Monday, September 19, 2011

A Widow's Plight

Afeerah, receiving her certificate after our training.  
A few days ago, I met with a woman named Afeerah*.  She is a member of the Village Savings and Loan (VSL) program with Hopeline (if you aren't familiar with VSLs click here), as well as a graduate of our Second Batch of Small and Medium Size Entrepreneurs (SMEs).  I have known Afeerah for over a year and have enjoyed her so much - she has a smile and a passion in her that is inviting.  She runs a strong, growing business and is a leader in her village.  In fact, many of the members of her VSL were so proud of her for attending our SME class (she has not had any formal education) and they felt she represented them.  She understands my English well, but isn't able to speak it very well, so she will often speak in Twi and it will be translated for me.

Afeerah's husband died of a kidney disease on August 8, while I was in the States, and I went to visit her to extend my condolences.    I know that to be a widow in Ghana is difficult as there are many cultural widow rituals that one must go through (I wrote about that shortly after Bob died - if you want to refresh your memory click here).  Additionally, Afeerah is also a Muslim, which has its own customs for widows.

Sitting on her mat in her house.  Note the comfy couch behind her.
I met Afeerah on the floor of her humble home, sitting on a mat - she could not come out to greet us, as hosts normally do.  She explained to me that she is not to go out of doors for 130 days and must spend her time on a mat on the floor during that time.  The first forty days are for mourning; the next 90 days are to be sure that she isn't pregnant by her husband nor sick with the same illness as her husband (if she were to go out, she could get pregnant by another person or contract a different illness).  She is to spend her time in prayer. Sitting on furniture is not allowed - she told me how her body is aching from sleeping on the cold cement floor.  Being seen outdoors is not allowed - she may only go outside for her bath.  Running her business (her only source of income) is not allowed.  "Men do not suffer these punishments," she told me, "only women.  Men may go out the day after their wife's death and marry again."  Not so for women.

To add insult to injury, her husband's family came to tell her that she had no rights to the family home.  Additionally, they wanted to carry her to the Volta region, where she would have to undergo some other widow rituals, which would probably conclude in her being found guilty for her husband's death, thereby ending any rights to property or children (Afeerah has three sons and two adopted daughters).  Afeerah refused to go.  [She said that the training we gave at Hopeline taught her to stand up for herself - maybe she was just being kind, but one of the classes we teach is on boundaries and how to say "no".]  She thinks that even though she refused to go, this issue will not go away.  She will have to go to court with them, but what they don't know is that a wise person told her husband to legally register their marriage after their wedding (something that is not often done in traditional marriages) and so she has the papers she needs to claim the legal rights to the property. 

Prior to going to Afeerah's house, I met a woman in our new SME class, whose name is Nana.  In the process of all the business owners sharing about their business, Nana informed the class that she had taken on her husband's business after his passing away this past January.  After class, I sought her out and spoke with her for a while.  She informed me that she is 32 years old - her husband was 42 - and they have five children.   The oldest is 13 years old, the youngest is two years old.  Her husband's family is not helping her at all - she said that she is a Jehovah's Witness and it is her church that has been a help to her.  She is trained as a nursery teacher and could go back to that, but the pay is very low for supporting five children, so she is trying to pick up from what her husband was doing (marketing, farming, and exporting).  Unfortunately, her husband had received an investment of $20,000 US from a Ghanaian-American who wanted to partner with him in his business.  Since her husband's death, there was corruption and stealing by family members and the business has suffered greatly.  She is left with this large burden in addition to putting food on the table each day for six.  She is hoping our class will help her learn how to run the business.

This is why I need to live in Africa.  When I begin to feel sorry for myself, I think of Afeerah or Nana.  Perspective is everything.  I thank God for the work of Hopeline Institute and Partners Worldwide, where we get a chance to reach these widows, to help them through training, mentoring, and access to capital, to develop a sustainable income to provide for their family, to be the hands and feet of Jesus to them, and pray with and for them. We need to continue to pray for the customs and the rights of widows in this country to be changed.

[*Names have been changed and pictures blurred to protect the identity of the women featured in this story.]