Drum rolls, upbeat music, and people dancing over lit fires. A description of a typical funeral set up among many communities across Africa. Here, death is ‘celebrated’ as a right of passage. People feast, mourn and send off their loved ones to the ‘spirit world’ safely. The loss of a loved one marks the beginning of doom, especially for widows. During this ceremony, they are comforted by their fellow women and surrounded by much love. But as soon as the funeral ends, a new life that may be marked by extreme hardship begins for these widows.
Cleansing rights like drinking the water that was used to bathe their husband’s corpse begin. Others are required to cut off their hair, go to the stream to bathe, and sleep beside their husband’s dead bodies. Among widowed households in Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, and Uganda- widows are forced to participate in sexual cleansing. This means widows must have unprotected sex with their husband’s brother or other relatives, or with a professional village, cleanser to ‘remove the impurities that have been ascribed to her.
According to MS Magazine, widows in the South Eastern part of Nigeria go through a period of isolated confinement. This ranges from 8 days to 4 months after their husband dies. ‘In this period, the widow is not allowed to leave her room and her hair is completely shaved. She is expected to sit on the floor and wail at the top of her lungs every morning and is not allowed to take a bath or change her clothes till the body of the deceased is buried.’
The prejudices against widows are embedded in the African culture. While there are some positive customs, the negative ones overweight the good in the intention of the positive customs. It is important to note that these cultures contribute to the spread of diseases such as HIV/AIDS among the widow communities and the belief that widows should be treated inhumanely through generations.
While many may argue that widows can choose to not participate in such customs, these rites and practices intersect with the economic freedom of widows. They control their ability to be accepted and own property rightfully from their husbands. Failure to participate in these activities calls for banishment and dispossession of their property.
The only way widows across rural Africa can unlearn these practices is through economic empowerment. If they are rightfully given opportunities for wealth creation, they can leave these practices behind and stand on their own financially.