The Silent Tears of a Bali-Kumbat Widow

The Silent Tears of a Bali-Kumbat Widow

Widowhood rites is one of the ancient traditions that are still being practiced in village communities in Cameroon today. Despite the arguments that custodians of tradition have put forward about the good of performing widowhood rites, the practice has proven to be so barbaric, inhumane and a total disrespect for the rights of the women who go through it.

Most customs believe that when a man dies, his wife or wives are the primary suspect(s), regardless of what medical reports may say. It is for this reason that the helpless widows are subject to ridiculous traditional rituals that are never performed on widowers. It is mind-blowing to know that these barbaric practices are propagated by other widows who have been through the same ritual, and want to take revenge on new widows, hence the adage: “A woman’s enemy is a woman”.

Over the years, the practice has not only become a source of livelihood for some elderly widows (whose services are highly sought after under the pretext that they have a sound mastery of the custom); it is promoted by the family of the deceased as a means of revenge (especially if their relationship with the widow was not cordial). 

As much as the vision of The CANADA VIRTUOUS WOMEN (CVW) is to build an army of women who fear the Lord, the financial empowerment of widows and single parents in Canada and Africa is also primordial to the group. Hence, it is our mission to care for the well-being of widows, be it spiritual, financial or emotional. Among the emotional traumas that widows in Africa struggle with, and sometimes spend the rest of their life trying to recover from, are widowhood rites.

In an attempt to raise awareness of the need to extinct the dehumanizing practice of widowhood rites, and alleviate the emotional scars of widows made to believe that the rite is meant to prove their innocence and separate them from the spirit of their dead husband, the ground coordinator of CVW, Bernadette Chi-Ngang, had a chat with two widows from Bali-Kumbat in the North West Region of Cameroon.

Nakum is a widow, and mother of 3, from Bali-Kumbat whose husband was a village notable when he died. She recounted that she was taken into the room where the corpse was laid and made to swear that she had no hand in her husband’s death before it was buried. Soon after the burial, she was taken to a stream, stripped naked and every hairy part of her body shaved clean. She was clothed in dry banana plantain leaves – tied around her waist – with no underwear, bra or shoes. Nakum was then taken home, and made to sit on a pile of dry banana leaves, placed on the floor, which also to served as her bed. She was made to sit with her legs stretched out, placing her palms on both knees, facing upwards. She was forbidden from talking directly to anyone – not even her children or other members of her family.

In order to communicate, she would have to speak to the widows who performed the rites as they played the role of “go-betweens”, carrying messages between the widow and the rest of the family. Her food was served on a banana leaf on the floor and after eating, she was not permitted to wash her hands. She was also expected to save a portion of the food served to her, believed to be the dead husband’s portion. These portions are tied in the leaf every time she eats, and later buried under the assumption that it is a means of feeding the dead husband. After every three days, she would be taken to the stream and given a ritual bath by elderly widows, then clothed again with a change of dry banana leaves.

This went on for months, because she and her family were not financially viable to pay for the widowhood rites to be shortened (It is believed that when a widow is from an affluent family, they can send emissaries to negotiate and pay for the widowhood rites to be waived or shortened for her. The emissaries could come from the widow’s family, or could be her in-laws, depending on the relationship they had with her before her husband’s passing). It is only under such circumstances that a widow could escape the wrath of this outrageous practice in that community. 

On her part, Nagwa (the second widow) is a mother of 2, whose husband passed away a few years ago. Emotional as memories of her widowhood experience swell up her eyes with tears, she highlights the important role that the in-laws play in determining how severe the widowhood rites turn out to be. If a widow was said to be bad to her in-laws while her husband was alive, the severity of the widowhood rites performed on her would serve as punishment for her behaviour towards them.

Coming from the same village as Nakum, Nagwa was also made to swear on the casket before burial, after which her ordeal began. She was taken to a stream and stripped naked. With a razor, the hair on her head, body, armpit and genitals were shaved clean and one of the cloths used to cover her husband’s lifeless body was tied around her waist. With no underwear or bra, the cloth was her only clothing while she went through weeks of her widowhood rituals. She was made to sleep on dry banana leaves on the floor, while her interactions were limited to the elderly widows who served her food on a banana leaf. At this point, she was grateful to have been served the little she ate, and had no time to worry about going barefoot or bare-chest. She was also made to carry two calabashes, which she used to drink water and soups.

On every other day, Nagwa was taken to the stream for a bath while the cloth on her body was washed and left to dry on the nearby grass. It was later tied on her waist again, and she was accompanied back home. In the case where it rained and the cloth didn’t get dry, the wet cloth would be tied on since that was the only clothing she was permitted to use during the ritual. Very early in the morning on the day of the completion of the first phase of the rituals, she was taken to a road intersection, stripped naked by a man (a brother of the deceased), and the cloth she had had on for weeks was dumped at the intersection. She was given a bath and instructed to walk back home. Stark naked.

At this stage, she could communicate with the family members directly but was still restricted from going to public places like the market or occasions. Upon initiation of the second phase of the widowhood rites, Nagwa was taken to the market square and other popular gatherings in the village, where it announced officially that she had successfully undergone the widowhood rites. It was only at that point that she was asked to choose a particular color of choice (mostly white) to wear for a year while she mourned her husband. At the end of the one year of mourning, she went back to leaving a normal life. 

When asked about her impression of the tradition rituals, Nagwa said the age-old ritual is not an experience to wish on even your enemy, but they are forced to do it, under the guise that there are severe consequences if they don’t. These consequences include the widow becoming mentally deranged to a point that she defecates in her pots and dishes, and feeds from it. To the members of the community, such consequences is proof that the widow is guilty of being the cause of her husband’s death.  Nagwa also disclosed that the tradition has advanced the practice of witchcraft in the village as people consult mediums and use diabolic powers to manipulate a widow’s life, so she can be blamed for not performing the ritual as tradition demands.

Typically, widowhood rites may go on from three weeks to three months, a period during which these widows go through various forms of discrimination, stigmatization, oppression and deprivation. One thing that is common between both stories is that these widows were considered as witches, treated as murderers and not allowed to mingle with people. They were humiliated and made to suffer to a point that they could have picked up an infection, food poisoning and died, especially if the widow already had a compromised immunity. It is rather unfortunate, though, that despite the sensitization of women and custodians of tradition, the practice has continued to gain grounds in villages (see 2020 pictures attached above). To make matters worse, these rites are still carried out amidst the current crisis in the English-speaking regions of Cameroon where gunshots are fired at random whenever there is unrest. In such situations, it becomes an issue of “survival of the fittest” as people run for their lives, not bothering about these widows undergoing the rituals. In their confused and desperate state, they have no choice but to seek for refuge in nearby bushes.

When asked who is responsible for these dehumanizing traditional practices, it is devastating to know that the ancient tradition is being propagated by widows who have been through the same rituals, under the pretext of preserving the culture. Despite their defence of this barbaric practice, it is common knowledge that widowhood rites serve as a forum for the elderly widows to take vengeance on new widows. Fingers have also been pointed at selfish and angry in-laws who want to intimidate the widow and claim every property that the deceased husband left behind. 

This probably explains why a widower is not subject to a similar ritual when the wife dies. On the contrary, in most communities, the family of the widower starts making arrangements for him to get another wife as soon as his deceased wife is buried. It is common to hear statements like; “Who will help him with the kids, who will care for him, who will cook his meals?” Not even a razor is put on his hair, if it is not his desire to get shaved.

After going through this ordeal, most widows like Nagwa and Nakum are left with emotional scars that are constant reminders to their experience. They are often battered, shattered and depressed to a point that it takes only a miracle for them to emerge from their woes. 80% of the time, the in-laws will seize everything – including property – claiming it belongs to their deceased brother or son, and the widows can’t fight back since a majority of them served as housewives with no jobs. In their quest for a better life, some of them run away from their oppressive in-laws to the urban centres where they struggle to survive and to provide food for their children.

Some of their children end up dropping out of school, being molested, maltreated, and on the streets; sometimes their daughters are obliged (as young as 9 years old) to work as maids in the city, where they face other enormous challenges. A portion of the widows manage to start-up petit trades that start with as little capital as $100CAD like food stands; some learn how to sow or braid hair for a living, and others farm vegetables and other crops. They are always in unending tears of sorrow; they are abandoned and neglected.

The CVW has taken the burden to wipe the silent tears of every struggling widow by providing them with financial support to promote or establish a small business so that they can in turn take care of themselves and their children. Besides financial support, we also tell them about the love of Christ, we pray with and for them, and we organize follow-up meetings and yearly Christmas banquets to empower them. The intention is that these widows eventually grow in business and become financially viable enough to support and take care of their children. These efforts are in alignment with who the Bible says a Virtuous woman is: “She extends her hand to the poor, and she reaches out her hands to the needy” (Prov. 31:20).

We are working on our next articles: A recount of the stance of traditional rulers and our advocacy drive to stamp out the inhumane practices of widowhood rites. Every woman deserves to be treated with love, dignity and respect. The Canada Virtuous Women have a burden to help these widows and their children by showing them the love of God, giving them hope, putting smiles on their faces and renewing their confidence to know that they are beautifully and wonderfully made, and God loves them.

You reading this article can also make a difference and light the paths of these widows. The Bible says: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27). 

God bless you for reading this far!!!


Article written by Bernadette M. ChiNgang in Cameroon for C.V.W.

Leave a comment