As if losing a husband is not bad enough, on top of this one also has to deal with the many untenable widow hood practices and all in the name of tradition and culture. Trauma and shock can be the only plausible explanation for why I, a highly educated woman, holding public office and capable of making independent decisions could now be reduced to a robot.
Today thirty eight years after my husband Mustapha Sosseh died a sudden death in 1979, I can reflect on these rituals and know why I put up with them without an iota of resistance. The truth is my emotional intelligence was at its lowest ebb. I had just received the news that my husband had passed away. Even before the news sank in I started receiving instructions on what to do and I responded mechanically.
Mustapha died on a Friday and taking the significance of the day into consideration he had to be buried on the same day. This was against the wishes of my parents who wanted an autopsy but Islamic considerations influenced the decision of burial after Jumma prayers. Everything happened in a flurry and important decisions such as denying me the opportunity to see the corpse of Mustapha before burial as they thought it would be too upsetting for me made me even more upset.
On receiving the news of Mustapha’s passing I was made to take off all jewelry; cover my head and sit on the floor. Later while the men were at the burial the second part of the widow hood rites took place. First I had to be bathed by an elderly relative of Mustapha (the last time that I was bathed by someone else was when I was a child); followed by the removal of the braids. This ritual is symbolic and represents the freeing of a woman from the marriage.
It is done whether there are plaits or not as it symbolises a parting of ways a parting which can be amicable or unfriendly depending on the relationship of the widow with the family. It gives the in laws the opportunity to publicly praise or shame the widow. Seated on the floor under a canopy consisting of a pagne (wrapper), held in place by four sisters/cousins in law holding one corner of the pagne each, a fifth one removes the plaits as they praise or abuse the widow. Happily for my family and friends mine was an amicable parting as I had excellent relationships with my in laws.
After which clothed in white I sat on the floor to receive condolences from sympathisers. This was uncomfortable and painful but I had to put up with it for three days. On the third day my in laws provided me with my widow’s wear. These were the set of clothes that I would wear for the period of the ‘iddah.’ Islam requires that after a husband dies the woman goes into a period of waiting for a period of four months and ten days. If the widow is pregnant, then the iddah is till the birth of the child, irrespective of whether it is before the prescribed period or several months after it. My iddah was going to last for seven months as I was three months pregnant at the time.
The widow’s wear is dictated by a desire for the widow to look unattractive to other men and as a mark of respect and honour for the dead husband. Wearing such garb however makes the widow easily recognizable, making them susceptible to abuse from persons who think that widowhood is a curse. Due to my status in society I did not suffer overt abuse. I was however subjected to covert acts by insidious individuals who would either mutter curses at or throw coal at my back so that the evil would stay with me and not follow them.
Unbeknown to me, a next door neighbour always did a ‘jutu’ (that is the act of removing her wrapper and showing her buttocks to me as a curse) anytime she saw me on our balcony. I never saw her and only knew about her odious act after she passed away. She died before my period of mourning was over and it was only then that my sister told me about her caprices. Unfortunately for her, her attempts to ward off death were ineffective as she died even before I finished my period of mourning.
The widow’s wear is accompanied by many instructions. It cannot be substituted except on Friday when it can be washed while the widow puts on her white attire. They cannot be ironed. Rules also apply to body care. Perfumed toiletries are not permitted and the widow can only use ordinary washing soap. Hair cannot be plaited and should be washed only on a Friday. Using the ordinary laundry soap affected my skin and my face was covered in pimples.
My brother in law Modou and my eustaz friends saved me from this ordeal. They convinced me that it was okay for me to use my normal toiletries and to wear my own clothes. Gratefully, I went back to my normal health care. After all who would know, what I did in the privacy of my bath room. I did not discard the clothes however as I did not want to upset my in laws.
One practice which I never experienced was the total segregation that other widows had to go through. My loving and caring family saved me from this by including me in everything and trying to make my life as normal as possible. Exclusion from normal family and social activities can have a debilitating effect on the psyche of the widow. Severe as this exclusion is however it is not as harsh as some of the practices that widows in some other West African countries go through such as sleeping with the corpse in one room or being made to drink the water that the corpse is bathed with to prove that you had no hand in his death.
Interestingly enough, while you are untouchable during the period of mourning, everything that you used during the same period has to go when the iddah is over. Bedsheets, bedcovers, and towels are all taken away. The clothes had to go for charity but in my case mine were already rags and not fit for use.
My period of widowhood was soft compared to what many other women have to go through. It did not stop me from crying daily however, as death is so cruel and final. Celebrating this day is an opportunity for me to tell my story but to also to call attention to the fact that there are widows whose lives are made unbearable by untenable widow hood practices. These have to stop and now.