Monday, April 26, 2010

Widowhood Rites - not Rights

[One of the things that Bob and I have strived to do with this blog is to present a fair and accurate picture of West Africa, as much as that is possible for a couple of outsiders to do. When I wrote a few weeks ago that I wondered if I could do the blog without Bob, many of you interpreted that statement as my questioning my ability to handle the grammar or word choice, but in actuality, I wondered more about having a sounding board for the content we present. We never want to misrepresent West Africa, making it look better or worse than it is, promoting negative stereotypes or giving unhelpful information. This is one of those blogs that I feel like should be written but I wonder about how it will be received. This is the blog for which I need Bob’s feedback. We would debate it back and forth over the course of the week, finally coming up with something agreeable to both of us. Of course, we know that we will misrepresent West Africa. It’s impossible to not. It’s made up of too many countries, people groups, religious groups, cultures, etc. It’s too easy, especially for those who have never been to Africa, to paint the entire continent with one paint brush. So I ask you to read the following entry and pay special attention to the qualifying and quantifying words. Thanks.]

Two days after returning to Ghana, I was informed by a Ghanaian that culturally, if a husband suddenly dies, it is typically assumed that the wife had something to do with it. I immediately felt sick to my stomach. I recalled the six witch camps in the northern part of Ghana filled with hundreds of women who have been assigned blame for bad things that have gone wrong in their village and have been exiled to these camps. Soon after that conversation, I was speaking to someone in Cote d’Ivoire and asked him if that was a practice that he found in his area. He indicated that his tribe does not do anything like that, but a tribe not far from them will fine the widow a large sum of money if her husband dies, because it is assumed that she was not taking good care of him, and the extended family has now lost a source of income. (The sum mentioned could be around $10,000 US.) I then emailed several Ghanaian-Americans to ask their opinion; they quickly informed me that I should not worry about it and should disregard that information. I accepted their advice, but was still curious about the statement and the possibility that Ghanaians would view me in that light. So I decided to do a little research.

I discovered that the advice I received was correct – the information that I received can be disregarded for me as an American, but I also discovered that practice of widowhood rites (rituals) does exist for some Ghanaians, although it does vary based on the individual family, religious beliefs, education, and the relationship between the widow and the in-laws. The reasons for these widowhood rites range from love for the man to the obedience of tradition. I also discovered that Ghana is not alone in this practice – it happens in many countries. In fact, it wasn’t that long ago that women were being accused of being witches in the US either (Salem witch trials). However my focus was on Ghana and in my searching I came across a research paper that was based on the greater Accra area. The widowhood rites practices described can be applied to both men and women, however research shows that it’s rare for men to be subjected to them. These practices can be in violation of the widow’s human rights and there are attempts being made to raise awareness and lower the incidence of these practices.

Some of the widowhood rites are listed below, although variations within each do occur:

· Period of one year is observed for mourning the dead. During this year, the wearing of black clothes is observed; during that year the widow is not supposed to remarry and/or have an intimate sexual partner. At the end of this year, a memorial service is held in which the widow wears white to signify the end of the mourning period.

· Period of confinement in which the widow is kept in a room for a number of days or even weeks. The time she may come out is restricted to one time during the early hours of the morning when she comes out for a bath. The widow is made to use a stone for her pillow. The period ends with the widow being brought out to bathe with the ghost of her husband in the presence of his family. Two buckets are there and after the bath, the period of confinement is over.

· Drinking the water that was used to bathe the corpse in order to prove innocence.

· Sleeping with the corpse through the first night to show that the widow really loved her husband while he was alive.

· Crying loudly most of the time until the husband has been laid to rest. If the widow does not cry, it will be induced or forced by the family by putting pepper or some hot ointment in the eyes.

· Heckling of the widow after the burial to help the family relieve some of the pain of the loss. In most cases someone strangles the neck of the woman from behind with a cover cloth until someone from the widow’s family comes to her rescue.

· There are also reports of being forced to marry the husband’s brother, having their children taken away, and a loss of inheritance in the home and possessions.

I resumed teaching the business class that I started just before Bob’s death and this past Wednesday our topic was Biblical worldview versus cultural worldview. The 45 business owners in the class were to get into small groups and go through a number of topics: wealth and money, sickness, success and failures, women, work, time, spirits, freedom, death, etc., as it relates to the dominant cultural belief; later they were given Bible texts with which they were to compare and contrast the Ghanaian cultural worldview to the Biblical worldview. While a number of Ghanaian cultural worldviews lined up with the Bible, a good number did not (as is the case in most cultures). Specifically, sickness, failure, and death are almost always attributed to a curse or bad spirits. I informed them of what I learned regarding how I might be viewed regarding Bob’s death, were I was Ghanaian, and the room erupted as they were very surprised that I knew about that and they laughed at themselves as it relates to that belief. It was good for me to get that out in the open. I was able to contrast that with the American culture which does not seem to believe at all in Satan or the powers of darkness and therefore we need to explain everything very scientifically. One man shared the following story,

I had put in a bid for my company to receive a government contract. After my bid was submitted, I started getting sick. I believed that others who had also submitted a bid for that same contract had put a curse on me, so I went to my pastor and others and we began praying in earnest against that curse. I received the contract.

My response to him was that it seems that a blend of both cultures might be in order – both praying against(and acknowledging) the powers of darkness as well as exploring potential medical causes. He then added this to his story:

That’s very true. After I received the contract, I still remained sick. After a while, my friends encouraged me to see a doctor and I discovered that I was allergic to a particular food. I cut that food out of my diet and wasn’t sick again.

As I continue through this period of grieving, I am aware of how blessed I am in not having to fear retribution or punishment for Bob's death. My heart goes out to the many widows who do bear this burden throughout the world.

(Pictures below from

Ma'Asana Mahana, the head outcast in the Gambaga Witch Camp.

Yahaya Wuni, chief of Gambaga. An earth priest, he performs the ritual that decides if women are witches. The camp is on his land and the women work in his field and provide him with firewood.

Friday, April 16, 2010

A Reed Family Update...of sorts

Saturday, April 17, 2010

My dear,

Saturday marked four weeks since you were last with us. Much of the time it still doesn’t seem real. It seems like just yesterday you were sitting here with me, having coffee, talking about our day, processing your trip, catching up with each other. It seems like just yesterday you were making your regular Friday pizza. It seems like just yesterday I was washing your clothes, cutting your hair. Is it all really over? Never again?

The house is so quiet. No loud singing coming from the shower…no “Hey Renit” coming from various rooms in the house…no exclamations of “jes drippin’” throughout the day as you sweat. Mornings are the worst as Hannah, Noah and I are all exhausted and don’t have much to say. You always helped us wake up in the morning, making the kids breakfast, singing your wacky songs.

The kids started back at school on Monday. They are emotionally drained and trying to catch up from two weeks of missed classes, which isn’t easy. [And I know you'll appreciate this, to top it off, it’s 96 F with a heat index of 108 F and the air conditioning isn’t working at the school.] The three of us have pulled close together which has been great – I only hope it lasts. We are doing a grief journal each night, which helps the dialogue a bit, but they so need you here now to help them process this. Noah is trying to be strong – his finished his meds for staph and so we are now just waiting to see if any new spots appear. Hannah is also trying to be brave but is getting angry at the “elephant in the room” that is so real to them but that most other people don’t notice. She turns 17 next Sunday - it's hard to believe our little girl will be seventeen. It's even harder to believe that you won't be here to celebrate it...or her 18th birthday...highschool or college

There are so many “I wishes” that I go through each day. I wish you could have heard the testimonies given on the impact that you had on peoples’ lives at the memorial service, in person, by email, cards, letters, comments on the blog. Do you know that a blog reader from Australia sent you flowers? That notes of condolence were received from over 20 countries? Did you hear your brother, Don, and your Uncle Lloyd say how proud they are of you?

I wish I had known how close the end was – I would have looked in your sweet brown eyes and told you I love you and helped you leave this world, instead of helping the nurse try to make you more comfortable. Did you feel alone in that moment?

I wish I knew for sure what you were experiencing right now…after all the conversations that we have had about dying. But then we wouldn’t call it faith, right?

I wish we had bought an air conditioner for you so your last few days would have been more comfortable.

I wish you had a chance to make that dish that you were so excited about when you came home from Nigeria – Bobotie - we still have all the ingredients in the house but I just can’t bring myself to make it without you here to eat it.

I wish…I wish…I wish...

I can’t put anything of yours away yet. I know I’m choosing to remain in denial but I just can’t do it. Your shoes are still by the door, waiting for you [of course, I put them by the door from where they had been kicked off in the middle of the room, but I digressJ].

Remember how many times you said to me about various things you do, “You’re going to miss that when I’m gone.” You are so right. What I would give to have one more day…one more hour with you. To think that I won’t have that chance on this earth is unbearable right now.

I love you.


ps - I have to admit that the camera has gathered some dust. I haven't been in the mood to take pictures, even though I've heard your voice telling me to; but I did find this great video clip of you and Noah...[Subtitles: You don't know what it's like; you don't know what it's like; to love somebody, to love somebody, the way I love you. (Lyrics from the Bee Gees)]

Sunday, April 11, 2010

To blog or not to blog...

Since Bob's death, many people have asked me whether or not we will keep the blog going. My first reaction was to say no. Bob was a unique, gifted writer. Neither I nor the kids could continue the blog in the same gifted way. Not to mention that the amount of time Bob put into the blog would put an added stress on an already stressful situation while I assimilate the role of single parent and missing my husband/best friend/partner in ministry.

But in this last week, I've been rethinking that initial response. First of all, Bob didn't start the blog because he was a profound, provocative, pithy, and poignant writer. He simply started it to stay in contact with friends and family when we moved to West Africa. The blog became an encouragement to him as he tried to see things through the eyes of folks back home. It made him feel close to people while being far away.

I could use that feeling of closeness right now and I believe that many of you would like to stay in contact with us as well. And if it is an encouragement to me, I know it will become a priority to find the time. It probably will be therapeutic for me as I will probably spend a chunk of time processing Bob's death.

But I continue to struggle with the question of whether I'm able to write or keep people interested. And then I hear Bob's voice, "Stop apologizing. You're a good writer." He said those words to me a week and a half before he died. I had written the two blog posts while he was in Nigeria. In that first post, I gave a disclaimer for my writing. He chastised me for that on the phone that week and told me I shouldn't do that again for the second blog. So, I hear his voice encouraging me to do this. Of course, I would want to remind him that I usually edited his writings, as he did mine; posting something without his filter will make me a little nervous. [Side note - the night he came home from Nigeria, he took issue with me for the titling of that first blog, "What is Poverty". We spent about 1.5 hours that evening debating this - he said that question was akin to asking "Who is my neighbor?" in the sense that it could be viewed as a way to get out of our responsibility by trying to define it too closely. He was thinking of writing a blog on it, so I thought I'd pass that on. I will miss those daily debates but have learned to look at word choice very seriously.]

So I will try to keep the blog going - the kids promise to write now and then as well. I know that this change of writers will mean that some of you will move on - I fully expect that and it is okay. The truth is that the Reeds have been shaken violently by the Wind...but there are three of us still desiring to follow that Wind, blowing where it will.

Bliss, Michigan - Wednesday, April 7, 2010: A place by Mackinaw City where Bob spent many of his summers growing up. As a family, we spent many summers camping at Wilderness State Park and visiting Bliss. Bob's Uncle Lloyd has a place there in an open field that Bob loved. Near to this field is a batch of trees, full of birds in song. He had said to me many times that he hoped that some day we could live in one place long enough to watch a tree grow. So we decided to plant a red maple tree in that field and bury his ashes there. In this picture, Hannah, Noah, and I get to work on digging the hole for the tree, while Bob's brother Don and brother-in-law, Dave, watch while willing to give wise guidance.

A picture with the tree. Bob's mother is holding the picture; Pastor Dave is behind her, and the surrounding people are members of Bob's extended family. It seems a little odd that we are standing there with such big smiles, but Carolyn (in the burgundy coat) had a tough time getting the camera timer to work, so we had a good laugh. I think Bob would have chuckled as well.

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Monday, April 5, 2010


In times like these, when words don't come easily, others are able to articulate what many of us feel. I asked Hannah and Noah to write something several days after Bob's death. Their thoughts are below. Also, two poems have been sent to me by members of our home church, Madison Square Christian Reformed Church, who knew and loved Bob. They have given me permission to share them with you. Hannah, Noah, and I will return to Ghana this Saturday; your continued prayers are appreciated.
Bob as a baby

Noah: Wow, I can’t believe this. As many of you know my father, Robert Allen Reed, passed away on Saturday March 20, 2010. It’s a day that will haunt me forever. I didn’t know anything was even wrong because I was still asleep when they left. Then someone came to our gate and said he was told to bring us to the hospital. At this point I knew that either something was very wrong or he had died. When we arrived at the hospital my mom greeted us, in tears and told us that he had died. I was stunned. I had braced myself for this but I was not ready at all for it. I had to see his body for myself. I can’t put into words what it felt-like looking down at my dad whose normal spark of life was gone. I don’t know what I am going to do without him. I wish I had spoken to him more, told him I loved him more. The day before he died, Friday night, he came into my room at 4 am to get his computer. He said to me; “Noah, I really love you, you know that? I wish we could spend more time talking to each other”. Now that he’s gone, I am thinking about this a lot.

Dad, I too wish I could have spoken to you more. I miss you so much. I don’t know what we are going to do without you around to mess around and guide us. I never told you but I bet you knew that you were my hero. You were the person I could always rely on and look up to. I feel that even more now, as I see how many lives you’ve touched and how many people care. You were a strong Christian too; I could go to you whenever I had questions or doubts. It’s definitely going to be hard without you dad…I miss you so much and love you so much, I hope you are having a great time in your new body in heaven. Good-bye for now, I will see you soon.

Hannah: Robert Allen Reed. To those in Liberia he was Uncle Bob. To his bloggers he was Yers Trooly. To countless others he was just Bob. To me, he was Daddy, and he was the best daddy a girl could ever ask for. I was very blessed, growing up, to have to loving, intelligent, faith-driven parents who taught me about God and about life, from many perspectives. My dad was a professional counselor and as such, he always knew when something was bothering me and he was always there to talk through it. Although that majorly annoyed me when I just wanted to stay ticked off, I really love that. He would pull me into his ‘office’, a.k.a. his bedroom, sit me down, and 9.7 times out of ten, I would come clean. I got along so well with my Dad. He was so funny, walking around the house, yelling out a song or a quote from a movie, typically with his own spin that made it hilarious. I was always impressed with how smart he was. He was one the smartest people I’ve ever known, if not the smartest. Dad was the go-to guy. He knew it all, but he always said don’t ask him for help in math cause he just couldn’t help with that (I don’t blame him, math isn’t my favorite either. Not by a long shot). But almost anything else, if you asked him, he’d either know the answer or he’d have one after some time. He also applied that intelligence to his faith. He was so grounded in it, he didn’t base his faith on emotions or on others’ opinion, but he thought it out, learned all he could, read thick books about faith and God. He knew why he believed what he believed. I admire that so much about him, because so many times people will ask questions that I just don’t have a ready answer for. But another good thing was he was also ready to accept that he doesn’t know the answer and just go on faith. My dad was a great man. I love him so much, and that will never change. I am happy for him. He’s celebrating, and learning even more and just having a great time. But I still miss him, and will always love him.

Daddy, you are an amazing man. I love you so much, and I’m happy that where you are there is no sickness, no pain, no suffering of any kind. You are very missed here already, by everyone you came into contact with. Thank you for your love and guidance. It made me the person I am today. There will always be a place in my heart that belongs to you, and no matter how many years pass by that will not change. I love you forever, I like you for always, as long as I’m living, my Daddy you’ll be. I love you.

For Robert Allen Reed
(by Dorwin Gray)

The desirable life is...
To be emulated, not exalted.
To exhibit the possible,
in the exercise of faith.
To exemplify candor in compassion,
kindness in correction.
Truth in love.
Love above all.
To be one, through which, the One
loves the many, without reservation.
[Bob as a young man...yes, that is his real hair! ]
(Written Tuesday, March 30 by Michael Thomson)
Sometimes the presence,
In quiet voice,
In mystic song,
Will gently convince,
A gentle breeze,
A tranquil ghost,
The sweetness of incense.

Sometimes the numinous,
Like thunderclap,
Like avalanche,
Will openly discuss,
A blazing light,
The shaking soil,
The truth can be as thus.
Sometimes there is a Type,
That shatters glass,
That peels the skin,
And such will take a swipe,
Not suffering fools,
No nods to lies,
But every tear will wipe.

Sometimes there is a man,
That breaks the mold,
That loves his Lord,
And makes a loyal stand,
With healing words,
With stinging salve,
Yet he seeks to understand.

Sometimes there is a friend,
A soul-mate to one,
A father to two,
The life that he did spend,
Painfully brief,
Fully poured out,
A parable that will portend,

The way,
The truth,
The life,
The love,
The greatest of these is love.

Goodbye Bob,

October 20, 1990