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Our people have gone mad again

As a child, one of my biggest fears was losing my father. Naturally, no child wants to lose a parent, but the second reason for…

As a child, one of my biggest fears was losing my father. Naturally, no child wants to lose a parent, but the second reason for my fear was more practical than emotional. And it had more to do with my mother than with me.

My mother had really beautiful, thick, long hair and I didn’t want to have her shave it all off like widows still do in my village. She’s also always been fashionable and I didn’t want her to have to wear solemn black for an entire year. In fact, I didn’t want her to look like a widow.   All the widows I knew then in Enugu seemed to bend over the weight of their loss.

Not figuratively’oo! Maybe I had an active imagination, but there was a way they walked as if their loss was an invisible bag of stones slung over one shoulder. The weight shrank them. Even the women who were tall, for the entire period they were in culturally mandated mourning, seemed to me to get smaller. Also, they smelt sad. I used to say that I could smell a widow before I saw her.

It wasn’t body odour; this was something else and this smell sailed on top of whatever perfume the women wore, like oil on water. Every single widow I knew back then, in their simple, cotton black round-neck blouses and two-piece wrapper, black scarves covering their shaved heads, had the same dour look, the same smell, the same shrunken stature.

I might have mentioned my fears to my mother or asked why widows had to shave their heads and wear black for a year because I recall her telling me that in the past, widows suffered worse fates. In her village, she said a widow in mourning couldn’t sit on a chair. She sat on a mat and could only eat with a long stick or an eating utensil fashioned like one.

Whatever food she managed to grab was for her and whatever fell off was for her husband (in the land of the spirits). Widows suspected of killing their husbands had to prove their innocence by drinking the water in which his corpse had been washed. Widows couldn’t go to social functions, couldn’t be seen to be moving on or behaving in a way that could be construed as having fun. “Things have changed,” she said.

Things have changed. In recent years, many Igbo communities have reduced the mandatory mourning period to half a year, some even to three months. In a world where women work outside the home, expecting a widow to sit at home, hands folded and legs crossed for months on end is just not practical. Some communities have done away with the head shaving too. And yet, someone wise once said that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Recently, in Aguleri, Anambra State, a widow was paraded naked by her husband’s family. She was accused of being directly responsible for her spouse’s death by being unfaithful in her marriage. Her brother-in-law had gone to some native doctor who told the man that his brother’s wife was the cause of his death by her “infidelity.” No one caught her in the act, but her brother-in-law’s words (and the native doctor’s) were good enough.  Is this not madness?

The parade did not only humiliate the poor woman; it also exposed her to a mob ready to mete out justice to an “adulterer” and “murderer.” The good news is that the six people involved in this show of shame have been arrested. Hopefully, they face justice and feel its strong, muscular arm. The bad news is that this is still happening in this century, and that among those arrested were two women and a 20-year-old man. If women and the youth engage in such barbaric customs, where’s the hope that an end will come anytime soon? Things are changing but they are not changing quickly enough.

And that is what bothers me. Instead of fighting these customs – and there is no shortage of customs that are cruel to women, especially widows, in Igbo land – there are young people invested in upholding them. Aren’t the young supposed to be progressive? When you talk, they’ll tell you “tradition.” Tradition is great but not all of it is good. We should constantly interrogate it and whatever custom is used as a weapon of oppression, wielded especially against those who are already vulnerable, must be eradicated. Customs are not set in stone. They were not handed down to our forefathers by God. Let us discard and criminalize that which is cruel like we did the killing of twins. Imagine how an irate mob would have dealt with the Aguleri widow had the parade not attracted the attention of a sensible, decent human who alerted the police.

Our people say that today is still early (enough) to create a change. Taa bu gboo. May the peculiar madness   that encourages punishing and oppressing widows in our communities be forever eradicated. Amen.

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