By Lola Akande
In his novel, Anthills of the Savannah, Chinua Achebe offers an insight into the world of the widow: “Why will a man mounting a widow listen for footsteps outside her hut when he knows how far her man has travelled?”My immediate reaction when I came across the proverb was to close the book and surrender to convulsive sobs. I sobbed for hours until I realised there was no one to put a hand on my shoulder and say:‘it’s okay.’ It was the most distasteful proverb I had come across. All my reproach and agony as a widow overwhelmed and filled me with futility. For a woman often touted as ‘strong’ and ‘courageous,’ I was surprised at my own fragility. I became even more astonished in the weeks that followed when I couldn’t go back to reading the novel despite the fact that I had an exam to write on it. I was overcome with an unending melancholy. Eventually, I became my own counsellor, preaching, reiterating again, and again that Achebe didn’t know me; he couldn’t have deliberately intended to mock or hurt me. He was a writer using available material in his environment.
Widowhood is a familiar phenomenon because death is an everyday occurrence. As you read this, thousands of people are breathing their last in varying circumstances, ushering their hitherto happy spouses into the sorrowful club of widows and widowers.Talk to a thousand widows and each has a peculiar area of pain.What one widow finds particularly agonising is that she now has to undertake tasks that are generally regarded as ‘male tasks’ in her society, such as having to visit the office of the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN), taking her car to the mechanic, and sometimes, having to buy spare parts. She recalls a particularly harrowing experience in which PHCN officials visited her neighbourhood while she was at work. Because there was no one to show them her receipt of payment, the officials disconnected her line and went away with her wires. She went to their office to prove she didn’t owe. They apologised and gave her the wires. The action evoked tears of self-pity because she couldn’t immediately figure out what to do with the wires.
At another time, it was her car which developed a fault on her way to work. She had to look for a mechanic and stay with him as he worked. While waiting, what preoccupied her mind were thoughts of how her husband would have fixed the car. Later that day, her boss called an emergency staff meeting during which he informed of an urgent assignment which would require staff to work extra hours during the week and on weekends. “In the duty roster that I will prepare,” he told them; “I will ensure that names of married women do not appear for evening and Sunday duties so as not to put married women in trouble with their husband.” To the consternation of the widow, her name was among the first group scheduled to work that Sunday. Her anger was replaced by surprise when, upon reminding her boss of his earlier pledge, the man told her she wasn’t married. “You are a widow; who will question your movement?”
For another widow, it is the poor state of her finances that worries her. She has had to withdraw her children from the school they attended when her husband was alive. A step she says has done little or nothing to ameliorate their situation as the children are still being made to constantly skip meals. Not that the children complain, but their eyes and haggard appearance tell the tale of hunger, deprivation, and lack. It is the knowledge of this and her inability to change the situation that haunt and traumatize her.The challenge for yet another widow is her inability to tame her children who are fast becoming irresponsible and reckless following the death of her husband who was a great disciplinarian. Each member of a once cohesive family has begun to walk their different paths.The children nowgo out when they like and return when they please. Sometimes, they leave home for weeks without a care because they feel it is freedom time.
What about the sexual exploitation of the widow a la Achebe’s proverb?There is a tendency to assume that the widow is sexually available just because she is alone. After all, she is a free woman who is presumed to be sexually deprived or has financial difficulties and willing to exchange sex for favours. Of course you are familiar with this and many other sorrowful aspects of the world of the widow. May be you are even among those who compound her misery. Perhaps, you have attempted to take or succeeded in taking advantage of some of them, if you are a man. If you are a woman, you are probably one of those who would boast deliberately and concoct fancy stories about your blissful marriage specifically for the attention of your widow neighbour or friend. Indeed, the widow lives in a cruel and unsympathetic world where people regularly take advantage of her misery.It is a society that castigates, labels, blames, and even punishes sometimes not for any particular wrongdoing, but simply for being in an unfortunate situation. It is worse if the widow has to live in the city where house owners don’t want widows as tenants for fear of rent default.
The aim of this reflection is to encourage the woman to hold a career, acquire a skill or competence in one vocation or another even when her husband can provide sufficiently for the family. Every woman must strive to earn a decent living and contribute meaningfully to the family’s purse. For the widow, that you were not economically active or that your husband provided everything you needed while alive doesn’t mean that you are incapable of providing for your children now that he is no more. It is important for you to enhance your sense of self-worth. You must see yourself as anindividual with energy, drive, intelligence, determination, and a clear sense of purpose and direction to succeed, just like everyone else.The society is also in need of behaviour change. Widows are not creators of their situation. It is immoral and sinful to degrade the widow. Render help if you can, but make it genuine, not compensation-seeking.
-Dr. Lola Akande, Dept of English, University of Lagos, Akoka Yaba Lagos.