Family is the tie that binds. For Karimojong, it binds just a little tighter. Natalina Lokwii did not know what grief was when her first husband died, nor did she suspect she would face hostility from relatives. What she did know was that custom required her to be inherited by her dead husband’s brother, a relationship that would ensure she and her child were taken care of.
Lokwii was not ready to become the wife of another man, but felt she had little choice. They would have chased her away if she had refused to be inherited, so she had to abide by what they said because they were the in-laws and they were in charge.
The Karimojong community of north eastern Uganda has followed the practice known as wife inheritance for generations and Lokwii shares her story.
How it started
I’m Natalina Lokwii, aged 27. I stay in Nachoro village in Moroto District. I was married off at 17 by my parents in 2005.
My parents were paid dowry worth 100 head of cattle and I was married off to someone I had never met. He looked very old and tough. In our culture it is taboo for women to object to anything especially when it comes to marital matters. Once a potential suitor has interest in you, they negotiate with your parents on the number of cattle you are worth.
I was informed two days before the main ceremony that I was getting married. I got married. One morning he woke up complaining of a stomach ache and high fever. Before much could be done, he passed on and we had not had a child.
My father-in-law could not let me get married to another man because the cost of my dowry was too high. Getting married somewhere else meant that my parents had to refund the dowry. Since I had no child with him it was not possible to refund.
A year later, my brother-in-law, who was the second born in the family of five, consequently “inherited” me. It all seemed a smooth sail. We enjoyed every moment together but it was short-lived. Again, the grim reaper came and devoured the love of my life. I lost my second husband. In 2007, the third born too, “inherited” me, forcefully. We had a child together and after one year, he also passed on.
My mother-in-law accused me of killing her sons, calling me all sorts of names such as witch, killer, a walking curse in the community. I contemplated suicide. Amidst all this, my father-in-law still forced to me marry the fourth born in the family. I refused. I was considered an outcast in the village and I became a laughing stock.
One time, my mother-in-law almost set the hut I used to sleep in ablaze but I was rescued by neighbours. She was angry at me for “killing” all her sons. She believed that I apply some sort of herbs to my private parts that kill my husbands. She accused me of very many hurtful, untrue things.
I was tormented. I lost hope of living but my young daughter gave me some hope to be stronger. Going back home would have been an option if my parents were okay with it but they were not. The dowry made my parents pay a deaf ear to how I was mistreated.
Traditional healer never helped
After my second husband died, my friends aised me to go visit a traditional healer to cleanse me of the generational curses. We visited over three traditional healers, all of them never found any curse around me.
They would ask me to visit the well very early in the morning and bathe with the water and they administered charms to be used thrice a day. However, they said they could not determine the cause of the bad omen. I just resumed my prayers.
On several occasions, I tried to commit suicide. Weeks after I was rescued from the hut, I felt like neighbours should have just let me burn to ashes instead of suffering. I also tried setting the hut ablaze again but neighbours came and saved me.
I kept thinking to myself that the cause of this bad omen was my mother-in-law. Each day that passed, she swore and cursed me, telling me how she wishes me death, the curse would bounce back to her sons.
Whenever she told me that, her son would pass on the next year. I am God fearing so I prayed about it, even when I saw no sign of God’s intervention. I think the prayers helped me rebuke the curses from my mother-in-law.
The passing on of my third husband was the toughest time of my life. My in-laws chased me away and I could not go back home. I stayed in the bush for months. I was isolated.
I met someone at the borehole who eventually became my friend. I told her about this and she took me to Mifumi, a non-government organisation that fights violence against women in Moroto town. They took me in.
The next week, they drove me to my parents’ home to negotiate with them to allow back home. After days of negotiation, my parents took me back and allowed me to resettle with my daughter.
It has been seven years since I lost my last husband and I have not thought of getting married again. I made up my mind never to go into another marriage.
THE GRANDMOTHER SAYS
Gera Larwong, Lokwii’s grandmother of says she had never heard of such instances in her 74 years of life. “People considered my daughter a curse. They called her all sorts of names but I knew the problem was not hers it was from the other side of her in-laws since we have never had anyone in the family or even in this clan with such a bad omen,” she narrates.
Larwong asserts that she had never thought of visiting native doctors to perform rituals as a solution to her grandchild’s ‘curse’.
“We are a God-fearing family in this community, all I did was to let God take control of the situation,” she says, wiping her lips and adds that things should change. “Let men start listening to women too.
They should stop thinking about the dowry alone and consider someone’s life. And they should stop forcing the girl child to get married to someone she does not like,” she says.
Zura Ochom, a social worker at Mifumi, Moroto, says they helped Lokwii in negotiations with the community leaders who had stopped her from going back to her parents’ home. “When Lokwii first came to Mifumi, she was homeless, so we gave her shelter. We then had several mediations with the community leaders to convince them to take Lokwii back. We had successful negotiations and she was taken back,” she explains.
“We also involved her in-laws in the mediations so they no longer call her names like they used to. Sometimes she even goes to visit them [in-laws].”
Lokwii now lives happily with her seven-year-old daughter and grandmother. Her parents live just opposite her household.
Risks of widow inheritance
A report by Human Right Watch (HRW) on domestic abuse and Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) infection indicates that the practice of widow inheritance is ‘widespread. The practice initially had good intentions but many are now taking aantage of it to spread HIV.
In many parts of the world, women’s right to inherit land and other property is severely limited. Under customary law that is followed in many countries in Africa, at a man’s death, his property is either inherited by his adult sons or if his children are minors, repossessed by his family.
Customary laws, cultural practices and traditional norms are used to justify the disinheritance of widows and invoked to override statutory or constitutional provisions for women that may provide them with a legal right to inherit. In Nigeria, for example, customary law settles approximately 80 per cent of land disputes at the expense of women’s rights.
The denial of inheritance rights to women results in the descent of millions of women and their families into extreme poverty and is a major cause and consequence of violence against women in Africa. The number of those affected by discriminatory inheritance practices continues to rise in Africa because of war and HIVAIDS.
It has been estimated that between 80 and 90 per cent of the 16 million children that have lost at least one parent to HIVAIDS is living in Sub-Saharan Africa. Young girls, orphaned by the epidemic, have become heads of impoverished and vulnerable households.
Elderly women have also been affected since the responsibility for supporting grandchildren often falls on the shoulders of the elderly. The Gender Equality and Women Empowerment programme (GEWEII) is fighting against wife inheritance as an injustice.
SOURCE: Daily Monitor