In a Country Where Widows Are Witches

Christiana, 49, had been traveling from one forest to the next for the past three days. Her water gourd was now light, and her feet wearily ruffled heaps of dry leaves trafficking in the dark surface of the forest floor. With her was her 14 year old son.

Her sight fell upon bones hanging on the branch of the tree bearing flock of talking parrots. There was, on the floor, the skull of a man. The chaff of his perished flesh gave a fetid smell. The skull had a hollow and maggots walked to and fro through the inlet in the door of its eyes.

That was her husband. He committed suicide four months ago. She knelt beside the bones and buried herself in grief. That was in 2014.

“For those months, we traveled from one forest to another looking for my husband,” she recalled. “We never knew he could do this.” She spoke slowly and a brief hiss came after each sentence. A ring of coughs trailed her tears.

In the week in which her husband left their home without leaving a message, his kin summoned her. It was like facing a crowd of judges without a lawyer. She stood lonely in that crowd, which threw questions at her. They wanted evidence and a proof that her husband did not die of her own act of witchcraft.

“They said that I killed my husband,” she told Ms., “and declared me a witch.”

In Nigeria, widows face numerous challenges that have root in cultural practices. Many traditions still make the women take an oath to prove her innocence from witchcraft-related activities that could be responsible for the death of her husband. While others confine the widow in place for specific mourning period and others shave her hair, yet others insist that the widow drinks the water with which her late husband was washed. Some are given to the brother of the deceased.

Legislation protecting widows is lacking in many states in the country, and in regions where the laws exist implementation is far from convincing. Hence, the fate of widows in Nigeria is largely left to few human right groups who find the enormous task almost overwhelming.

Christiana was sitting on a wooden bench under the cover of an orange tree that fluttered above her head next to the house her husband left for her and their six children. It was like a cottage that missed out on a finishing touch. The floor was earthen. There was a nail by the wall and from that nail hung a lamp with a blurred glass globe.

Christiana’s husband, Eze Ori, left Akanu, a village in Onicha, four months earlier. He left no message. He never returned. “The first few days were sad,” she recalled, “but we never knew that there was this difficult moment ahead.” She said and seemed completely determined to create the details of those moments with her fingers swirling in the air after each word.

After facing the community, Christiana returned home exhausted with her children. Over time, the fact that she had not received any feedback from the kinsmen took away her peace. Her way of life got away from her. She stopped going to the farm or shop. One morning, she saw from her doorstep, through the distance, hurrying feet and red caps and potty stomachs. The crowd drew closer. It was the community emissary.

“We have resolved that you would bring #20,000 (around 55 dollars), a goat, a bushel old rice and ten crates of beer,” they declared. “This is for accepting you back into our fold again.”

Christiana was confused. For days she refused to take her bath. She kept her thoughts unspoken. There were moments when she spoke, but those talks were directed at little, weeping children. She thought of the love she shared with her husband. She thought of her rising debt. She thought of the weeping, tender children. She thought of suicide.

Christiana’s suffering went on for months. The other women in the community provided her with small acts of support—albeit secretly, for they feared sanctions. A night before she wanted to carry out the suicide, with her seven-year-old beside her in bed, she began to cry. She imagined her children as orphans. That love killed her decision to die. She decided to live for them.

There are many major drivers of these harmful widowhood practices in Nigeria. Cultural factors, religion, poverty, lack of education, entrenched inequality, weak legislative frameworks and enforcement, gender discrimination and lack of alternative opportunities for widows, lack of education and enlightenment, fear—a myriad of elements contribute to the longstanding problem.

Nigeria is estimated to have about 15 million widows. With the activities of Boko Haram insurgents and high male mortality rate, the number is predicted to rise.

On a sunny morning, Christiana and her eldest son searched for her husband once more. They had done this for three consecutive days—walked from one point to another. They discovered a bone hanging from a tree. That was her husband. He had in his pocket #37,000—around 100 dollars.

After discovering her husband’s corpse, her children and a few friends helped create a grave. Christiana picked up the skull and placed it in a mat. She searched for his bones, put them in their place and stood over the skeleton. She wept. She rolled up the mat and packed the bones into the grave.

Christiana and her six children live away from the community now. And there are millions like her in this country.


Orji Sunday is a freelance journalist based in Nigeria. He contributes to international and local publications such as African Arguments, This Is Africa, Ynaija, The Sun, ThisDay and The Nation covering politics, economy, health and development issues in Sub-Saharan Africa. You can find him on Twitter.