A Nyanam widow leader, Mama Hellen, from Tieng’o Leadership Circle.

Asiri and her widowed sisters

Asiri is one of the widows who attended our first meeting. In Dholuo, Asiri’s native language, the term widow is chi liel. Literally translated, chi liel means ‘wife of the grave’. The implication of this label on Asiri’s self and social perception, expectations, and actions need exploration. None-the-less, Asiri with the rest of the widows in this meeting were not proud of this label.

Their first decision was to reject chi liel and re-label themselves chi Ruoth ma jahera. Chi Ruoth… (wife of the Lord) reflects the widows’ perception of God as the husband to the widows as pronounced in Isaiah 54:4, and their decision to place their hope in God instead of the grave.

Ma jahera (loving) reflects the widows’ primary desire: to give and receive love. Since that initial meeting, Asiri with her widow sisters have used this new label to challenge each other towards honourable and loving acts and lifestyles.

Asiri and her widow sisters knew the grave was silent about their plight but God was not. Up until that first meeting, the widows in Asiri’s village, some 30 years old and others 84 years old, had never gathered to share their stories. This saddening silence on the welfare of widows exists far beyond Asiri’s village.

In 2000, the United Nations (UN) described widows as ‘invisible women’ whose personal, socio-cultural, and economic predicament needed intervention but received little attention. The UN noted that widows remained unmentioned in global publications on women’s poverty, development, health and human rights.

Data on their wellbeing was difficult to come by at national levels. Organizations that supported widows scarcely reported on the process and impact of their interventions. For Asiri and her widow sisters, this new label, chi Ruoth ma jahera was the beginning of a change.

The label strengthened their voice and they began to lift the lids on unspoken cultural, economic and social injustices. Their widowhood conversations have stimulated emotional and social healing journeys for some of the widows.

Like her widow sisters, Asiri began her widowhood with grief and sorrow. She felt the deepest absence of her husband (Osiri) in the moment the villagers lowered his coffin in the grave. She no longer had her companion, her confidant and her trusted friend.

She could have given up all that was possible to have Osiri back. But glancing at her tearful children, she began to worry. How on earth was she to feed, clothe and educate her children when Osiri was their sole provider? ‘Atim nang’o? (What will I do?)’ She wailed.

With her village rumouring that she had killed Osiri, a blame many widows experience after their husbands’ death, support from her relatives would be unstable if not unavailable.

To feed and school her children, Asiri sold a piece of land she had cultivated since her marriage with Osiri. Her relatives opposed her decision and grabbed the rest of her properties, describing her as careless, irresponsible, and jeopardizing the future of her children.

Left with a tiny piece of land and facing the harsh realities of climate change, her subsistence farming grew less reliable for her family needs. Without enough food in the house, her eldest son dropped out of school and joined the fishing folk in Nam Lolwe (Lake Lolwe as known by natives and renamed Lake Victoria in the colonial periods).

The boy felt the need to support his mother in raising his siblings. But he soon got trapped in the alcoholic culture of the fisherfolk. Asiri laments the loss of her son to drunkenness.

Asiri’s daughter, while looking for ways to meet her feminine needs such as sanitary pads, got trapped in a transactional sexual relationship that left her pregnant at the age of 14 years. Fear, shame, poverty and the hope for a better life in her own house drove her to early marriage.

To save his youngest son’s future and keep him in school, Asiri began fish vending. Fishing had been among the major sources of livelihood in the Nam Lolwe region up until the lake was overfished and the government introduced fishing ban for four months annually.

Because of the low fish harvest, competition among women fish traders is stiff. A fisherman once asked Asiri for sexual favors for her to bypass the competition and secure a supply of fish from his boat. Asiri refused. She knew of Jaboya, a sexually exploitative economic system in which fishermen demand sex in addition to cash payment in order to supply women fish vendors with fish, but she never imagined she would be a target.

The fisherman described Asiri’s sense of self-worth and dignity as baseless pride that will neither keep her son in school nor feed her children. Eventually, Asiri’s youngest son followed in the steps of his elder brother. Every often Asiri reminisces on how different life would be with Osiri. She looks at her grandchildren, and wonders if they will escape the cycle of illiteracy, poverty, drunkenness and early marriage that persists in her community.

At one point, Asiri’s house was falling apart. Asiri’s father-in-law and brothers-in-law pressured her to find ‘someone’ to build her a new house. In her Luo culture, such responsibility for supporting a widow socially, economically and with raising her children would be for her brother-in-law, within a social support system for widows called ter (leviratic marriage dubbed widow inheritance).

Sex would only be part of ter at the discretion of the widow. But modernization and the high prevalence of HIV in Asiri’s community where one in five people is HIV infected changed the practice of ter.

By ‘someone’, her relatives meant a crop of men known as ‘professional widow inheritors’ who have commercialized the practice, demanding unprotected sex with multiple widows concurrently and exploiting the widows economically.

If Asiri refused such an arrangement, she would be considered a bad omen and blamed for all ills that befall her family. Asiri desired re-marriage but that would be perceived as rejecting her first husband’s family and could cost her access to her children. Her father’s household was not ready to have her back home and with three children, she was socially undesirable for re-marriage.

Two years after her husband’s death, Asiri discovered she was HIV positive, and unsure from whom had she contracted the virus, between Osiri and the widow inheritor. More than 60% of HIV positive women in the Nam Lolweregion are widows, according to a study conducted in one of the districts.

HIV/AIDS is a health burden to the widows and their families, but also to the national health system that heavily relies on donor support to provide HIV treatment. The majority of the HIV positive widows discover their HIV status after the death of their husband.

One in five of Asiri’s widow sisters is HIV positive. Asiri admired the widows who, using their Christian faith, rejected ter, endured and overcame isolation from their kins. She longs to teach such courage to her daughter and granddaughters.

This initial meeting of Asiri and her 80 widow sisters, organized by Nyanam (Daughter of the lake), a local organization that seeks to make the heart of women like Asiri sing with joy, was a turning point for Asiri. Asiri felt honored with stories that highlighted not only her vulnerabilities but also her strengths.

Nyanam helped Asiri create spaces for widows to critically analyze their lived experiences, develop and implement social action initiatives that improves their spiritual, social, economic and cultural positions, in light of their God-given dignity.

Through Nyanam, Asiri has access to programs in leadership, livelihoods, health and advocacy that use her Christian faith as a foundation for confidence and resilience, for amplifying the voices of widows and for challenging oppressive social, economic, and cultural norms. Asiri sees herself as a leader and a change-maker in her community.