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Challenges of widows in print

By Guardian Nigeria
03 April 2022   |   4:11 am
The book titled, The Trial and Other Stories, written by Ifeoma Okoye. It contains nine stories that deal about widowhood in Igbo land. Much of the settings are in Enugu, Enugu State, where the author is based.

Title of the book: The Trial and Other Stories
Author: Ifeoma Okoye
Publisher: African Heritage Press, New York, Lagos (2005)
Number of Pages: 86
Book reviewer: Dr. Bukar Usman

The book titled, The Trial and Other Stories, written by Ifeoma Okoye. It contains nine stories that deal about widowhood in Igbo land. Much of the settings are in Enugu, Enugu State, where the author is based. Other places mentioned in Igbo land include Onitsha, Abakaliki and Owerri and several villages. Other settings outside Igbo land include Lagos, Kano, Ibadan and Calabar.

The first story, Soul Healers, is about a woman who resides in Lagos, but had her two children schooling at Owerri. One is five and half years old, while the other is four. Her husband is a civil engineer at Kano when his business collapsed. Although, the woman is a graduate she is jobless. A friend of hers found her a job in a bank in Lagos. She defied her husband and left with the children to take up the job. The husband who refused to follow them died suddenly from stroke. His relations accused the woman of the death of her husband by abandoning him in Kano. To punish her, they took away the children from her, put them in custody of the husband’s elder sister at Owerri, where they were put in school. She was warned not to visit them. She could not afford to obey the instruction. The children are her soul healers and she is prepared to die for them.

The widow went to Owerri to fetch her children. She hired a taxi to drive them to Enugu for a flight to Lagos. Getting to the school, after closing hours, she grabbed the children. They protested because they could hardly recognise her. The taxi driver threatened to take her and the children to the police on suspicion of her being a kidnapper. She showed the taxi driver the family picture and narrated her plight. It was then the taxi driver cooperated and they left for Enugu.

The second story titled, Between Women, is about a woman who was an orphan and a widow. Her five and half year-old daughter lived with her mother-in-law in a village in Ebonyi State, while she took a job at Enugu, as a domestic servant. For almost two years, she did not see her daughter. She had wanted to bring the girl to Enugu, but the wife of her employer would not allow it. She asked for permission several times to go and see her daughter, but the wife of the employer who not approve it; she was insensitive to her plight. The widow could not afford to leave the job even though she was paid a pittance.

One day the eggs she was frying for the family breakfast got burnt. Annoyed at that, the wife of the employer threw a knife at her inflicting a deep cut on her eyebrow. The three children of her employer became her only source of joy, as well as constant reminder of her daughter.

The widow learnt from her aunt who lives in Enugu that her daughter was on admission in a hospital at Abakaliki. She once again requested for permission to visit the daughter and was denied. At last, she bolted away leaving her job for good because her daughter gave meaning to her life.

Strange Disease is the title of the third story. It is story in which a widow’s brother-in-law insisted on marrying her. She did not want to marry him, but was afraid to tell him because he might harm her and her two teenage children. The man was persistent in going to her house and pressing to know her answer. A 75-year-old widow advised her against the marriage. The man’s first wife had also warned her on several occasions not to snatch her husband. As a way out, she pretended that she had a strange venereal disease and stripped herself naked before the man to prove her point. It was at that stage that the brother-in-law left her for good.

The Voiceless Victim is the fourth story in the book. It concerns an 18-year-old widow with a baby and a toddler who was quarreling with a middle-aged woman for space to beg. The middle-aged woman reluctantly accommodated her upon intervention by a spectator. A female passerby watched the quarrel. After the settlement, the teenage beggar approached her for money to buy food for her children. The woman angrily shunned her saying she should go and find a job. Sometime after, the teenage beggar traced the passerby’s office to further plead with her to find a job for her. She said her husband died the previous year and that she married because her mother needed the bride price to treat her father who was critically ill for years. She was two months pregnant when her husband died. The husband’s illness had taken all his savings. His burial was funded with loans, which were yet to be paid. She was a victim of child marriage, child widowhood and of world imbalances. Her hopelessness was pitiful, hence the woman resolved to find job for her after.

The Trial is the fifth story that also doubles as the title of the book. It is a story about a widow who was put on trial by a 30-woman team made up of her husband’s relations. Her brother-in-law who did not approve of her marriage in the first instance and financially dependent on her husband had accused her of poisoning her husband. Hence, the traditional trial which if proven she would die within 28 days of the trial. Her mother advised her to undergo the trial or else she and her relations would be ostracised by the whole town.

She was determined to prove her innocence. To do that, she had to stand up against her brother- in-law. In her defence, she said that she was away from home when the husband died. His friend was visiting him when he suddenly vomited blood and died before reaching hospital. She further said that according to the doctor he had stomach ulcer, which might have arisen after his loss of job.

As the trial went on, the brother-in-law washed the hands of his dead brother in a bowl of water and asked her to drink it. She noticed the brother-in-law dipped his forefinger into the bowl of water. She had previously been warned to be on the lookout for such happenings. In a counter move, she accused the brother-in-law of putting something into the water and, therefore, refused to drink the water. Instead, she insisted that the brother-in-law must first drink the water. He refused. Some of the kindred supported the brother-in-law, while others supported her. As the disagreement ensued, church members turned up for the burial.
The impending trial abruptly came to an end. She was discharged and the burial proceeded.

The brother-in-law left with great disappointment threatening he would harm her and make sure she did not inherit his brother’s properties.

The sixth story, The New Business Woman, narrates the challenges of a woman whose husband was a motor spare part dealer at Enugu before he died of hepatitis. She resolved to continue running the business even though she doesn’t know how the business is run. The business was virtually a male dominated one. She had lost her job as a typist in a company, which had closed business. That was two years before the husband’s death. She had three children to cater for. She knew the business was profitable, so, she was determined not to dispose of the shop.

She solicited the assistance of a kind neighboring spare parts dealer who agreed to put her through. The kind man said that the husband was a good man. Hence, he would not fold his arms to see his effort go to waste.

From Wife to Concubine, the seventh story, is a narrative of a widow whose brother-in-law was a former police officer and lives in a village in Anambra State. He wanted to dispossess his brother’s wife of a block of flats in Onitsha. She resolved to do all she could to prevent him from taking the matter to court where he was most likely to have his way because of his connections. Moreover, she had discovered that her marriage certificate and other important documents that would support her claims had disappeared from her room at Onitsha where she lived with her husband before he died. She suspected the brother-in-law to have removed the documents immediately her husband died. She could not get a copy of the marriage certificate because fire had gutted part of the registry.

Aside from being subjected to dehumanising widowhood rites, her brother-in-law went about telling people that she after all was not legally married to his brother and that she was only a concubine.

She told her in-law that the block of flats was hers and reminded him that it was he and her husband who pleaded that she registers the property in the husband’s name so as not to embarrass him among his friends as it was also odd for a man to live in a wife’s home. In spite of her explanations, the brother-in-law gave her and her children three months to vacate the property. She confronted the brother-in-law, saying that she had all along been harboring a secret about the circumstances of the death of her husband’s cousin who it was alleged had accidentally shot himself on a farm in dispute. The secret was that the brother-in-law was implicated in the death being the one who went to the farm with a gun. She threatened to reveal the secret if the brother-in-law refuses to leave the flat for her and also to returned her marriage certificate. As the brother-in-law did not want the secret out, he posted to her the marriage certificate and also dropped his claim of ownership of the property.

Second Chance being the eighth story is the case of a widow with her two children. The widow went to see her husband’s paternal uncle at Enugu to intimate him of her plan to remarry a widower who had three children. The husband’s uncle did not object to the marriage, but said that she was not going to take the children along. The woman said, she can’t leave the children who were only five and three-year-old. The husband’s uncle said that she should go and think about it as they may have to take the children away from her, if need be, by force in compliance with tradition. She was in a dilemma as to whether to remarry or remain alone in poverty.

When she proceeded to the prospective husband’s house, she found that of the three children, two were warm towards her contrary to her anxiety. She decided to accept the marriage. Thereafter, the man revealed that he had been transferred to Ibadan where they would all move and he would take care of her children, while she takes care of his children as their mother.

Daughter for Sale is the title of the last and ninth story of the book. It involves a widow who was concerned about the ill treatment she was receiving from her brother-in-law. It was the same type of treatment her mother had received in the hands of her father. Her father had sold his four young daughters, one after the other, to those who could pay highest bride price. It came to her turn when her father gave her out for marriage at the age of 16. She lost her first son who was 23 and the second who was 21. She was left with two daughters.

The brother-in-law married out one of the daughters and got a handsome bride price. According to tradition, she did not know the amount as a woman was not supposed to know. Another man was coming for the second daughter and she would not know what was being paid. She decided that it would no longer happen. She would allow only a token amount or nothing at all, so that, the brother-in-law would get nothing. The brother-in-law gathered the extended family led by an 80-year-old man to plead with her. She maintained her ground and had her way.

The fate of widows and their children in Igbo land depicted in the stories as it concerns inheritance and the traditional rites widows are made to pass through are somewhat pitiful and horrifying. While some of the practices might have served the society in the past, they evidently require a serious review in modern times.
• Dr. Bukar Usman, former permanent secretary in the presidency, lives in Abuja

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