to pick up the pieces, to try and rebuild something, anything.
I lost my dad when I was 19. His death did not hit me like a sack of potatoes off the shoulders of a labourer in Gikomba. It was a slow train that rode reluctantly for a year before the reality hit me.
It was during my first year in campus that I learned that the generous support that my family had received during our season of grief had an inevitable end. What did I expect? Life moves on as fast as death is forgotten – until we need to remember it again. What I was particularly worried about was my mum – now a young widow expected to mother and father four kids. Or maybe three – I was out and about in the world trying to find a way out of this maze that was my life. Two of my siblings were in high school at the time and one had not seen enough sunrises and sunsets to know how to tie his shoelaces.
They say that “home is the tranquillity we return to when the world turns into confusion”. For me, tranquillity was anywhere but home. It crushed me to the core to see my mother taking menial jobs for 200 shillings that could barely school one let alone three siblings. It was utterly depressing to see her once glowing face turn to a gray gloom. She was struggling and she carried the evidence like a kipande. Everything we planned seemed not to work and everyone she reached out to always seemed to have a lot on their own plate to digest. Although much has changed for the better, this experience led me to reconsider my understanding of family and community. Is there a role for family and community in dealing with widowhood in our communities? How best can we support widows in their struggles?
She was struggling and she carried the evidence like a kipande.
Widows face a myriad of problems from social isolation, economic difficulties, and the challenge of being almost non-existent in the eyes of society. Stereotyping and systematic marginalisation add to the weight of the problems they already have. Yet, in their grief, they often exemplify strength and resilience. However, there is a limit to how much one can take. A 2018 study on the psychological impacts of widowhood in Meru County in Kenya involving 384 participants – 192 widows and 192 widowers – found that a partner’s absence had a negative impact on the mental wellbeing of both sexes but widows were more greatly impacted. The study found that widowed people may become withdrawn, unmotivated, frustrated, and experience burnout.
With the pressure of being a first-born comes the privilege of receiving information on family issues first-hand. My mother used to consult me when there was no food, informed me when my younger brother had been sent home for lack of school fees, told me what some relative had said about someone – family gossip. But when one day she sat me down for a conversation and started sobbing, I was confused. To be honest, I do not remember most of what she said except for this: “Since your dad passed away things have not been easy… I feel like I have failed you as a parent.” Something happens when you see your hero – or heroine – at their lowest, bruised and battered, crushed and crumbled, deep in despair. The same feelings wash over you and you become just as hopeless. So now, when my brother was sent home for lack of school fees, it was better for him to just stay home. Or when there was no food for the day, why go looking for it where you will most likely not find it?
Contrary to popular belief, the average widow is not elderly. Research conducted by the Global Fund for Widows in Kenya, Malawi, and Egypt shows that 50 per cent of widows lost their partners before the age of 40 years. This research is significant as it challenges a public misconception and gives a true representation of the reality of widowhood. Many widows will have to grapple with the aforementioned psychosocial problems for the rest of their lives if they are not allowed to remarry. Yet, remarrying is taboo in many communities because of the fear that children will lose touch with their father’s roots.
Most estimations put Kenya’s widow population at 8 million – 15 per cent of the population. It is ranked 33rd on the list of countries where widows face harsh conditions. These are shocking figures that should spur urgent action from the government and from society. But apart from the efforts of a few NGOs, widows remain largely unseen.
Violence against widows is often committed by people who are well known to them or by those who are very familiar with their family background. These people will often exploit the legal system and harmful cultural traditions, or cause fear in order to perpetuate their actions. Some widows tolerate these injustices to protect their image, their children, themselves, or simply because they do know how to escape the abuse. Widows may also be forced into wife inheritance – usually to a close male relative of the deceased.
In many Kenyan communities, widows are also denied their right to inheritance. Take for example land ownership which has traditionally been patriarchal in African societies. Until the passage of the Matrimonial Property Act in 2013, women could not own land in Kenya. Yet despite the change in the law, women still face many difficulties and challenges in succession cases involving joint ownership of matrimonial property. I once read a story of a woman who had fought for her inheritance in court for 36 years before she passed away, leaving her sons and daughters to continue pursuing the elusive justice. I also had a conversation with a widow who told me that after her husband’s passing, her in-laws were unwilling to let her inherit the only piece of land he owned because the couple had not had a child together. These heartbreaking stories are a reminder that the solution lies beyond the corridors of the legal system – there also needs to be a social and cultural awakening.
Violence against widows is often committed by people who are well known to them or by those who are very familiar with their family background.
Dianah Kamande, Founder and Director of Come Together Widows and Orphans Organization (CTWOO), said in a TV interview that one of the biggest problems for widows is the fraught relationship with in-laws. Widows frequently endure insults and sometimes physical abuse from this section of the extended family. Which makes me think that we just pretend to love our in-laws until women become widows.
Traditional African society is based on familial relationships and community. The saying that “It takes a village to raise a child” was true before the rise of modernity and individualism. Individualism focuses on independence rather than the interdependence that characterised African societies. On the other hand, in the African philosophy of Ubuntu – “I am because we are” – your sense of self is influenced by your relationships and your environment. Consequently, it becomes critical to take care of the community so as to take care of the self.
However, the rise of the culture of individualism has led to a significant shift from Ubuntu, perpetuating the pursuit of self in thought, direction, and reliance, rather than the collective. Consequently, we have neglected vulnerable groups in society – although there is little evidence to suggest that widows were treated any better in the past.
Family, both nuclear and extended, is in jeopardy of fragmentation. During my childhood, family meetups and gatherings were certainly more frequent and more joyous than nowadays. I was closer to my extended family and I felt a sense of Ubuntu within this cloud of love and laughter. I definitely felt safer – that whatever the vagaries life, my family and I, and particularly my mum, would have a whole army of people to lend a hand when called upon. Nowadays, we might meet only once or twice a year and it takes a lot of push and shove for it to happen. This is the reality of our times – our adoption of an individualistic culture has torn the fabric of our societies. As a result, vulnerable members of the community, such as widows, have no one to turn to in times of trouble.
However, despite the gloom, non-governmental organisations like the little-known CTWOO offer a glimmer of hope. The organisation runs a series of programmes to empower widows by mobilising them to form support groups, guiding them through registration with social protection offices, helping them to build their skills to improve their financial situation, and providing legal aid, especially during court battles over inheritance.
CTWOO founder Dianah Kamande was among those present during the launch of Adonai Widows, Mombasa Chapter. The widows called for the establishment of a council for widows supported by the government, similar to the one for people living with disabilities. The government must show its commitment to resolving the problems faced by widows by developing a national policy that protects them against discrimination and maltreatment. We must also interrogate our role and our involvement as a society, and critically think of ways to address the plight of our distressed widows.