Widowhood and the dignity of womanhood in Igboland: A pastoral challenge to the discipleship of the Roman Catholic Church in Igboland
TABLE OF CONTENTS Page Chapter 1: PURPOSE AND CONTEXT OF THE STUDY Introduction 1 Widowhood Rituals and Practices in Igboland 3 The Power of the Spirit of the Dead 8 The Igbo People of Southern Nigeria 15 Literature Review 28 Purpose of the Study 36 Significance of the Study 36 Thesis Statement 39 Research Methodology 39 Organization of the Study 39 Chapter 2: WIDOWHOOD AND INHERITANCE OF PROPERTY IN IGBOLAND Introduction 42 Inheritance by the Patriarchal Principle of Primogeniture 46 Inheritance of the Widow Herself 51 Widow's Right of Inheritance to her Deceased Husband's Personal Property54 Customary Law and Widowhood Inheritance in Igboland 60
Statutory Law, Women and Inheritance in Igboland Conclusion 64 70 Chapter 3: WIDOWHOOD IN THE JUDEO-CHRISTIAN PERIOD Introduction 73 Widowhood in the Jewish Culture 73 Widowhood in the New Testament and Early Christian Period 78 Pauline Treatise on Widowhood ( 1 Timothy 5: 3-16) 83 Conclusion 102 Chapter 4: WIDOWHOOD, VATICAN COUNCIL II AND THE POST-CONCILIAR DOCUMENTS Introduction 106 Widowhood and Vatican Council II 107 Vatican II and the Post-Conciliar Documents 111 The Poor in the Post Vatican II Conciliar Documents 118 Preferential Option for the Poor 123 The African Bishops Synod 126 The African Synod on Poverty in Africa 134 The Magisterium and the Status of Women in the Church and Society 139
iv Chapter 5: THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN IGBOLAND AND WIDOWHOOD: EVALUATION Overview 144 The Personal and Social Dimensions of Discipleship 147 Pastoral Response to Widowhood Practices in Igboland 154 The Role of the Governments 165 Involvement of the Traditional Chiefs 172 The Way Forward 174 Practical Administrative Model 179 The Basic Christian Communities 180 The Power of the Homily at Liturgical Celebrations 188 Facing the Challenge 193 Conclusion 196 Bibliography 198 ABSTRACT VITA
1 CHAPTER 1 PURPOSE AND CONTEXT OF THE STUDY Introduction It was Albert Einstein who said,"... .Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the whole world, stimulates progress, giving birth to evolution."1 Similarly, but with subtle nuances, O'Connell also maintains that, "experience takes place just as really in the imagination as it does in the so-called real world.2 Therefore, while this work is not borne out of direct personal experience of the life and practice of widowhood in Igboland, suffice it to say that my pastoral experiences as an Igbo Catholic priest for the past twenty years has given me some meaningful imaginatory leverage over the experience of widowhood in Igboland. The role of a priest in Igboland is multi-dimensional; he is a spiritual director, a counselor, a healer, an advocate for the marginalized in the society, and an integral part of the community leadership, to mention but a few. How a person juggles between these different roles depends very much on the dynamism and personal disposition of the individual priest. Unfortunately, not much emphasis is laid on the expertise of the priest to handle the respective issues that come to his attention. It is, however, the onus of the individual priest to know when to involve the services of an expert in such cases as excessive mourning and psychological grief. 'Herbert Harris, The Twelve Universal Laws of Success (North Carolina: Life Skill Institute Inc., 2004), 76-77. 2 Timothy E. O'Connell, Making Disciples (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Co., 1998), 106.
2 Besides, widowhood is such a widespread phenomenon in Igboland, as Bartholomew Chidili observed referencing C. J. Korieh's field work. According to him, widowhood, along with its cultural practices, "covers a very large area of Igboland extending from Awka in Anambra State to Nsukka in Enugu State even up to Kalahari in Delta State and indeed all over Igboland."3 Therefore, it is not possible that any Igbo priest can realistically be insulated from the social and psychological shackles of the widowhood practice in Igboland. One can either experience it through the process of active imagination or by personal and biological affinity to a widow. Once more, a priest can choose to ignore and overlook such an experience or decide to address any aspect of it that infringes on justice, equity, and good conscience. It is all but personal choice; but one thing is clear, "that the choices we make, also make us." Hence, the decision to do a study on widowhood in Igboland is also a decision to practically address the social and cultural injustice therein, and personally advocate for the victims, with the intention of crafting an improved pastoral approach to the practice. However, such an undertaking does not go without its challenges and difficulties as Freire pointed out, "writing on or towards real issues entails an extensive effort to see through deceiving appearances that may blur our vision.. .we have to surmount a number of difficulties in disentangling the issues from these appearances so that we can perceive the total theme as an actual phenomenon in an actual world."4 In this chapter and the subsequent chapters, I intend to highlight and analyze those deceitful cultural and religious appearances that cloud widowhood rituals and practices in Igboland. In the end, 3 Bartholomew U. Chidili, Provocative Essays on the Practices of Religion and Culture in African Society (Jos, Nigeria: Fab Anieh Nigeria Ltd., 2005), 116. 4 Paulo Freire, The Politics of Education: Culture, Power, and Liberation, trans. Donaldo Macedo (U.S.A.: Bergin& Garvey, 1985), 111.
3 I hope to make practical pastoral suggestions on how to jettison them in order to retrieve the genuine widowhood rituals and practices that augur well with justice, equity, and good conscience. This study agrees with Chidili that, "widowhood is one of such age-old traditional values that needs investigation with new aggiornamental lens."5 From my research and imaginative experience so far, it is evident that in Igboland, it needs more than any kind of "evolution." It needs revolution. Widowhood Rituals and Practices in Igboland Ekwunife defines a widow as "a married woman who lost her husband through death and who has not remarried."6 While certain unique differences can be identified in the respective circumstances of the widows in terms of their social status, this study focuses on the greater majority of the women who have lost their husbands and are caught up in the quagmire of societal neglect and web of unjust treatments due to the loss. They are made victims of ritual practices in a situation they neither created nor could they control. Such practices, according to Korieh, are "sets of expectations as to actions and behavior of the widow, actions by others towards the widow, and rituals performed by, or on behalf of the widow from the time of the death of her husband."7 The problem is that while some of these practices could have been originally instituted for the welfare of the widow and the community, some of the practices are so archaic and obsolete that repeating them at the present day and age would amount to sheer 5 Chidili, Provocative Essays, 118. 6 A. Ekwunife, "The Christian Celebration of Death and Burial and the Position of Widows in the Context of Inculturation," West African Journal of Ecclesial Studies, 3, no. 1 (1995). 7 C. J. Korieh, "Widowhood among the Igbo of Eastern Nigeria" (master's thesis. Norway: Bergen University, 1996), 21.
anachronism and blatant abuse of human dignity.8 We shall delve more into some of these individual practices that are homogeneous to Igbo people, especially those that border on injustice and exploitation of woman dignity in Igbo society. The fact of the matter is, "it is believed that a widow is despoiled by the event of her husband's death and therefore must he purified before communicating with her community in terms of formally touching with the living members of the society - kiths and kin of the widow inclusive."9 Thus, some kind of ritual cleansing is required of the woman before she can fully integrate herself into the communal life of the family and community.10 Such cultural ritual cleansing is also intended to purge the widow of any spiritual or personal attachment to her deceased husband including coital relationships.11 While people generally detest death along with its pangs of pain, it is not very clear why it should bring defilement to a spouse when one might not be directly responsible for its occurrence, more so when it is self-evident that death is an unavoidable experience every created being must face. In some areas like Nnewi in Anambra State, the widow is completely restricted from any association with her children and other family members. She is treated as an outcast (osu mkpe). Her food is separately prepared for her by another widow, and nobody eats with her; any leftover from her meal is thrown away; any form of contact is strictly avoided.12 8 Chidili, Provocative Essays, 113. 9 Ibid., 127. 10 A. E. Afigbo, "Widowhood Practices in Africa: A Preliminary Survey and Analysis," in Widowhood Practices in Imo State, ed. F. Ikwchegh et al. (Owerri: Better Life Convention, 1989), 7. 11 Rose O. Osuji ed. "Widowhood Practices among Catholics in Owerri Archdiocese: A Critical Analysis (special report of a committee of the Owerri Diocesan Council of the Catholic Women Organization, held at Villa Marriae, Owerri, 1990), 3. 12 C. I. Ejizu, "African Christian Widows: An Agonistic Definition." Asian Journal of Theology 3, no. 1 (1989), 176.
5 In Owerri metropolis, Afigbo reports that the widow is expected to undertake a kind of ritual bathing, especially the washing of her private part, using water drawn from a hollow in a tree with special leaves called abosiu Within the same Owerri vicinity, study shows that: being considered impure and untouchable, the widow's food is cooked separately from that meant for other members of the household. She is not allowed to feed herself but is fed by another widow and out of disused utensils. She should not be allowed to scratch any part of her body with her fingers, lest she spreads her alleged contamination. Instead, she is given apiece of stick.14 In Nawgu town, Anambra State, ritual cleansing includes going to ajani shrine to perform the sexual act with the priest of the shrine. Hence, according to one of the reports published by the Women's Aid Collective (WACOL) in 2003, eight days after the death of her husband, four naked men came to Helen late at night to take her to the shrine for the ritual cleansing. She was supposed to follow them naked to the shrine where the sexual intercourse was to take place. Being a Christian, she refused to follow them to perform the obnoxious ritual. Instead, she fled to the church (possibly through the back door), where she was offered shelter.15 Reports also have it that in the same Nawgu area, the widowhood impurity period lasts for about twenty eight days. At the end of it, the widow goes to the stream for ritual bathing and cleansing. There are certain prescribed herbs that she is expected to use. 13 Afigbo, Widowhood Practices in Africa, 12. 14 Rose O. Osuji ed. "Widowhood Practices, 2. 15 Legal Literacy Series II, "The Rights of Widows and the Wrongs of Widowhood" (published by Women's Aid Collective, WACOL, 2003), 4.
During the bathing, she is expected to say, among other things, "I have washed away all the evil of death which killed my husband."16 In addition to the aforementioned practices, the widow has all the hairs on her head and some parts of the body shaved. This is generally done in the company of and by one of the elderly daughters of the kindred - umuokpu. According to Rose Osuji's report, in certain parts of Owerri in Imo State and most parts of Igboland: A number oiumu mgboto (umuokpu) take the widow to the designated spot on the appointed time. There she is stripped of all she had been wearing, ritually washed and the shaving of the hair on her head is started.. .To this is added shaving of the hair on the eyebrows, the armpit and the pubes. The hair is ritually burnt or thrown away. After this ritual, the widow is walked back to the house in stark nudity.17 This rite, according to Christopher Ejizu, ".. .marks the ritual entry of the widow into an intensive mourning period. For the next ninety two days, oru izu na ato, the widow is regarded as ritually unclean. Her person is an object of taboos and ritual prohibitions."18 It has to be noted, however, that the practice of shaving the hair on the head and wearing of mourning clothes as signs of mourning are also applicable to men/widowers. At best, the other widowhood rituals and practices are left optional to the men/widowers. Indeed, a lot of well-meaning Igbo people do not seem to object to shaving the hairs on the head at the death of a spouse. It does not seem to pose any moral or religious challenge to Igbo people in general. As Chidili points out: head shaving cuts across religions and sexual orientations.. .it is not what men do to women because they are women; rather it is what people have established from time immemorial as a sign of mourning shared by all the bereaved members of the community regardless of sex or religion. This is why I suggest that shaving of 16 C. K. Meek, "Law and Authority in a Nigerian Tribe." In A. E. Afigbo, Widowhood Practices in Africa, 12. 17 Osuji, Widowhood Practices, 5. 18 Ejizu, African Christian Widows, 176.
head should continue to be considered as one of the signs of mourning in Igboland.19 The only major concern here is that whereas men shave only the hair on the head, some areas of Igboland have women shave the hairs in the pubic region and the armpit in addition to the hair on the head, as we noted earlier. Therefore, while head shaving may not have any gender or religious discriminations, the extended practice of shaving the pubic regions and the armpit in front of the whole assembly of umuokpu, needs to be addressed. This is an infringement on the dignity of womanhood. It does not make much difference whether it is perpetuated by women themselves or whether it is culturally instituted. If a widow feels, in the recesses of her heart, that she wants to do it in private as a way of honoring her deceased husband, so be it; but is should not be made mandatory to any widow to observe it either in private or in public as a ritual practice. In Imo State and some areas of Abia State, Osuji also observes that the widow ritually wears a pad smeared with ogiri and bitter leaves on her private part. The obnoxious odor of ogiri and the bitterness of the herbs are meant to ward off any sexual advances from the dead husband. The widow is meant to wear the pad, despite the pungent odor, throughout the mourning period, that is, the period within which it is believed that the spirit of the dead husband is rested in the world of the dead. The widow is also expected to carry a knife whenever she is leaving her sitting position. It is believed that the presence of the knife will ward off the spirit of the deceased husband from her. 19 Chidili, Provocative Essays, 168. 20 Osuji, Widowhood Practices, 3.
8 The power of the Spirit of the Dead Africans in general and Igbo people in particular distinguish between the nature spirits and human spirits in addition to God and minor deities. While the notion and belief in nature spirits helps them explain the mysteries of nature, the belief in human spirits helps them to give meaning and outlet to people's emotions. The spirits of those who died recently are called the living dead,21 a name that distinguishes them from ordinary ghosts of those who died long ago and are forgotten, but who continue to roam about. The living dead are generally considered as integral members of their families. They stay around their families, show interest in the affairs of their families, and still interact in some ways with the members of their families. In most cases, they protect and influence the daily life of their families. In return, the family members also remember and respect them, especially during festivities. They literarily feed these spirits of the living dead by pouring out some quantity of drinks on the floor and dropping bits of food on the ground for them to feed on. Moreover, "the spirits of the living dead look as they did when they were human beings." Perhaps that accounts for all the physical and material measures demanded of the widow to ward off the spirit of the dead husband from having any carnal relations with her. In any case, this belief that the spirit of the deceased husband is still interested in having sexual relations with the widow does not seem to make any sense, no matter how prevalent the belief is in Igboland. The spirits are known to have no physical human bodies, even though they are conceptualized and related to as such. Igbo society views 21 John S. Mbiti, Introduction to African Religion, 2d ed. (South Africa: Heinemann Educational Publishers Ltd., 1991), 76-77. 22 Ibid., 77-78. 23 Ibid., 79.
9 any presumed physical relationships between the widow and her deceased husband as unhealthy for the widow. Such an understanding must have necessitated the performance of the rituals to sever such relationships. However, there is no meaningful physiological and religious evidence or reason to buy into such superstition today. At times, sickness and other kinds of misfortune that befall a family are attributed to the anger of the living-dead. These spirits of the dead are believed to possess invisible powers that make them superhuman. Sometimes they work in alliance with the nature spirits to disturb the natural flow of things in the family or community, like infertility, poor harvest, and so forth. When such things happen, rituals and sacrifices are performed in order to pacify the spirits of the living dead. Sometimes diviners are consulted both to find out the cause of certain calamities in the family and community and also to find out what the wishes of the spirits of the living-dead were. Diviners or medicine men are believed to possess extraordinary knowledge and insight from the spirits.24 They can fathom the will of the gods and the spirits and make recommendations to people and society as regards any mysterious occurrences in their lives. The diviners are believed to have the ability to interpret the mind and actions of the nature spirits and the human spirits. They also have the power to dispel the attack of the evil spirits that plague a family or community. During special festivities, the medicine men offer sacrifices to the gods and the spirits of the living dead. Due to their close proximity to the spirits, the diviners are believed to possess the truth about realities, and people rarely doubt them even when their oracles seem unreasonable. Continuing on this ritual practice of shielding the widow from any continued 24 Ibid., 77.
10 coital relationship with her deceased husband, Afigbo recalls the traditional practice of using the hand of the dead husband to cut the necklace on the neck of his widow. Such a practice is culturally understood to imply severing the conjugal link between the dead man and his wife. Afigbo also talks about the symbolic gesture of snatching the widow's hands from the dead man and passing them on to an adult male member of the family.25 This is also believed to signify transfer of the ownership of the widow to another man. However, this is not meant to be the contraction of another marriage, but a powerful message to the spirit of the deceased husband to back off since he has no more right of ownership over the widow. In his unpublished master's thesis, B. A. Onah remarks that in Nsukka area of Enugu State, in addition to carrying the knife, the widow is advised not to enter or leave her room or the house through the front door. It is believed that men, especially titled men would always enter and leave their house, alive or dead, through the front door or the main entrance to the house, and as such, the widow must avoid any meeting with him as much as possible. He goes further to say that at the end of her mourning period, the widow goes to bathe at her husband's grave. As she does so, she says, "I now wash off the dirt of mourning. If I become attractive to another man, do not be angry. I will continue to look after your compound and your children." Another area of concern regarding the widowhood practice in Igboland is the unhealthy confinement of the widow to a stipulated position, place, and gesture. Okoye noted that in Ideato local government area of Imo State, as soon as a man dies his 25 Afigbo, Widowhood Practices in Africa, 21. 26 B. A. Onah, Widowhood in Anambra State: A Structural and Symbolic Analysis, (master's thesis, Nigeria: Nsukka University: 1986), 8-9.
11 widow has to sit on the bare floor and can only speak in whispers. She is forbidden to call out for anything or to anybody. She is rather given a small gong, which she sounds whenever she wants to call the attention of somebody. The widow is secluded in the same room in which the corpse of her husband is kept before and after the burial. She does not step out of the room unless escorted by somebody. Again, like in most parts of Nigeria, the widow does not get up from her sitting position without carrying a kitchen knife. It is believed that with this kitchen knife, the widow or her escort will be able to keep out the 97 spirit of her dead husband from harming her. Of all the widowhood practices, the one that seems to pose the most devastating challenge to the widow is the denial or dispossession of any properties she could have inherited from her marriage with the deceased husband. As the days go by, this practice continues to take different dramatic shapes and forms. In a comparative study of some of the cultural areas in Igboland, Esther Nzewi observes that, "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 accounts, etc. She is further required to take oath as a proof that she has not concealed any relevant information on her husband's wealth." Nzewi further explains that such oath-taking by the widow is not that simple in nature. The oaths are taken as part of the "widowhood rituals," during which the society's expectations of the widow are spelled out to her. Such sets of expectation usually delineate the actions, the fate, and the behaviors that are expected of the widow. In some cases, such oath rituals would also spell out the widow's relationships with other people. 27 Pat U. Okoye, Widowhood: A Natural or Cultural Tragedy (Enugu, Nigeria: NUCIK Publishers, 1995), 114. 28 Esther Nzewi, "Widowhood Practices: A Female Perspective," paper presented at the symposium Widowhood Practices in Imo State, 1989.
12 In each case, the oath ritual is regarded as a solemn practice and it is gravely binding on the widow, with the penalty of ostracism from the community should any aspect of it be infringed upon.29 In the next chapter, we hope to take a closer look at the socio-cultural attitude of Igbo people to inheritance in general along with the abuses therein and their devastating effects on the widows. Meanwhile, suffice it to say that the traumatic effects of such practices can be more devastating than the actual loss of a spouse, especially if the widow comes from a family that is not well-to-do. Her brothers-in-law could become so mean in this matter that the widow could wish that she had died before or with her husband and never lived to experience widowhood. The "proof of innocence," generally demanded of every widow by the umuokpu, is another aspect of widowhood practice that calls for grave concern. It ranges from the suspicion that the woman must have neglected or starved her husband to death, to an outright accusation of the widow poisoning their brother or relative. The burden of proof falls squarely on the widow herself. She could be taunted for that, and since it is done during the mourning period when the widow is not supposed to talk to anybody, any attempt to defend herself could merit her grievous punishment or heavy financial penalty. Such things as trivial as the widow's manner and density of wailing and mourning for her deceased husband are judged by the umuokpu as indications of a guilty verdict. Thus, in Imo State for instance, the widow is required to wail loudly and to shed what the mgboto consider to be a sufficient amount of tears.30 29 Ibid. 30 Osuji, Widowhood Practices, 1.
In the latter part of this study, we shall discuss the nature and role of the umuokpu/mgboto in Igbo society in general and their involvement in the life and fate of the widows. Meanwhile, suffice it to note that they are the proximate and remote blood sisters of the deceased husband of the widow. They are usually the first to cast the spell on the widow as a way of letting out their own grief and anger at the loss of their brother. Then, for the rest of the mourning period, they monitor and dictate to the widow what is acceptable and what is not acceptable in her new state of life. Experience shows that they could really be mean to a widow if they are not satisfied with her marriage to their deceased brother or relative, going as far as accusing her of killing her husband and thus demand their "pound of flesh." Pat Okoye, for instance, observes that in Urhobo, Delta State: ... even when a husband has died from a protracted illness, perhaps from a terminal disease, his wife still has to undergo the ritual of drinking water used for washing the corpse. If death occurs through an accident, the wife is not spared the drinking of the 'corpse water.' Where the man is murdered or killed by assassins the widow has it roughest. Suspicion mounts highest. She must explain her part in such a death. Nobody gives a thought to the pain of a wife whose husband is suddenly ripped off in such a case.. .a known harmonious and happy marriage will not spare any widow, in such a society, the ordeal of being publicly suspected of killing her husband.31 Oftentimes such widowhood practices are understood to serve as moral deterrents to married women who must treat their husbands well, as Chidili observed.32 However, such life lessons do not seem to be realistically yielding the desired effect. Perhaps the lesson miss Silvia (and her like), could learn from such widowhood practices was to 31 Okoye, Widowhood: A Natural or Cultural Tragedy, 65. 32 Chidili, Provocative Essays, 145.
abscond her community to take refuge in Aba City rather than go through such obnoxious widowhood experiences at the death of her husband.33 There is no doubt that such widowhood experiences are better imagined than experienced, especially when one thinks of the fact that the aforementioned social denials and attacks are meted out to a woman who is already psychologically devastated from her husband's death. Indeed, the thought of what life could be for a widow without her husband in Igboland can be so shocking that it is possible that a woman could willfully choose to die with her husband and never live to experience the loneliness and horrors of widowhood. Probably, such was the fate of Ozoemena, Ogbuefi's eldest wife in Things Fall Apart, who refused a life without Ogbuefi Ndulue and willfully followed him into the land of the spirit. The instant Ogbuefi Ndulue breathed his last, Ozoemena's co-wives came into her hut to inform her. She then rushed into Ogbuefi's sleeping chamber and called his name three times, but received no answer. The grief-stricken Ozoemena rushed back to her hut. When the youngest wife went to call her again to be present at the washing of the body of Ogbuefi, she found her lying on the mat dead.34 The above account might be an extreme case and possibly fictitious, but there is no doubt that some widows have developed nerval breakdown and became invalids at the death of their husbands, and some have developed mental problems from the trauma. As Roxanne Starr puts it: The death of a spouse is one of the most serious life crises which a person can face. There is the immediate emotional crisis of bereavement, which if not fully worked through, may result in permanent symptoms of mental disorder. In addition, there is generally a need for a total restructuring of the widow's life, as 33 Donatus Onukogu, The Pride of a Woman (New Jersey: Blossom Publishers Inc., 1999), 7-8. 34 Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (New York: Anchor Books, 1994), 68.