Atinuke Ige and Nigeria's Widows


Special to
USAfrica The Newspaper, Houston
The Black Business Journal


Two days before Christmas, Atinuke Ige was widowed when her husband, the Nigerian Justice Minister was assassinated in their bedroom. Mercifully, the assassins asked her to leave the room before they shot Bola Ige. I guess they expect(ed) gratitude for that act of magnanimity. This is not a piece to eulogize or mourn Bola Ige.

Those who are wiser than I am have done that in ways I could never hope to do. This is also not a piece to mourn the politics of violence and corruption in my beloved country. I have done that since my childhood when my father's and uncles' foray into Nigerian politics exposed me to the kind of danger inherent in Nigerian politicking. This is a piece that has been festering in my mind ever since my young aunty was widowed right before her final exams and being determined to graduate, had to hide to study. As she was always besieged by relatives and friends, she could manage only snatches of study time.

The logic was that if she were "caught" in an act as banal as studying when she should be crying and mourning the loss of her husband, she would be blamed for his death. Atinuke Ige, on the other hand, will be spared the double tragedy of losing a husband and failing her degree exams in the same month. She is already a judge.

While being aware that I cannot generalize, I would dare to say that widows in Nigeria have it rough. In a 1999 documentary by Tola Dehinde, for the BBC World Service, on Nigerian widows, a woman, Mrs. Williams, told of how her husband was electrocuted at home while she was away at a church service. His death was kept a secret from her for an entire day. His family made the burial arrangements independent of her. Even though she and her children were present at the burial in Ibadan, she would not now be able to identify the spot where he was buried.

Another woman, a widow from Edo State, in the same documentary, told of how widows from her part of the country are sometimes forced to drink the water used in washing the corpse to prove their innocence. She has since formed an organization to fight such a practice.

A family friend of ours, Mrs. Ebele Ogamba was widowed sometime ago. She has recently written a book which documents the experiences of some other widows as well as offers advice on how to deal with the common problems Nigerian widows face. Some of the widows she talked to had their houses stripped of all property by their husband's families. One, whom she called Betty, was widowed after only half a year of marriage. She came back to the city from her husband's burial and met an empty house. She had to move back in with her parents.

A friend of a friend's lost her husband recently. His family decided that they had reason to believe that she killed their son. They branded her a witch and forced her out of the house with nothing but the clothes on her back. She has no keepsake of her husband. All her memories of him are in her heart.

Many Nigerian cultures do not make it any easier on the woman who has lost her husband. In many parts of Nigeria, widows are more or less "pariahed". In my hometown, a widow is not supposed to be seen at any public gathering for at least a year. It is not appropriate to hear her laugh. Her mourning is constantly under scrutiny and she is aware that she must give her best performance.

In some parts of Nigeria, widows are still expected to be inherited by their husbands' brothers. For women with no source of income, this is often the only way out of certain starvation and they are put under duress to accept the propositions or starve.

Tradition is good. But we must admit that it is not all good. Let us keep the good and modify the not- so- good. The loss of a husband is painful enough for any woman.
Unigwe, an aulmnus of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka; KU Leuven and UC Louvain in Belgium, has recently joined and USAfrica The Newspaper as Canada-based contributing editor and columnist. She is the author of 'Teardrops', a collection of poems, and her short story, 'Touched by an Angel', was broadcast on the BBC World Service.

Sex, Women and (Hu)Woman Rights. By columnist Chika Unigwe
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