Bereaved or Abused

Roseline Orwa

Death in itself is a mystery. In Africa it is marked by wailing, crying, ululating, shouting, singing, driving animals frantic, running amok and all manner of grief expression. In Africa we loudly express sorrow and mock death. Relatives, friends and enemies alike begin to troop in to condole with the bereaved family. All the help, love and support along with the shock and all manner of lost feelings, can never prepare a widow for the journey that awaits – the journey of living without the man she loved and shared her life with. In Africa when death strikes, everything and everyone stops, often for long periods – a minimum of two weeks depending on who, where and the financial status of the family.

As if death itself is not enough, the low tone talks do the rounds and fear creeps in. Relatives and in-laws begin to mark their territory and look at the widow as a hindrance and the bearer of death, even as the children, who still have future needs, are seen lost and wondering whether Dad will be coming home and questioning why there are so many people in the home. At this time whispers of how the widow may have killed their son begin to pop up. In my culture no death is natural; someone or something will always be blamed for it. And in many funerals here it is usual to find in-laws exchanging words and fighting for whatever property is left, even before the deceased is laid to rest.

In my culture, the Luo, a lot of feasting, happens more on the day of the burial. Animals are slaughtered and all mourners must be fed. It’s a joke in my country that “the Luo make the bereaved families poorer, if a man had one cow they can slaughter the cow to feed the mourners and the children get to miss school next day” because mourners were fed using their school fees. Luo funerals are parties and should word have it that some people left unfed, the village and community will go gossiping about it forever and the widow is stigmatized right away. No one cares about the loss at this time; not even thinking about it makes it matter. I realized how little my community was concerned about me the night my husband was buried. I began to know ‘widow stigma’. They were concerned with the image of burying a great politician who died suddenly and cared nothing for his childless widow-wife who sat there clueless. It was this revelation that later prompted me to start Rona Foundation.

For men the widow is required to sleep outside near the grave, in the wind, cold and rain for 4 days from the night of burial. If a woman dies then the husband sleeps outside for 3 days; often accompanied by close relatives particularly from the wife’s family. On the 4th/3rd morning the rituals begin and the real face of death, culture and widow abuse sets in. Not even the strongest seems to survive, for no one prepares you for what will take place. On this morning, culture demands that the widow’s hair must be shaved with a razor blade, together with her children’s. Resisting means being ostracized and therefore many widows oblige in fear. They even remind you that resisting will mean bringing a curse on the children who could die just like their father. This period marks many days of pain, agony and abuse as only an African widow can testify.