Department of Foundation Studies,
School of Foundation and General Studies
Captain Elechi Amadi Polytechnic
Rumuola Port Harcourt.
The core focus of this paper is on widowhood cultural practices in Etch land. It is one of the cultural practices against the widow despite the efforts of religious leaders. Recent research carried out revealed that there is positive response towards the end of some aspect of widowhood practices in some Etche Communities. This study is therefore divided into five sub-sections staring with the introduction, theory/methodology of the study, review of relevant literature and finally, conclusion and recommendation. The paper strongly recommends that those aspect of widowhood cultural practices that are obnoxious to personal and group development should be modified. Religious leaders and non-governmental organization should do more in enlightenment campaign using the mass-media and traditional rulers.
The lives of widows in our various communities have been traumatized by the practices involved in widowhood rituals. Lots of contributions have been made by scholars but it seems not to make any headway at all due to the diversity of cultures. The different opinions arising from the idea of widowhood accounts for the reason why a common front cannot be formed to arrive at a wholistic approach to the problems of widowhood practices in Nigeria. This study is an analysis of widowhood practices in Etche ethnic group in Nigeria. The importance of cultural traditions will be highlighted in attempt to understand such practices and ritual. Issues raised and addressed in this study includes an examination of the similarities and differences of the rituals and practices which a woman undergoes upon the death of her husband, mourning period and the modus of mourning, widows’ economic survival strategies, widow’s right to inheritance and the sociological impact of widowhood in both cultures.
Theory and Methodology of African Women History
When it comes to studying the history of women in most parts of Africa, many road blocks prevent the historian from producing a coherent narrative. Many of the traveller account that described trade, state formation and warfare in detail give biased account of women. A survey of Arabic texts reveals reports on West African women that tell little or nothing about their lives. Where they are available, the reports are held up against standards that portray them as uncivilized (White 1998:5 8). Deeply rooted Western attitudes complicate the approach to third world women’s history. The nineteenth century equation of the west with progress and modernity, the rest with stagnation and tradition still colours much of the discussion of women in third world studies.
A comparative history of women in Igbo and Hausa cultures has not been adequately studied. In the past, such neglect reflected the general state of African historiography; focus was on visible political institutions, diplomatic events and intellectual currents of the high, as opposed to the popular culture. When issues that bother on a popular culture are addressed, they are so do from masculine lens (Tucker 1985:1). Part of the problem surely springs from basic misconceptions about her-story and its relation to social and economic history as a whole. Awe (1991:211) has noted that African historians seem to have inherited certain degrees of west bias, in that they have perpetuated in their writings the masculine centered view of history. Awe (1991) argues the eighth volume General History of Africa published by UNESCO in 1981, which summarized current significant knowledge in African History, says nothings about female contribution to that history. More so, The Groundwork of Nigerian History, the standard text on the history of Nigeria made no particular mention of the role of the Nigerian women in the development of their different societies.
The representation of African women in historical writing according to A. Imam (1988:30) has been characterized by four approaches;
- In the first (and most obvious) case, women have simply not been presented at all.
- In the second they are seen as inferiors and subordinates to men.
- The third trend has been a conception of women’s role as equal and contemporary to those of men.
- Finally, there has been a movement towards seeing women as actives agents in the historical process.
A world view that relegates women to the background has obvious implications for the treatment of the role of women in historical reconstruction. In such worldviews women will be accorded scanty and superficial attention and thereby rendered absent from history. A major theme in the presentation of African women through history typifies that of a man in spite of the fact that she does most of the hard work of supporting the family.
However, it should be noted that while African men were dominated in some spheres of social life, African women were equally responsible for other areas of influence. That is, male and female roles were complimentary and issues of supper or subordination did not arise. Practices such as levirate marriage, polygamy, female circumcision or clitoridectomy are therefore, simply cultural practise, which have been misunderstood by ethnocentric westerns (Imam 1988:63). This is also evident in studies of political roles in Africa Annie Lebeut (1971:63) states:
In general, the profound philosophical ideas which underline the assignment of separate tasks to men and women stress the complementary rather than the separate nature of the task. Neither the division of labour nor the nature of the task accomplished implies any superiority of one over the other and there is almost always compensation in some other direction for the inequalities which arise from such a division.
Evidences from Igbo and Hausa societies show that not all women were without a defence against any harsh treatment of women. Igbo and Hausa women developed effective women self-help and mutual protective associations during the pre-colonial era which could carry out public ridicule and even group punishment of men who seriously mistreated women. Nina Mbah, in her (1982) work, “Nigeria Women Mobilized Women’s Political Activities in Southern Nigeria 1900-1965” argues that in pre-colonial southern Nigeria, the women’s world is not subordinate to that of the men but rather, complimentary.
Another trend of development in African women’s historiography sees women as actors in the society rather than passive recipients of change. Here, however, there is the recognition of the social structures and mechanisms that constrain women and place them in subordinate position. Okonjo, (1976:45) opines that the absence of women from significant political representation in independent Nigeria can by viewed as showing the strength of the legacy of single-sex political structure that the British colonial masters left behind. Hence the position of African women is seen as having deteriorated through the colonial experience. It is in this context that we intend to justify if women especially in Igbo and Hausa cultures are independent and what circumstances permit their exploitation.
Death, Mourning and Widowhood Practice in Etche Land
Nzewi in his “Widowhood Practices: A Female Perspective”, found out that widowhood practices in certain parts of Etche communities begins after the burial ceremony. However, in some Etche communities such as Akpoku, a woman becomes a widow (isi npke) from the minute her husband dies. The practices related to the death of a man in Etche land differ depending on the status of the dead person (Nwoga 1989). The wife or wives of an ordinary man is expected ‘to go into traumatic wailing immediately after the demise of such a man, she is expected to beat her chest, fling around her arms and down, while other women surrounding her tries to restrain and force her to sit down on the floor where they sit around her. This is a wide spread custom among most Igbo groups. The wife or wives of a titled man, is not allowed to go into any loud crying till appropriate arrangements have been made to inform other titled persons, in-laws and relatives who should know and confirm the death before any lamenting takes place. In neither cases mentioned above, is death taken with stoicism and resignation, hence intense wailing and weeping and hysteria is expected to be generated (Afigbo A.E, 1989).
Among the Etche’s this kind of bitter wailing is expected to go on until the remains of the man has been buried. After that, the wife or wives are expected to enact a wail or two every morning between 5.00am and 6.OOam for four days or more. Thereafter, they have to wail every morning of a feast day and recount to the hearing of their neighbours what their husband used to do for them on such occasions. Below is the wailing ordeal experienced by a widow:
It was an Orieday that my husband died. The Umukpu (matrilineal daughters) gathered and accompanied me to my village where I was to cry and wail to inform my people of the death of my husband. After the burial, the Christian Mothers shaved my hair and instructed me to cry every morning and evening for four days after which I may or may not cry again.
Another widow recounted her experience thus:
Each morning after the burial, my mother-in-law took me out to the back of the house. I had a bath with very cold water. This was done very early in the morning when it was cold. As she did this, custom demanded that I must be crying and calling my husband. I stayed at home for the next three months mourning him without going out.
In pre-colonial Etche, and Igbo society a widow observes, a four months ten days, mourning period in seclusion, talking to no one and sitting in a place.
One may question how genuine sorrow can be when it is forced. Each of my informant noted that while it was natural to cry, it was a tradition of long standing to cry at particular periods of the day during the initial mourning period. This question posed above is even more pertinent with the days immediately following the actual burial when the wife or wives are enclosed in a room beside the body of their dead husband or in the same room with the corps where they are suppose to wave away files from perching on the corpse. They are also accepted to sit on the ground and raise a wail very early in the morning every day, the quality of the crying is judged by the Umukpu (patrilineal daughters). Since what is in the heart of mean cannot be authenticated, we have no parameter to discern the genuineness of the mourning. Before the burial and immediately after the burial, up to seven to fourteen weeks while funeral visits sill take place, the widow is supposed to be secluded in a most restricted manner. This is called mo na nso. This is equally discussed in the findings of G.T. Basden (1966:728-279) and Talbot (1967:229-279).
One of the beliefs connected with this phase is that the husband is still hovering around and still seeks contact with his wife. So, the widow, if she has for any reason to go out of the house or compound, in order to avoid contact with the husband, never leaves and enters through the same gate or door through which the man’s spirit may be moving. Indeed, the widow is given her kitchen knife or stick to hold in order to chase away the spirit of her husband who may try to have a contact with her.
Rationalizing the whole concept of seclusion and ritual cleansing associated with widowhood, one male informant explained that:
On the death of her husband, the widow is in sorrow, she has lost everything she owns, she has to hold a knife (mma mkpe) or broom stick, a protective object from the spirit world. She does not touch herself and must hold the knife for the whole period of seclusion. She does not come out in the morning to avoid meeting with the elders before they have had an opportunity to exchange greetings among themselves. This is because she is regarded as unclean during this period. After the fourth day, she must go to the stream very early accompanied by another widow to perform the ritual cleansing. She must avoid being seen or exchange greetings with anyone.
At the end of the “nso” period, the widow goes through a ritual cleansing. The ritual cleansing involves the widow and her environment. All the dirt collected in the place where she had been secluded is thrown into the bad bush. A graphic image of the process is that a nwada (daughter) comes very early in the morning before cockcrow, sweeps up the room and the ashes and puts them into a container which the widow carries as they move before they can be seen on their way to the bad bush. Even that early, to avoid the chance of being seen, the nwada precedes the widow, shouting a warning, till they complete the journey. After the widow has thrown away the dirt, even the rags she has won all this while, into the bush, they move to the stream where she is washed and shaved, if it has not been done ab initio. She is then brought home and continues the mourning period at the end of which her mourning cloths are burnt and the hair cut again. The widow is at this time free to re-enter normal life.
Categories of Widows
Widows in Etche society can be grouped under four broad categories. They include:
- Widows with grown-up and educated children:
This group does not suffer economic dispossession. They have their children to defend them. Loneliness is not often experienced by this group.
- Widows with young and uneducated children:
This group of widows mostly experiences all the cultural taboos and dehumanizing treatments. They are deprived of their property, if they have no male child.
- Young Barren widows:
These are often maltreated by the Umuada as well as the male relations of their husband. They are often sent back to their maternal homes.
- Aged Barren Widows:
These are often labelled witches. They are usually abandoned and isolated. They suffer different types of torments. Rarely do people visit them when they are sick (Seabrook 2010). This class of widows to Seebrook always entertain fear of dying without care.
Harmful Widowhood Practices among the Etche People
The demise of a husband exposes a widow to a lot of indignities inflicted under the aegis of tradition. The psychological and traumatic torture of the loss is compounded by the rigorous burial preparation and rites the widow passes through. Some of these traditional widowhood rites are informed by the concept of and negative attitude to women embedded in the legal, religious, economic, social and political structure of African societies. A widow is said to be in a state of ritual impurity and that until such defilement is removed, a widow cannot touch her body with her hands. She should not, of course, feed herself in such circumstance. Some obnoxious traditional widowhood rites in Etche land include suspicion, widows are prime suspects of their husbands death; forcing a widow to drink water used in washing the corpse of the deceased; subjecting the widow to the rite of severance during which a widow is forced to lied head to foot with her husband’s corpse and some rituals prefund to mark severance of sexual relationship with the husband; the treatment of widows as unclean and their subsequent exposure to some rigorous, debasing and dehumanizing cleansing rites; in some cultures the widow is forced to sit on the hard flood during the burial period; she eats from a broken plate without washing her hands; She is secluded, hence alienated from the community. She is thoroughly shaved and denied bath. This practice is vividly captured by Ordu:
Before the advent of Christianity in Etche, widows were not allowed to take a bath for about 12 days following the death of their husband. The widows were substantially denied food during the twelve days. To mark the end of the twelve day period, the widow goes to a bad bush and scrape her hair with a blunt razor blade thereafter she may take a bath and eat as she likes.
He also stated that even in contemporary Etche society, there are certain feasts in the year during which widows must leave their husbands compound and sleep outside like the feast of itu-aka. On such feasts, one hears widows crying out their sorrows very early in the morning. Among Niger Igbo’s in the 1930’s specifically 4 days after the death of her husband, the widow:
Moves from her husband’s house to a small hut in another part of the compound. While dwelling in the hut, she wears no cloths unless perhaps a rag; she must sit on a block or wood…. instead of a sleeping mat a banana leaf must suffice…she is prohibited from washing her body or combing her hair.
Although there are variations as to length and procedure of the ritual, there are basic areas of agreement on the reason for the ritual. The intensity and procedure may have changed over time but these practices are still observed today.
The major factors impacting on this tradition in contemporary Etche society include Christianity, Islam and Western education. During field work, a widow was observed holding a crucifix instead of a broom or a kitchen knife. This is a form of indigenisation of widowhood practice in Etche land. Some widows refused to mourn on the ground that they were born again. This is frowned at by traditionalists. This may lead to the excommunication of some widows in some parts of Etche land. In some other instance, the in-laws ask the spirit of the dead husband to deal with such a widow. Another challenge to widowhood practices in Etche land is industrialization and urbanization. Industrialisation and urbanisation have made some people lose their sense of community and cultural ethics. The point is that the external structures of cultural and religious traditions have changed immensely, but the spiritual yearnings of these widows have led them to look for alternative means of protecting themselves. The Roman Catholics, for instance, see the sacraments as agents of personal protections.
Because the whole phenomenon of death, burial and funeral rights are inextricably interwoven in the culture and traditional religion, Christianity has always found it extremely difficult to force a complete separation. Some Christians prefer to juxtapose Christian and traditional religious rites out of fear of retribution by their deceased relations. This gives them the confidence that they are not missing any proper rite. Their understanding is that it is better to perform the two rites than to incur misfortunes. Consequently, the issue of widows using protective arms should be addressed in our culture. In discussing the seclusion and isolation of the widows, generally, mention has been made in passing that one feature of widowhood practices in most African societies is the neglect of personal hygiene and the denial of women’s basic human comforts. We have seen that in many parts of Etche land, a widow may not take her bath or wash her personal effects for the first four days. Washing and bathing during this period calls for punishment of the widow because she is assumed to be beautifying herself. In most cases in the past, the widow could have only one set of mourning dress. This is usually a black cloth that she most where whenever she is public. The aspect of giving the woman food from a dirty plate, to sit on ashes and giving her water used for bathing the corps of a dead husband is dangerous and could cause serious hazards to the health of this woman. More so, the practice of shaving the head of the widow could cause some skin infection if not properly handled. Consequently, there is the need to enlighten the people for them to understand these consequences because they may be acting out of ignorance.
Women have always been relegated to the background, and traditions and customs in Nigeria clearly rob women of their rights and privileges, Babatunde Ahousi a sociologist says:
The differentiation between men and women’s role in Nigeria, as with other societies is one of complementary and superior relationship in favour of men. It involves a hierarchy in which men are given greater leverage in decision-making and resources than women. The result is a cultural setting that invariable promotes male domination and female subordination. Stemming from this fact; women, especially widows, are treated like chattels.
The above is a belief description of what constitute the widowhood practices in Etche land. According to Afigbo (1988:14), “Among the Igbo’s widowhood is a byword for defencelessness. Thus, when you assault one who manages to fight effetely, she would taunt you saying that perhaps you thought you were dealing with widow.
One factor fundamental to an understanding of widowhood practices in Africa is the people’s attitude to birth and death. While birth is seen as an occasion for joy and as a natural happening in circumstance, death is seen as great and unredeemed tragedy even when it happens in extreme old age. A.G. Leonard (1906:174) concluded around the turn of the century that, It is impossible to discuss this matter of death without taking into consideration the question of witchcraft. According to popular estimates, nearly every death is, in the first instance, attributed to or associated with witchcraft and sorcery. In the words of Ilogu 91979:40), “I have not come across any death that any Etche accepted as a natural and biological end.” Afigo (1989) concluded on this matter that almost in all cases, “An immediate or remote cause is sough in the wicked machinations of a human enemy or of a malevolent ancestor, ghost or juju”. Therefore, the people’s conception about death and life determines their view towards widowhood.
In this kind of atmosphere charged with superstition, the regime of denials and privations brought on the widow, to some extent, constituted means of placing them under oath for the entire duration of the mourning. In 1938, Basden reported that should a widow die during this period, “No person in the village will touch her corpse”. Basden maintained that in certain situations, a widow may be expected to drink the remains of the water used in washing the dead man’s corpse as a way of proving one’s innocence. It is
expected that if one caused the death of such a person, he would die within a certain period-usually one year. In Eberi, it may involve crossing the coffin of the dead person. If one in such a circumstance fails to comply with all these rituals, he or she may be considered guilty of murder.
The practice of separation can be explained people’s beliefs. African’s tend to have an over powering belief in the ability of the ghost of a dead person to come to dispute his former property and all kinds of things with them. For one who was the priest of a local deity, for instance, a special ceremony had to be performed to “remove his hands” (wepu ya aka) from the priesthood. The same had to be done for an ozo man. This is to remove their link with the title holders since someone else must take the position. A husband is regarded as having such a stake on his wife. This fact makes it necessary for many rituals to be performed to enable the man hands-off his wife.
In this context, it is reasonable to suggest that the unhygienic and appalling personal appearance of a widow was all part of an effort to make her no longer attractive to her otherwise would be jealous deceased husband. Allied to all this was the belief that while death created for the dead the problem of gaining admission into the convocation of the ancestors of the community in the world, “all the practices associated with the dead and dying must be meticulously done through if not he would be considered to have been improperly or inconclusively buried and would be denied admission into the world of his ancestors (Afigbo, 19891:17). Consequently, the satisfactory completion of these ceremonies, rituals and practices also helped to restore the balance and security which the death has sought to over throw.
What we have discussed about are some of the important components of widowhood rituals among the Igbo. They were adopted for the purpose of
meeting the varied needs of the dead, his living relations and dependants. These arose from the strong sense of community between the living and the dead, which formed a basic ingredient of the Igbo people. The use of these rituals must, therefore, be understood in the context of protecting the widow, her family and the society as a whole. Traditionally, women do not own land and, therefore, cannot inherit land from either their fathers of husbands. Our culture precludes women and female children from inheriting their father’s estate. This tradition cannot stand the scrutiny of the repugnancy test because it conflicts with the provision of written laws in force and contrary to public policy. It is repugnant to justice, equity and good conscience. When one looks at widowhood practices in most African societies, it would be possible to give an immediate verdict on the matter. This would be a one-line economic interpretation. In the Igbo society, as in many other societies, human greed exists in many families and the death of a male member of the family offer an opportunity to the other males in the family to increase their holding of the scarce and inelastic commodity, land. The commodity now in question can expand to other items of property. All other activities serve the same purpose and mystification and other rituals, superstitious sanctions are geared to the oppression of the widow. Dehumanized and humiliated by the religious rituals and other practices, the widow becomes more amenable to keep silent about other forms of oppression which end up ultimately as economic disposition. Most often, these widows were not permitted by their in-laws to temper with the goods of their late husband’s to the extent of seizing his passbooks from them. Esther Nweke has noted that in certain zones in Rivers state:
The widow’s ordeal begins immediately the death of her husband is announced. The in-laws demand a list of the man’s property holdings, investments, bank account, etc. She is further required to take an oath as a proof that she has not concealed any relevant information on her husband’s wealth.
Disinheritance tends to pauperize some widows so much that they lack the
means of sustaining themselves and their children. Particularly if they so not accept what relatives allocated to them as their new husbands. Women could not inherit land among the Igbo’s since she had no customary rights over land. They could not inherit it and the spiritual value attached to land makes land a male prerogative. Women have access to land within their husbands’ household, but they could not inherit it.
Every problem has a solution. Hence the malicious practices involved in widowhood can be tackled. Article 16 of the United Nation Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) adopted by the General Assembly 1979 declares that state parties shall all
appropriate measures to criminate discrimination against women in all matters relating to marriage and family relations and particularly shall ensure, on a basis of equality of men and women, the same rights for both spouses in respect of the ownership, acquisition, management, administration, enjoyment and disposition of property, whether free of charge or for a valuable consideration. Article 2 of the same document obliges state to take concrete steps to modify or abolish existing laws, customs and practices that discriminate against women and as well as provisions that amount to discrimination.
Suggested Solutions To The Plight Of Widows:
With the advent of Christianity and western civilization, the lot of widows has improved. Many of those obnoxious customs and rituals to which widows were subjected immediately after the death of their husbands are fast disappearing in some Etche communities. We are grateful to Christianity for this advancement. Still, more works needs to be done before widows begin to enjoy the same freedom and find treatment as their male counterparts.
The following suggestions would be of help in planning for the improvement of widows in the society.
- Education of the masses on the right of the widows: Some people are already doing this through academic write ups, seminars and workshops. Women have been in the fore-front in this exercise. For instance, Mrs. Imo, C.A and her group are very active in women related issues.
- Education of Women: Generally, it seems men promulgate laws while women apply them. Unfortunately, some women are not conscious of the fact that they insult womanhood when they themselves impose on their fellow women those laws made by men to satisfy/suit their ego. Women should rise above all these through education and exposure to globalization.
- The role of the church: Christianity came to cater for the poor, the sick and the widow. While the poor and the sick are being taken care of by the church, but the issue of the widows has not been fully addressed. The church should be encouraged to join hands with other civil society organizations in fighting for the plight of widows.
- Government involvement: The government at the federal, state and local levels should be actively involved in the upliftment of widows. Widows programmees should be an essential component of the activities of the department of women affairs. Measures should be taken by government to abrogate those laws and customs which militate against the dignity and human right of widows.
Widowhood rituals, absolutely is not bad but the way it is handled in some cultures makes us relegate it to the background. Again, if the widow is protected by her in-laws by the use of protective means like kitchen knives and brooms, why the harmful practices meted on her at the same time. Many widows may not view the rituals as oppression and subjugation. For many of them, this is the only way to express one’s love for a deceased husband and to protect oneself. Death is an inevitable consequence, the way of all mortals. The plight of widows in our society cast a slur on our sense of decency as a race and it is our collective responsibility to reverse the present status quo and ensure they are handled with some decorum and humanness.
We are in a dynamic world where notions, ideals, concepts, mores, fashion etc change and we have to change with the times. As progressives, we have to review some of our former ways of life that are not in concert with current trends, like discriminatory practices against widows. Widowhood practices that are obnoxious and counterproductive to personal and group development should be modified. Hence, town unions should review and amend the laws on inheritance and other discriminatory acts that violate the rights of widows and their children. The unequal or denial of inheritance rights to land, real and personal property of deceased o widows and their children should be considered. The establishment of rights of daughters to their father’s property and land will be a progressive step. Town unions and policy makers should act as catalysts in sensitizing the rural communities on the evil consequences and dangers of harmful traditional widowhood practices to human development. Other recommendations are enlightenment campaigns seminars and workshops using non-governmental organizations, the media, religious organizations and traditional rulers. The Judiciary should be more sensitive to infringements of guaranteed fundamental rights based on gender factor.
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