Widow remains impoverished as culture holds her hostage

Mary Auma Odima ,57-year-old  widow and her daughter at their home in Siaya. Picture: Omondi Gwengi
Mary Auma Odima ,57-year-old widow and her daughter at their home in Siaya. Picture: Omondi Gwengi

Mary Auma Odima, 56, sits outside her crumbling grass-thatched house at Ochere Village in Alego, Siaya County. Resting her chin on the palm of her left hand with elbows anchored on her lap, she appears to be in deep thought.

Odima does not know where her next meal will come from and prays that it doesn’t rain again today.

A slight frown on her wizened face makes it hard to determine if she relishes the soothing cool breeze blowing gently in this sunny afternoon, making the leaves of nearby trees whistle as they sway.

Like many other women, Auma is a widow and jobless and so is her young daughter, who is epileptic and with whom she shares the battered wooden bed. She lives in seclusion despite having given birth to 10 children.

For more than 10 years, Auma has known no comfort and every waking moment is a blessing from the God. Five of her children have since died due to biting poverty. Two of the sons who were doing manual jobs in Nairobi and Kisumu but lost them last year and are struggling to survive.

Her husband’s death in 2000 opened a new episode in her life. According to Luo customs, being widowed means that a woman remains unclean and must be cleansed as well as be inherited. She is forbidden from undertaking major tasks including repairing her house.

Auma’s case is a tale of how retrogressive cultural traditions can be and she is not alone. She epitomises the face of thousands of widows across the Luo-Nyanza counties and Western Kenya region at large.

Like many widows in the region, Auma lacks shelter. She lives in a shanty and with very few people willing to help her due to consequences that come with violating tradition. She has literally accepted suffering as a way of life.

According to South East Alego location Chief James Obalo, they are appealing for any well-wisher to come to the woman’s aid.

“It is true culture is really barring her from having a decent house but her state now calls for urgent action,” said Obalo adding that the woman risks being attacked by wild animals.

Auma links her sorry state to cultural beliefs which have denied her a decent means of living.

“I have been living in a shanty because culture bars my own children from building me a house unless I am inherited,” she tells Reject, adding that at her age, she does not want to be remarried.

After the death of her husband, Auma initiated the cleansing process and was thereafter inherited. Unfortunately, the man who inherited her died after building her a new home which is referred to as ‘ligala’. The inheritor should have built her another house if he was alive.

Auma has been living in the derelict house for the last 15 years without a man, even though tradition demands that she gets a man to build or repair her house.

According an 81-year-old Mzee Odida Bwoga, a member of the Luo Council of Elders, if Auma wants to have her house repaired, she can seek help from the church.

“Wife inheritance is not about sex. She can decide to go the church way which is also acceptable,” Bwoga told the Reject but still insisted that the widow’s children are not supposed to buy building materials or participate in the construction of the house.

However, Safeguard Orphans and Widows (Sowo), an organization that advocates for rights of widows and orphans faults such beliefs as a drawback to development.

The organization’s Coordinator Ken Aim says they are trying to sensitise communities on some of the retrogressive cultural practices that hinder development.

In an interview with Reject, Prof Mildred Ndeda of Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University of Science and Technology, Centre for Gender Mainstreaming and Development argued that transforming culture is the community’s weakness.

“We are not looking at the cultural dynamics and what we are witnessing now is not the real customs but a concoction,” she argued adding that wife inheritance was considered a family matter and that it came with responsibilities.

She explained: “I do not think this widow should be barred from building a new house because the tradition is not clear on whether a widow can be inherited more than once.”

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