To some people, Jack Odhiambo Mawere, 42, may not fit the description of a male champion for widows. That is if they use marital status as a metric to measure who fits this bill.
Jack is polygamous. He lives in Bondo sub-county of Siaya County with his two wives Monica Achieng’ and Hellen Achieng’, and their nine children; four with his Mikayi – DhoLuo for, his first wife - and five with his second wife.
“I am a businessman. I run a small shop selling household items. I bet polygamy runs in my blood. What motivated me to be polygamous was my father who had six wives. My mom was the sixth wife. And she is the only surviving wife. The others have all died.”
The patriarch died in 1990 when Jack was around 10 years old. Jack is the eldest in their household. He has two brothers and one sister. His father got 22 children.
“I married Monica in 2007 and Hellen in 2016. My eldest child, a daughter, is 19 years old and my youngest, a girl, is barely one year old. I have three sons and six daughters. As of now, I don’t want to say she is lastborn because, um, you never know.”
Jack, like his old man, wants a full quiver and nothing less. Talk about a Freudian slip.
When a tree trunk dies
Yann Martel said, “to lose your father is to lose the one whose guidance and help you seek, who supports you like a tree trunk supports its branches.”
In many polygamous setups, when the tree trunk dies, the surviving branches are faced with dire existential crises. A good number of these branches lack the heart, love and grace to graft into each other and grow new trunks, using the old trunk as organic manure.
That was not the case when Jack’s father died. They had love and grace.
“Our relationship with the other five families was cordial when my father was alive and after he died. By the time he died, some of my step-siblings had completed school and were working.
“In fact, they were the ones who paid my school fees up to Form Four. I appreciate what they did. I wanted to be a teacher, but nobody was able to pay for me to attend teachers’ training college. My stepbrothers did the much as they could.
All my brothers were put through high school by my stepbrothers. My brothers are married. We put our sister through high school. She is now married and runs a tailoring business.
However, that’s not to say we had no challenges. Life is never the same after your father dies when you are so young. I saw my mother struggling to bring us up.
“Food was a problem because my father was a businessman. He was doing agri-business, selling cereals and running a wholesale shop. After he died, his business collapsed.”
Jack’s mother did casual labour on people’s farms to take care of her family. She was inherited. The man treated her and the children well. He died several years ago.
“In DhoLuo there is a saying that goes, ‘nyathi ka nyathi gi odgi’. This means every child should go to their house. Growing up without a father, I heard that saying a lot,” Jack says.
In rural areas, this saying is common at mealtimes, especially when children are playing around a home or compound, and a family does not feel like sharing their meal. In a macro context, it means each family - or house – should handle their problems and not put their burdens on others.
Being the best man
“From the get-go, I wanted to take care of my family to the best of my ability, despite all the odds. Let me add that taking care of family doesn’t mean you have a job. You just have to be responsible.
“I wanted to give parental love to my family, to love my wives and children and not discriminate against them. I have tried my level best to bring my wives and children closer to each other.”
When Jack married Monica, she had completed high school and aspired to be an Early Childhood Development (ECD) teacher. Although Jack’s dream of becoming a teacher did not come true, he did not stand in his wife’s way.
“I didn’t have money to pay for her fees. The certificate course was for two years. But when she showed me the acceptance letter from an ECD college, I sold the herd of goats I had and paid her fees for one year, which was around 15,000 shillings.”
That’s besides the lunch and transport money Jack had to provide. To make ends meet, he resorted to casual labour in people’s farms. This helped raise money for Monica’s second year’s fees. Jack says he was not ashamed to do this. He adds that, though some husbands frown upon educating their wives, he has no qualms about it even if, academically, his wives surpass him. He reckons that it’s all about being confident in yourself.
“When Monica went to college, I would be left to take care of the children. She completed her course in 2018. We are hoping that she will be absorbed by the Siaya County government.”
During the initial stages when Jack was courting Hellen, he did not tell Monica.
“You must have tact with these things. When I finally introduced Hellen to Monica, Monica took it well. That friendly reception took a huge weight off my chest.
“Monica welcomed her co-wife and even cooked for us. Not two human beings – even if they are Siamese twins – are always on the same page. My two wives have differences. And that’s normal.”
Hellen is a graduate of Mt. Kenya University and works as a BOM (board of management) high school teacher.
Leg-up versus handouts
After getting into business, Jack also dabbled into politics. He campaigned for candidates eyeing elective seats in Siaya. That put him in the spotlight and made him highly visible.
One rainy day when Jack was doing door-to-door campaigns for Nicholas Gumbo’s gubernatorial bid, he entered a widow’s house.
“She was bedridden and critically ill. The children were in the living room. But the house was leaking and the children were crying. I called Mheshimiwa and told him about the widow and children’s plight. I stressed to him that it was an urgent case.
“Mheshimiwa told me to go with a fundi to the woman’s home the next day and do a quotation for a house of 30 mabati roofing sheets. He sent the money and we built this family a home.
This encounter inspired Jack to help more widows in his community.
“There are many times I have helped raise fees for children whose widowed mothers cannot take them to school. I try to connect the widows and orphans with my networks of organisations and prominent personalities.”
Politics can be a tool for social change. But folks should tread carefully and avoid the pitfalls of developing “dependency syndrome”. Ideally, financial and psychosocial help should be a leg-up, which will make one independently run their life. Why? Handouts can cripple people’s minds.
“The moment a husband dies, many widows are stigmatised and sometimes thrown out of their matrimonial homes. The people who do this to widows are their closest relatives.
“Many widows who come to me sob bitterly – not necessarily because they have lost their husband – but because of the hell they have been put through. Many say their greatest persecutors are, generally, in-laws but mothers-in-law often get a considerable amount of blame.”
Traditions also put targets on the burdened backs of widows. If the husband has died and the widow wants to build a house, she must jump through hoops; which involve going through her mother-in-law or brother-in-law to request for guidance on where to build. “Cases are rampant of widows who have been categorically told they don’t have land in their matrimonial home. They are told the in-laws only knew her husband, and she no longer belongs there.
“I know of a widow who was so fed up she gave her insolent brother-in-law a taste of his own medicine: ‘You keep saying I didn’t come here with any land. What about you? Did your mother come here with land?”
The brother-in-law, who couldn’t swallow the bitter pill, slashed her with a machete. The matter is still in a court of law.
“There are situations where, for instance, if I am the eldest in the family and I die leaving my wife behind, my brothers may lie to my wife that I was an illegitimate child. This means there is no land for me and, by extension, my widow and my children.
“Other situations I have come across concern a child who is born immediately after his father has died. This child will be told he doesn’t belong to the family. He will be lied to that he was sired by a stepfather. It’s all an elaborate con game to defraud the dependants of land, property and a family name.”
Jack says there are many children, whose mothers are widowed, and who have not yet reported to school. He tries as much as he can with the little resources he has. Sometimes he just gives them moral support hoping it will be a respite for their hot tears.
“I warn people that they would rather play with red hot fire, than with widows’ tears. Widows’ tears can cause fire and brimstone to rain down on you.”
Terorrists in Luoland
In Luo tradition, tero is a practice where a widow has sexual intercourse or is married – popularly known as, inherited – by another man for the purposes of ‘cleansing’. A man who has turned this tradition into habit or hustle is called jatero. But the nickname is terrorist.
“When the husband dies and the widow is still very young, she will be ordered to look for someone to ‘cleanse’ her,” Jack explains.
“Many widows are forced to settle for questionable characters – men they would not normally be seen dead with – because of the pressure to undergo some demeaning rituals. There is a tradition that, in order for a widow to move to a new house or homestead, she must ‘have’ a man for cleansing purposes.
These widows are caught between a rock and hard place. If a widow refuses to be inherited, there is another challenge; she will be accused that she wants to kill her children.
Jack tells me about a sick story he recently encountered. A widow wanted to move to a new homestead and build a house. There were no terrorists to fulfil tradition, which her in-laws insisted was a must. Her in-laws entrapped a man. They plied him with copious amounts of liquor to the point he didn’t know himself.
The man was carried to the widow’s house in a drunken stupor. When he sobered up in the morning, he didn’t know what had happened. But because the widow was also desperate to fulfil tradition, she obliviously participated in rape.
Jack says most terrorists are not locals. They come from far-flung places. Some cross-county terrorists work as herdsmen or do menial work in the village. Others are employed as caretakers of homes of urbanites who live in the city or overseas.
These types of terrorists see the widows as easy prey because the widows are also desperate to fulfil cleansing rituals, often at all costs. Some terrorists mete domestic abuse on widows. Jack says there have been cases where some have sexually molested widows’ children.
“We call upon communities to identify themselves with widows who are living in their midst. If the community can come together, they can organise fundraisings to send fatherless children to school,” Jack pleads.
“Even at a personal level, individuals can offer support by, for instance, buying school uniform, books or any amount they can afford to cover the school fees.”
Jack points out that the problem with his community is jealousy. He says a neighbour will see that a widow is sick and the widow’s child hasn’t reported to school. But they will not even inquire.
“The government should liaise with us, who are on the ground, to guide them to the needy cases so help goes to deserving persons. They should do this through the bursaries and CDF, setting aside funds for this segment of society.”
Someone once said, “initiative is doing the right thing without being told”. Siaya Governor, James Orengo has rolled out plans for widows across the entire county.
The widows are organised in groups. All the issues affecting the approximately 8,000 widows in the county have been addressed using public participation and forwarded to the Governor’s office. During this financial year, funds will be disbursed to the 61 widows’ groups. The money is a grant and each group will be responsible for lending and repayment to its members.
“I also regularly talk to school heads to accept students. Any person who is empathetic can do this. You can also solicit for books and other items needed to report to school.
“There is a lot of laxity at the extended family level. I recently gave a widow’s child a pair of school shoes and a metal box – which belonged to my firstborn daughter, who cleared high school last year.
“This child’s relatives are well-to-do but have refused to help him. His widowed mother has been reduced to a beggar.”
“The widows need economic empowerment. Handouts cannot help them to extricate themselves from the tentacles of poverty,” Jack explains.
“They also need to be sensitised about their rights. Most of them suffer from ignorance and fatalism. They are submissive. This is what I mean; maybe her brother-in-law is rich or holds down a good job or business.
“This in-law may be infringing on the widow’s rights, but she doesn’t want to seek help. She fears the in-law’s power or clout may get her in hot soup.”
Jacks hold the firm belief that widows should be given moral advice and guidance. This is due to them having undergone tremendous psychological trauma, which calls for intensive counselling. They have group therapy sessions, but that’s a drop of counselling in a vast sea of trauma.
“It is hard to heal from the loss of a husband. We give them the three As. Accept (the husband is gone). Adjust (to your new reality). Appreciate (God for the time you spent with your husband).”
Before Jack joined Rona Foundation – which is a widows’ human rights organisation – widows went to him to help them access prominent personalities. They now recognise him as a champion because he goes to where they are to hear their stories and concerns and help them seek redress.
Some widows do not share their concerns in the group, because they fear being victimised. They call Jack to speak in confidence.
Jack decries cases where widows have gone to chiefs to be helped, only for their rights to be trampled by bureaucratic boots. It’s only in lawless societies where people in authority, who are supposed to be impartial, sell their souls – and inalienable rights of wanyonge - for paltry plates of silverfish.
Jack’s homestead is a beehive of activity. Fortunately, his wives have his back. But he has not been spared barbs from some people who have an axe to grind.
“There are families who come against me, accusing me of meddling in family issues when, for instance, I insist that a widow has a right to inherit the land. I have received verbal threats, as well as threats via text and phone calls.”
His commitment to being a voice for the widows remains unshaken despite the challenges.
Widows and the wheels of justice
Advocate Rose Kinyua of Munyao-Kayugira & Company Advocates says some widows are unfamiliar with or ignorant of the court process, which puts them at great risk of suffering injustice. She explains that what normally fuels rabid succession lawsuits is most husbands usually die intestate.
“Some men in our society do not like to disclose their property. When someone dies intestate, the legal process starts with going to court, and the widow obtains letters of administration.
“Grant of letters of administration is an appointment; the widow applies to be appointed as a representative to the estate of the deceased. Once one is appointed as an administrator, the court issues letters of administration intestate.”
Letters of administration are solid proof that one has been duly appointed by a court to act as an administrator. The work of an administrator is to provide the court with an inventory of the deceased’s assets and liabilities of the estate.
“The challenge that comes in is most people don’t disclose their property to their spouse. If you’re a widow and you’re not aware your deceased husband had this property, it means the property won’t be included in the list of assets. There’s that challenge,” Rose says.
Then there’s another challenge of going to court for distribution, only for other wives to crawl out of the woodwork. It now means the widow has to prove her marriage to the deceased.
“There is also the issue of polygamy. Most widows don’t understand what the legal process looks like if there are multiple spouses in the picture. Due to this, some widows become frustrated and take time to seek legal services.”
Rose advises spouses to rethink how they plan their estates when still alive. One such way is through a family trust.
“Once the trust is registered, one is able to transfer property, in their lifetime, to that trust. The trust will detail how they want the property to be managed.”
“The good thing with the trust is, when one dies, there is no requirement for their dependents to go to court because the property is already distributed. The trust is a legally enforceable document and helps dependents avoid the court process.”
On the issue of pro bono services for widows, Rose explains that it depends on individual law firms or advocates. There are advocates who would not mind offering pro bono services.
“But this means the widow has to engage one privately and get to hear whether they are willing to take up the matter pro bono, because succession is a lengthy process. The filing of documents is also a bit long and tedious. The question advocates ask is: ‘Why do you want me to do it for free and yet you’re chasing money?’”
“In a recent ruling by the High Court, it was declared that a widow is not entitled to inherit a share of properties owned by her deceased husband’s parents. The same applies to sons-in-law. They cannot inherit the estates of their parents-in-law. However, the law allows grandchildren whose parents are dead to inherit assets owned by their grandparents.”
Rose says widows get legal help from the National Legal Aid Service and Legal Advice Centre - Kituo cha Sheria.
Vivian Awino Okoth, Program Officer at Rona Foundation, points out that, through no fault of their own, widows are socially stigmatised, and deprived of respect and humanity. She adds that the majority of widows have greater responsibilities and shoulder the burden of care, as they are heads of families.
Rona Foundation is a widow human rights organisation that works to champion and advance the rights of widows. Rona aims to amplify the voices of many who lose their dignity, stability and authority due to widowhood.
Rona creates safe spaces where widows are empowered through a series of transformative workshops, financial literacy and establishing gender violence prevention and response with male champions, duty bearers and relevant authorities to protect widows’ rights.
“In reality, the majority of widows in Kenya have no right to ownership of their husband’s property. They endure property grabbing or even eviction from their homes, and the land may be claimed by her husband’s male relatives,” Vivian says.
“With the loss of control, access, and use of assets such as land, rural widows struggle to provide for their children with education & basic needs. It becomes a circle of poverty for widow-headed households.”
What can be done?
“National government should establish a widow commission to document and review the plight of widows from the 47 counties,” Vivian says.
“County governments should legislate widow-aware laws, including outlawing and criminalizing harmful widowhood practices. Overall, there should be a change of attitude and behaviour by community members, more so men,” Vivian elaborates.
Rona Foundation is championing the domestication of the just-adopted UN Widowhood Resolution. The organisation has drafted and submitted the Widows’ Charter to the Siaya County Government, calling upon the County Government to adopt and enact widow-aware laws.
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