Ihuoma is a beautiful woman, she is a village sweetheart, but she has a stain. No, it’s not the stain of blood; it’s the stain of widowhood. She is not just a widow; she is a serial widow with more than one dead husband to her conjugal resume. Her life is littered with the ghost of husbands; her skin now sticks to the black grieving uniform which mortifies her soul. The burden of raising her children hangs around her neck. It is not lightened by moonlight play for unlike everyone in the village, she is socially dead. She only knows sympathizers who just trickle in these days. This is the story of Ihuoma in Elechi Amadi’s renowned book ‘The Concubine’.
When marriage is broken not by divorce but by death, the live of the once better half becomes broken. Many things converge to determine the depth of their grief. The strength of their bond, the level of dependency on the union, and their partner, the self concept of the surviving partner, all of these work together in colouring grief. The surviving partner’s ways of life is interrupted and subsequently fragmented.
Were these to be their only fight, then it could be manageable. But some cultural rites of ritual seclusion, helps to strip the living half of the life and comfort they knew, and suddenly they become invisible. Their lives stops, most of them begin to live on the margins of our society and weeping does not lessen their burden.
This is the worst nightmare of many married women; hence it is an issue that is dear to the United Nation and other development agencies. It buys into the wider issues of gender inequality, the very things that CEDAW (Convention for the Elimination of Domestic Violence Against Women) represents. Unlike widowers, widows experience domestic and social violence. This double trauma shatters them.
I have often wondered why the loss of a partner can render another partner so useless that they may actually turn to begging or living on stipends from family members to keep going. This I could connect to the prior economic circumstances of the women. But it obviously does not explain the loneliness which they suffer even beyond the mourning period. Their daily routines have been disrupted, most times in unforeseen ways, they become socially inept. I am tempted to question the self-concept of the individuals but I am cautioned by the truth that we all have rights to any identity we choose and the consequences thereof.
The 23rd of June is a day for widows according to United Nation. Hence we need to cleanse the land of sin against widows. To cleanse this sin of omission done against this group of secluded or excluded women, we have to reconsider the economic and social impact of our social culture on them.
We can beginning by improving inheritance rights and encourage access of social amenities. Like Ihuoma, the survival of many widows may be through scraping the earth for whatever is left by others to feed the family. Many communities have economic arrangements that deny women ownership of inelastic commodities like land and other forms of properties that can yield economic comfort to the surviving family.
The coping strategies of women like Ihuoma are not very predictable, some people though exhausted by intense care giving to a terminally ill spouse may have prepared for the imminent widowhood. Where the widow is young and unprepared, the realities are harsh. It is often suggested she remarries for her (and maybe her children’s ) economic and social security, as death can shrink any existing income. Remarriage is a challenging survival strategy because of the stigma many societies give to women carrying the widowhood title. ‘The concubine’ presents this in the choice made for Ahurole over Ihuoma by Ekwueme’s parents.
Many times, in a partriachal society, widowhood is a dead end. The challenge of trying to keep body and soul together does not go without a fight. This is captured in the struggle between Ihuoma and Madume. In the end, every widow hopes for a cobra to come to their rescue as it did for Ihuoma.
Such help is still possible in the present day world with some adjustments in our laws and policies. For a start, couples should be encouraged to register marriages formally. We can create policies that ensure that assets are registered in the name of both spouses.
On a lighter side, perhaps we can also ensure that on our guest list for the next birthday, wedding, or social parties, we include the living half of a couple that we once enjoyed their company together. In this way and others, we can empower and reach out to widows today.
-Written by Adaobi Nkeokelonye