‘I refused the 'cleansing' ritual that assumed I was unfaithful’, a widow’s horror

 Jane Wairimu, a widow, recounts how she spent seven years in a succession battle to reclaim matrimonial property, at Ufangamano House, Nairobi, on March 8, 2024.

Photo credit: Photo I Pool

What you need to know:

  • This is why the Law of Succession Amendment Bill, 2023, is currently under consideration in the Senate.
  • The bill aims to address several issues within the existing law, particularly focusing on the rights of widows.

In 1996, Jane Wairimu lost her husband when she was six months pregnant with their last child. At the time, she was 29, residing in Bungoma, Western Kenya.

She had met her husband while working at the Agricultural Finance Corporation, and they had three children together. Their marriage was peaceful and happy. However, after his sudden death, she encountered unexpected challenges.

She shares with Nation.Africa how she was treated after becoming a widow and her seven-year journey of reclaiming their matrimonial property.

“Even though my husband was the fourth-born child, he was the most successful in his family, therefore the provider. Although his family owned land in Mumias, we decided to purchase property and settle in Bungoma, where his successful business ventures thrived. When he was alive, he was attentive to our needs,” Jane recounts.

Unfortunately, Jane’s husband died in South Africa in a tragic road accident. His secretary, Claudia, who was also a Bukusu woman, delivered the news to her. Strangely, before breaking the news, she suggested that they have lunch at her home.

When they arrived at her home, Claudia began rummaging through their belongings in the master bedroom. When Jane questioned her, she dismissed her concerns and urged her to eat.

Claudia then requested her marriage certificate, which Jane handed over without hesitation. Then, out of nowhere, she posed a chilling question: "What would you do if you found out your husband had died?" Shocked by her inquiry, Jane was rendered speechless.

Claudia’s subsequent words only heightened her distress, as she instructed Jane to prepare to wail, as is customary for Bukusu women upon hearing of their husband's demise.

Stunned and unable to react, Jane watched as Claudia swiftly gathered their important documents and some of her husband's personal belongings and took them to her car. Returning to the room, she began screaming. According to the Bukusu tradition, such screams serve to alert neighbours of the tragedy.

“As I remained paralysed by the unfolding events, my in-laws seized the opportunity to enter our home and strip it of our possessions. Fortunately, Claudia had foreseen their actions and hidden away their vital documents. Amidst the chaos, I felt too powerless to intervene,” she says.

With the government’s assistance, her husband's body was airlifted to Kenya and funeral preparations began.

Before the funeral, Jane was instructed by her in-laws not to shower, citing Bukusu cultural practices. According to tradition, female relatives in the community were supposed to perform a cleansing ritual on her. This ritual supposedly ensured her stability when circling her husband's grave seven times during the funeral procession. However, Jane adamantly refused to undergo this ritual, opting instead to maintain her usual hygiene practices.

Jane explains to Nation.Africa that this practice stems from the assumption that widows may have been unfaithful, and the cleansing is intended to prevent any mishaps during burial rites.

Following the funeral, Jane faced mistreatment from her in-laws. They seized all the dairy cattle from their zero-grazing unit and even took away the tractor used for farming. This marked the beginning of her frustrations.

“Despite the challenges, I chose to remain in my matrimonial home because my children were young and I was heavily pregnant. However, I decided that once I gave birth, I would relocate to Nairobi.”

Once she arrived in Nairobi, she had intended to start succession processes but was too afraid to do so.

Legal process

“I faced opposition from my in-laws. To make matters worse, my mother-in-law was living on the property, and the land's title deed only listed my late husband as the owner. On top of that, my in-laws threatened to take away my children if I decided to pursue legal action to reclaim our home.

"I was afraid of the consequences it might have on my children and the strain it could put on their relationship with their grandmother, so I hesitated to take the matter to court," she says.

It was after three years that she regained the courage to begin the legal process of reclaiming her property. Looking back at her hesitation, Jane admits that since her husband had not left behind a will, it was difficult.

Claudia had managed to sneak out crucial documents from their home, including title deeds for all of her husband's properties. On perusing the documents, she was astonished to discover that besides the 16-acre Bungoma property, her husband even owned property in South Africa.

Her efforts necessitated her to constantly make trips from Nairobi to Bungoma to attend court. This eventually led to her losing her job. Her employer terminated her contract because she had “deserted her duties”.

Despite lack of support from her relatives, she remained determined to seek justice for herself and her children. With the assistance of a compassionate lawyer and her own resilience, Jane navigated the complex legal process and eventually regained control of her assets.

What Jane went through is common among widows. This is why the Law of Succession Amendment Bill, 2023, is currently under consideration in the Senate. The bill aims to address several issues within the existing law, particularly focusing on the rights of widows.

We spoke to Senator Veronica Maina, the sponsor of the bill, and she explained that she introduced the bill because there are inconsistencies in the current Law of Succession, particularly when it intersects with marriage laws.

“These inconsistencies impact the definition of who inherits. Inheritance laws relate closely to family structures, which begin with marriage. Some definitions in marriage laws conflict with those in the Law of Succession, leading to discrimination against certain family members or dependents.”

One of the notable proposals in the bill is the introduction of the definition of intermeddling under section three of the Law of Succession Act. The definition includes removing a spouse or child from the matrimonial home after the death of a husband or father as an offense under the act.

“I know of a lot of widows who as soon as their husband dies, the in-laws swoop in and take possession of everything, leaving the bereaved family, including young children, in distress. If the bill is passed, such practices would be recognised as an offense under the Act and punishable within the law,” Veronica told Nation.Africa.

In a joint statement about the bill, Dianah Kamande, founder and executive director of Come Together Widows and Orphans Organisation, and Groots Kenya executive director Rachel Kagoiya explain what the provision would be helpful to widows like Jane.

“This means that widows and their children have the protection under the Law of Succession not to be ejected from the matrimonial home after the death of their husbands and fathers respectively. It's the first time a law has expressly provided for such with a corresponding penalty even though the penalty is not stiff,” reads part of the statement.

Other proposals to the Succession Act seek to protect children of women born out of wedlock. “The bill clarifies inheritance rights for children born out of wedlock, supporting the principle of equal distribution regardless of the child's legitimacy or the parent's marital status. This prevents any form of discrimination,” Ms Maina explains.

Further, under current law, a widow loses life interest in her husband’s property upon remarriage, but a widower does not. The bill proposes equalising this to ensure both men and women lose life interest upon remarriage, transferring the estate's benefits to their children.

As to this, Rachel says: “Widow discrimination upon re-marriage is terminated on the basis that either spouse will lose their right to claim from the deceased’s estate upon remarriage.  

“It is significant for widows for they have been losing their right to claim anything from their husband's estate if they remarried whereas men continued to enjoy the protection of the same law by being able to lay claim on the estate of their wives in a new marriage.”