The African Widow
December 1, 2013 | Roseline Orwa
Woe unto the African woman whose husband has been pronounced dead! The many milestones that mark this journey will leave many speechless, astonished, fearful and crestfallen. Africans are categorized into tribes, and each tribe has its own culture, values and traditions that are often held higher than the laws of the land or the country’s constitution for that matter. When death strikes, in most cases the African man/woman goes back and relies on culture and traditions to normalize a situation whose intent and purpose only God understands, and can never be normal.
I hail from Kenya, and from the Luo people who are Nilotes and live along Lake Victoria. Some of the Nilotes are found in Sudan, Uganda and the lakeshore regions. We truly value our customs and traditions. Traditions reign supreme. In olden days we went as far as removing our lower teeth and the Dinka of Sudan and Acholi of Uganda create skin markings, just to show you how important tradition is to us. For a Nilotic Luo death is a bad omen, a curse that does not occur naturally and hence it must be followed by ceremonies to drive it away lest it return soon.
The numb, clueless widow begins to receive lessons soon after on how to act from as many diverse sources as there are circumstances and economic power. For instance, the widow must have a special plate to eat from and not mix with the others as soon as the news is out; if the plates are all the same color, hers must have a mark and all must know and use it to serve her food. The widow must only use her marked seat which is to be shared by no one until the day she gets an ‘inheritor’, a man whose sole duty is to perform sexual cleansing. They go ahead and tie a ribbon or some mark on the seat to inform guests to never sit in it.
If that’s not enough on the fourth day after burial, the widow together with her children will be clean shaven with a razor blade to differentiate her from the rest of the community as she begins the 90 day mandatory mourning period prescribed by culture. In the olden days, she was not supposed to walk the paths, visit any home, go to the well or water point, attend any community gathering or meeting, nor shake hands. She would only be seen wearing black and showing her clean-shaven head. Sometimes the widow was made to wear her late husband’s clothes regardless of their fit for as long as this period lasted.
The young men on the seventh day will do a ceremony called, ‘tero buru’ (chasing death-will write some day on it) but basically means driving away death, with animals in a frenzy and going very far. When they come back they enter the home with dance, song and chaos in a way that shows death will never return – it is a sight to behold! This ceremony is often so scary that children and women run and cry for accidents can easily happen. The more dangerous it is the better.
Where does it stop? It does not and will not stop for the widow and her children. This marks a long journey to what organizations like Loomba Foundation, MWC and Rona Foundation denounce as widow stigma and abuse. In Africa, loss and grief and human rights are so intertwined that one hardly separates them. Will Africa one day see the need to wake up and know death is natural and non-negotiable and that we all must face it someday? If now HIV/AIDS is at this level, then I rest assured it is possible. The world must come to the rescue of the African widow.
Next month, I’ll share on sexual ceremonies that go beyond grief.
~ Roseline Orwa
World Wide Widows