Other articles in this issue

What happened to music?

Sanlam and NBC rock Katutura

Challenges for the Peer Review Mechanism

Agra's excellent financial results

The Pope versus the Holy Prophet of Islam

Earliest evidence of human habitation in Windhoek

Weaknesses of African States

Samora Machel: Who was behind his demise?

R.I.P - John "Culture" Hill

Janjaweed Attacks

The Destiny of an African Wife


book now at www.ascend.com.na
The African is available in retail shops like Checkers, U-Save, Shoprite as well as in Namibian senior secondary schools and tertiary institutions


She has to be up before every other member of the household. This does not mean she enjoys it; or that she went be bed exceptionally early than all the others, no. This is just the routine that society and its cultural norms have made for her.

Before they all get up, she has to confirm that the tap water is hot enough for his bath (the husband), his shoes are well polished, and he did not leave his wallet on the coffee table after his last night’s drinking spree from which he only came home some minutes to five o’clock this morning.

She quickly has to rush back to the bedroom to ensure that he is safe and that the funny noise she heard was not from him rolling off the bed, at least three of his suits are neatly ironed, look for his socks, and neck ties to match the three suits. His briefcases must all be visible to him so that it’s easy for him to make a choice on which one exactly to use for the day. Too much for one person, isn’t it? That’s not all for the daily morning of an African wife.

Aan african wifenyway, back in the kitchen, a contemporary African woman is expected to make sure that all the various dishes meant for breakfast are well prepared (and she had better have a rich variety if she is sure she needs to have a good day). She has to be sure that the table is well set and that the entire cutlery set is on the table (especially by her husband’s reserved seat).

The diet must be very balanced because ‘they’ say this is the most important meal of the day. Even in cases where there is a house-help, the African mother has to ensure that the children are up early enough for school, have taken a shower (if they usually take it in the morning), their breakfast cereals are well prepared, their lunchboxes have the desired food for school, and that they remembered to pack all their books back into their school-bags after doing their homework the previous day.

This woman makes sure that her children’s school uniforms are not just clean and ironed, but are well fitting, have all the buttons on, and still maintain the original colours. If this family is ‘a mile ahead’ of the other African homes, to own a car (not very many African families own cars), then it is generally the mother’s duty to drop off the children to school (that is if at all she is lucky enough to have got a husband who allowed her to learn driving).

The irony of it all is that, while this contemporary African woman does all this chores concerning children, her husband (the co-parent of these children) is having the last bits of the comfort of their big bed and this woman, amusingly, does not show any signs of being offended. To her this is very ‘normal’ because society has shaped her that way. Funny but true, the woman in most cases has to wait for her husband to wake up so that she makes their bed (in most African societies it is taboo for someone else, other than the wife, to spread a matrimonial bed).

When the husband eventually ‘realizes’ that it is morning, he gets out of bed with a loud everyday-complaint that the vacuum cleaner is very loud such that he could not sleep well. The wife then runs his water in the bathtub to his preferred temperature. While he takes his shower she makes the bed and places her choice of his day’s clothing on the bed and his shoes just beside the bed. She is very lucky if he does not complain of the choice of clothes.

Eventually they are on the breakfast and just before she starts enjoying her favorite porridge, they again start (a chain of complaints). “This porridge is too runny; the tea is not well prepared; why did you buy this type of yoghurt? Who mixed this juice? Are there no other types of sausages better than this in the shops? Can’t the eggs be fried?”(The previous day he complained of having lots of fried eggs which he thinks is not being healthy), etc.

The question here is that can he be a better cook than she is, or alternatively, will he shop for better quality products than she does? It is not wonder that most of our own African men cannot handle it when their wives are away for even just a day! Evening comes and the family is back together again. Of course the father will join them later; that is if the children are lucky to see him that day. Huh! Once more the role of an African woman has to be defined in the home.

It doesn’t matter whether she had too much to do in the office, or she generally had a bad day. She rushes home just incase the house-help forgot to remind her that something important for the evening meal recipe is missing, so that someone can quickly purchase it before the shops close. She has to hit two birds with one stone: check the children’s homework as well as cooking her husband’s meal separately from the rest of the family (most ‘real African’ men do not eat food in their homes that is prepared by someone else other than the wife).

Just when she thinks she is done with the day’s chores and is preparing to sit down and have her dinner while she watches her favorite soap opera, her husband phones. Guess what! He is in the police station because he was caught up in a fight at the pub with another man, over a woman. Believe you me, irritating and mind exhausting as it is, the wife will rush to rescue her ‘dear’ husband unconditionally. African women are very forgiving and patient, aren’t they?

Don’t even think about what goes on back in the villages, because it is not worth mentioning. Anyway, that’s not the point; I am just trying to have mental pictures of the life of a married African woman. Is it really worth it, or does the end justify the means? What exactly does this woman get in return for the sweat she pours for the sake of making her marriage to work out? Painful and scary as we all know, most married African women secretly wish that death takes them before it does to the husband.

This is because this is the most traumatic period in the lives of these women. If its not the accusation that she killed him (even when its clear that he is the one who has practically killed her by infecting her with his ‘various versions’ of HIV/AIDS), then it is because the ‘wife’s mother visited that home other week and immediately she left the man started feeling unwell’ (I do not understand why men are not accused of these types of witchcraft), etc.

So the man (African husband) is dead and everyone is busy running up and down preparing for the burial rites. Contrary to the norm of people feeling sorry for the loss of a husband, father, and (sometimes), breadwinner for the family; some of the people in the home are on the inside applauding and saying a great “thank you” to their personal gods.

In some parts of Africa, widows are accorded second class status and are generally denied sufficient legal protection. Most African customary laws generally do not recognize the right of a widow to inherit her husband’s property and a widow is viewed as her husband’s property. Burial and mourning rituals imposed on widows inflict different kinds of loses. Most of these widows experience the loss of personal dignity, the loss of health, and sometimes, the loss of life while still in their ‘black’ outfits.

To show respect for the dead, customary law of most African states often prescribes rules and rites to be observed by surviving close relatives, particularly the wives, husbands, daughters, and sons of a deceased person. In practice however, widows suffer excessively on the death of their companion. In most cases a woman is deemed to belong to her husband and therefore she is expected to respect and serve him even in death-a respect displayed by the submissive performance of prescribed rituals.

While the former practice of burying a wife along with her husband has disappeared, most women are still made to undergo various humiliating burial rituals. Most of these practices are inhumane and degrading. They inflict pain and anguish on widows who normally cannot opt out of these practices. In fact they provide perfect opportunities for in-laws to “settle scores” with women at a time when they are most defenseless.

The bitter part of it is that sometimes the people who inflict so much stress to the widows are people who have ‘reasonable’ formal education. Some of these people are simply greedy because they may even have four times more wealth than the deceased, but they will still want to inherit property at the expense of the ‘poor’ helpless widow. In many cases the perpetuation of these practices has resulted in illness, permanent incapacitation and even death.

Because most African customary law does not prescribe similar rituals for men, the burial rituals emphasize the belief of women as the property of men and their families. While burial rites are varied and differ from one society to another, they have generally included varying degrees of isolation and confinement, restricted freedom of movement and association, and even compulsory hair shaving(imagine a woman shaving all her hair off after spending her hard-earned money every weekend in the hair salon!). Widows are sometimes obliged to stay in the hut and are forbidden, under threat of sanctions from entering their homes during this period. Public outings and services are generally prohibited for the widow during arranged mourning periods.

Many of the African women affected by these practices are women whose livelihoods depend mainly on farming and trading activities. The customary laws barring outings of widows strike at the woman’s basic need for survival and are based on assumptions about the existence of a strong family support for widows.

Does this really happen anymore?
Some groups still observe other practices such as wife inheritance (or levirate marriage), though widows are increasingly given the option to refuse this marriage. An opposite relationship exists between the degree of a widow’s economic independence and her willingness to accept a levirate marriage. Bearing in mind the burial rituals that widows are made to undergo, a majority of the widows turn down the offer for a marriage, choosing rather to suffer the economic hardships involved. In most communities this practice has been totally abandoned.

Because of the current HIV/AIDS scourge, most contemporary African societies fortunately allow widows to have a greater say in whether or not to accept such arrangements. The greatest opposition to the treatment of widows lies in the different, almost special, treatment accorded to men who lose their wives.

While widowers may be expected to shave their hair, abstain from public and social functions, avoid sexual relations during the mourning period; no real sanction is imposed on the defaulting widowers. At most, a man may suffer from social ridicule and loss of public opinion. Differences also occur in the inheritance rights of widowers in comparison with the widows.

While supposedly, pre-nuptial and personal properties of a woman are inherited by her children. In practice most of a woman’s property is taken by the husband upon her death. With the concept of joint ownership of matrimonial property, unknown under most African marriage laws, a woman and all that she owns is generally deemed to belong to her husband.

Regardless of the clear injustice that African widows suffer, it appears that there is no compromise in most African societies on the importance of customary legal rules relating to widows, on the need for change, and on the larger question of the proper place of customary law in changing the general African society. The practices which till now have been taken as settled and widely accepted, are currently unraveling in the face of the changing socio-economic conditions in Africa.

Rather than offer protection to widows, received common law and statutory laws in most African societies bring about the discrimination against them by failing to prescribe positive laws to protect their interests and prescribing rules which strengthen traditional notions of women as inferior objects. Inconsistencies, contradictions, and confusion are inborn in most African legal systems. This is unconsciously a product of their colonial past that jeopardizes the position of women generally and prevents significant resolution to the problem of widows.

The Supreme Court of Zimbabwe, for instance, generally overruled a decision of the Magistrate Court that a widow could inherit her deceased husband’s estate. According to the Supreme Court, “the question of law that arises can be formulated fairly simply in these terms: does our customary law recognize the right of a widow to be appointed heir to her deceased husband’s estate ad intestate? The reply was an empathetic “No”.

On the other side of Africa, the Kenyan Court of Appeal denied a widow the right to bury her husband, holding that under the Luo law (to which the deceased was subject), a wife had no right to bury her husband; the basic approach adopted by most courts in Africa in interpreting and analyzing questions of women’s rights and entitlements. This unfortunately denies and/or ignores the deep and comprehensive structural, economic, and social changes that have been taking place in the continent since the beginning of colonialism.

These make formal alternative to customary law impractical at its best. In most matrilineal African societies, the widow is denied every property in her husband’s home. After the death of the husband (even before burial), the relatives of the deceased impatiently share his property. Generally it does not matter whether the property in question was jointly bought by the couple.

Bearing in mind the grief state of a widow during the mourning period, she mostly does not know what goes on in her own home; even if she did know, she definitely will not have the energy to stop the ‘greedy’ relatives of her late husband from ‘hawking’ on the property. These are the times that these relatives are at their most aggressive state and any attempt to stop them can even lead to another death.

Sometimes people even get things that they do not need, or they simply do not know what they are; all that matters to them is that they have inherited something from the deceased. Just for curiosity’s sake, how many of these relatives of a deceased man usually inherit the responsibilities of his children as well? Think of it, are the children not the biggest and most valuable property of the deceased? How much money and time does a very responsible African man spend on the upkeep and education of his children?

Is it not billions of times much more than the fridge, the car, the four hectare piece of land, the Dstv decoder, the beds and chairs, the pots, etc, that everyone rushes for? If the deceased was to come back to life just for this very important ten-second interview on what he would like to take with him back to where he has come from, will he opt for anything beyond his children? These children are always left in the hands of their mother who is left with absolutely nothing to feed or educate them (if she does not have a job). When it is really tough, sometimes the widow together with ‘her’ children is forced by the deceased’s relatives to leave the land that she and the children have known to be their home for years.

The land which the children have seen and helped their mother toil on daily, for the whole year, so as to feed the family while their father was always away joining his mates in the drinking sprees discussing politics that is meant to have the woman in that society to remain forever submissive to them. these relatives usually transfer the land transactions into their names and before the widow realizes, she together with her children are faced with a group of officials from some Lands Department claiming that the land has been sold and is ready for construction of rooms to let.

Some people even have the guts to sell the land together with the fresh grave of the deceased. The big question is does the African society really consider a woman’s input in a marriage, after the death of her husband? Is she just a property to her husband or is she a human being just like anyone else is? When you ‘grab’ property from a widow, do you ever think of what it feels if the same script, but different casts was set, such that the widow in this case is your mother, wife, sister, cousin, etcafrican wive's fate? If someone did that to your mother, would you have been who you are today?

It is therefore evident that despite the existence of legislation and legal safeguard, most African women are still facing discrimination. Even within the very structures that are supposed to be protecting them, women in Africa are shaped by culture and social norms to lack the power in decision making at the national, household, and personal levels, even in marriage.

Anyone visiting our beautiful and culturally rich continent will not fail to realize that fifty years of foreign aid programs and missionary efforts have failed to impact either the economy or the culture. Today Africa groans under the burden of oppression, corruption and half remembered pre-colonial traditions that bind societies to a life of poverty, disease and death.

This Issue
Sign out
Home | Subscribe | Login | Contact Us | Archives | Privacy Policy
Site designed by