BY ALEX TAREMWA
As I approach her home, dogs bark in unison. A dog keeper myself, I gather that there must be three of them in the compound. She emerges from the garden with muddy feet, offers me a stool and takes her rest on the mat.
Margaret Kiwumulo was happily married to Richard Kaijuka and together they had produced two children until the night of July 4, 2002, when unknown assailants ambushed him as he left his bar for home, beat him to death and took his belongings.
Stuck with two children, Kiwumulo, then 27 – but currently 41 – struggled to fend for them as a single mother until Kaijuka’s brother Peter Ziryabareeta, a veterinary doctor stepped in to help.
He gave the family a much needed boost, gave the children a father figure and eventually, to the widow, he gave a husband in spite of the fact that he already had a family of his own.
Besides the children Ziryabareeta ‘inherited’, he has been able to father two more with Kiwumulo and she was vividly pregnant when TTM met her for an interview.
The case of Kiwumulo and Ziryabareeta is not unique, especially in the African context. It is a tradition that has seen days since the 1800s – fueled partly by culture with traces visible in Tanzania, Kenya, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Sudan, Uganda and the rest of Sub-Sahara.
The arrangement, known as widow inheritance, allows for a male relative of the deceased to take over the guardianship of the deceased’s family, including the widow so that the deceased’s inherited property stays in the family.
In some clans, it is not subject to debate while in others, the widow has a say in whether or not she needs the stewardship and chooses the suitor among the kinsmen of the deceased husband.
The practice has however come under heavy criticism from politicians, clerics, civil society movements and “molarity protectors” who argue that widow inheritance has not only taken away widow’s rights to make independent decisions, it has also kept HIV/AIDS prevalence on a high.
With the coming of modernity and civilisation, the practice has lost popularity with most men rubbing it off as uncouth – a practical example of cultural practices that should be condemned by every right thinking members of society.
Given the intricacies of today’s world, Roggers Akanyijuka, a Visual Editor and Producer at Vision Group said he would not, for any reason accept to inherit a widow. This, he added, not only increases the financial burden he has to carry but also shoulders him more family obligations that consume his much needed time.
“It is an ancient mind-set. In today’s life circumstances, it is very inapplicable and not worthy of thought,” he told TTM.
Indeed, men who already have financial obligations of their own may not be open to widening them by inheriting more, unless of course there is something to gain.
As Suleiman Tiguragara Matojo Ssalongo, a veteran journalist and Resident District Commissioner (RDC) of Lyantonde district explained, the practice was/is exploited by men, often seeking to “cheat” widows out of land, cattle and other properties left by the deceased.
Widows, he argued, often shackled by poverty, have continued to rely on inheritors to take care of them as a fulfillment of cultural obligations not knowing that their vulnerability is being exploited.
“Our senior citizens (elders) had their issues in the past. When a husband died midway the marriage, the widow, due to fear of losing all the property he left, would accept to marry one of his kinsmen,” he said.
Because some of the widows would have had children with their deceased husbands reducing their odds to compete in a market filled with single, educated, independent women, being inherited becomes better option to consider.
Bad cultural practice or just bad timing?
Although this writer could not accurately quantify the percentage of the prevalence of widow inheritance in Uganda, a survey he conducted portrayed how just unpopular the practice is in 21st century.
Of the 20 respondents he reached out in preparation of this article, all said they would not, whether wilfully or otherwise, inherit a widow although most indicated that they may be willing to help take care of the children, if any.
Does this mean that widow inheritance is a barbaric cultural practice or has it been merely overtaken by events?
When TTM passed this question to 67-year-old Richard Bahaburana, an opinion leader among the Bashambo, one of the largest clans in the defunct Ankole Kingdom, he had this to say: “We would be fools to say that everything practiced by Africans must remain so. But we are totally against abandoning our culture.”
He added that: “It (widow inheritance) was the tradition here. We are all supposed to do it. Church leaders don’t like it. The president may not like it. But it is our tradition.”
Bahaburana, a polygamist with three wives – one inherited – may be wrong about something – say- the president not liking the practice as he (H.E Yoweri Museveni) is not on record on the subject but he is right about church leaders not having kind words for it.
Speaking to TTM via email from the Vatican, Italy, Fr. David Kampiira, born in Kazo, Kiruhura district, argued that “when they become irrelevant as social changes take place, certain cultural practices must be allowed to die out.”
“This is one of the difficult battles to win. We have tried discouraging it but few seem to understand its effects especially in the era of HIV/AIDS. It seems some people are genetically wired to it,” his email response read in part.
Comparatively, in areas where widow inheritance is still secretly practiced, the prevalence of HIV/AIDS is higher.
Since an inheritor already has his own family, he infects his first wife and the widow he has inherited. When he dies and men inherit the women he leaves behind. They, too contract the scourge and die and their widows are inherited, hence the increasing number of new HIV infections.
One, then would wonder, if inheriting a widows poses these economic, social and health threats, why is it still silently practiced and seemingly condoned? Logically, it is a matter of opportunity cost. To make a choice, something has to be foregone.
For Ziryabareeta, it was his way to guarantee that his brother’s children get the property their father left them when they are of age and to have them grow knowing they are part of a family, give them a sense of belonging.
“I felt obligated when he (Kaijuka) passed on to carry on his legacy. I didn’t want to see his property get torn to pieces by people who did nothing for it,” he said.
As the case is in most parts of Africa where customary law is still followed, upon a man’s death, his property is inherited by his adult sons. If they are still minors, it is repossessed by his family.
Luckily enough, all the children – including those fathered by Ziryabareeta – are in school. The eldest, whose name we shall not disclose, is already sitting her O-level examinations. She is 17 years.
For Kiwumulo, being inherited was a bitter pill but one she doesn’t regret swallowing. It may not have been the right thing to do but it has turned out to be a good thing in the end.
Ironically, all the men who denounced widow inheritance in the survey were open to the suggestion of having a wife’s sister as a “caretaker” when one lost a wife. In other words, they would rather be inherited but not to inherit.