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Elder Orphans

Elder Orphans

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Last week I wrote an article on the fight between Bianca Ojukwu and her stepchildren. The step children do not want the politician-widow to contest for a senatorial seat in Nnewi, Anambra State, her home by marriage. They are asking her to go to Ngwo in Enugu State, her home by birth. I dealt mainly with the issue as it relates to Bianca’s status as a politician but only cursorily with her widowhood status. Now, some readers have asked me to do a column on widowhood as a subject. That is why I am sinking my teeth into this subject that is fenced round with thorns of trouble.

Widowhood is when a man dies and leaves his wife while widowerhood is the reverse. But the one with tons of trouble is widowhood. Husbands and wives are like mothers and fathers to each other. They take care of each other the way their own parents took care of them and when one of them dies, it is pure wahala for the one that survives. In most cases, it is the husband that dies and leaves the wife, an elder orphan. The reasons there are more widows than widowers are not far to seek. Most men marry younger women, so the women outlive them. More men get killed in wars, conflicts, accidents, assassinations and daring exploits than women. So you can say that the world is full of widows.

Being separated by death from your life-long partner is the equivalent of one half of your world caving in. It doesn’t matter the age at which this happens, the effect is the same. Loneliness, depression, loss of appetite, loss of a trusted confidant and pillar of financial and emotional support are the fallouts. These can only be better imagined than experienced. On top of these is a high probability of the surviving partner dying in a relatively short time after the exit of his partner. This is what is called the “widowhood effect.”

A bereaved woman is a woman in distress. If she is old and does not have children and friends and relations who can cover her with a blanket of comfort and love, she may wither and die early. Bereavement leaves behind an unfillable void, a yawning gap in the life of the widow. She is unlikely to be able to bridge that gap and fill that void by her strength alone because her life has been somewhat diminished by her loss. So has her strength. On top of what the widow goes through just by losing her husband many families and communities bring out their long lives and go for the woman’s jugular. Some of them make wild, unsubstantiated allegations, linking her with the man’s death. They peddle the story that the woman killed the man so that she can take over his money and property. More often than not this is simply a ploy to pounce on the man’s property and throw the woman and her children out of the window, some of them come up with outrageous customs: the woman must wear black for the rest of her life or for seven years. The woman must wear no hair on her head, or wigs, borrowed or bought, or weave-on. Nothing, just her bald head. That bald head is the signature tune, the imprimatur of her bereavement. The world must know that her husband is gone or that she made it happen.

When my father died in 1972 at the age of 50 he left behind five wives, all of them still looking whistle-worthy. The elders in the family told my senior brother and me that we have to marry the women, a custom I did not know existed. The idea was repulsive to us and we told them that all the five women were our mothers and that people do not marry their mothers. These family elders did not avert their minds to the fact that in the unlikely event that we accepted their proposal we had no means of maintaining the women and their children. My brother and I were still in school wondering how we would circumvent life’s bends in the absence of our father. These elders, instead, were concerned about how to maintain the outdated custom or tradition of our community. The women chose not to remarry, relation or outsider. They were loyal to their dead husband.

Many men die today when they did not expect to die, when they were not sick or old and leave a problem for their widows. The widows get little compassion from the society because the society has many things to worry about, more issues of compassion than it can deal with. Some wives of some State Governors such as Mrs Ekaette Unoma Akpabio and Mrs Martha Udom Emmanuel both of Akwa Ibom State and a few others have shown a great deal of compassion to widows. They build houses for them and support them to engage in some life transforming businesses. But overall, these laudable efforts come to a drop in the ocean because there are too many widows to look after and too little money to achieve the unstated goal of comfort-for-all widows.

Sometimes the husband dies without leaving a will. That causes a lot of complications as a free-for-all fight can erupt within the family, between brothers and sisters even of the same mother. If you throw members of the extended family into the fray, it is double wahala. And sometimes even when there is a will, there may not be a way out of trouble. Wills have been challenged in several families. The authenticity of wills has been disputed, the signature of a dying man questioned and even the date of the last updated will. All of these happen because the man is gone. There have been running battles between siblings in the families of Chief Okotie Eboh, Nigeria’s Finance Minister in the First Republic, Chief Rotimi Williams, Nigeria’s leading lawyer and Moshood Abiola, the winner of the 1993 presidential election who died without occupying the office. There are many more such cases that have not been resolved for years. The cases fester and family stays disunited, the very opposite of what the man wanted to achieve. Anyone who contests a will has a sense of his own entitlement decided prejudicially only by him. But the man who wrote the will had his own sense of who deserved to get what from him. It is his decision based on his unrevealed criteria but when he dies those who struggle for his property do not interrogate what his criteria were. Even if they know the criteria they still think that for whatever reason, they deserved more than they got. They forget that the man is sharing out his property according to his own assessment of how each beneficiary was wired to him. There can never be equality but there must be equity in such matters to maintain the family’s equilibrium.

Some men create a problem for their families out of ignorance or male chauvinism or lack of full appreciation of the consequence of their decision. We had a Newswatch staff who died a few years ago. He had a wife and three children. The woman came to the office to collect her husband’s terminal entitlements. Our Admin staff had prepared a voucher in her favour for me to approve so that a cheque can be raised for her. I asked him to bring the dead man’s file so we could ascertain who the next of kin was. He said he was sure it was his wife. When we checked his employment form who did he name as his next of kin? His brother. The wife nearly fainted. I told her I would stand by her and her three children, that I would invite the brother for a meeting. I invited the woman and her brother in law for a meeting to resolve the matter. I told the man that his brother listed him as his next of kin but the man has left behind a wife and three children. I gave him three scenarios (a) To give the money to the woman because it is morally right to do so. (b) To share the money with the woman because it is a compassionate way to solve the problem. (c) To take all the money by himself because it is his legal right. I also told him if he wanted all the money for himself he will have to provide me with evidence that he is the next of kin. And the evidence was in my possession, not his. If he went to court he would have to provide evidence of his legal entitlement to it and I would not be ready to help him and his dead brother to punish this woman and her children. The man, nice fellow, said he was ready for an amicable settlement. We gave the money to them based on a formula agreed by both of them.

Widows are an endangered species just by being widows. They are basically alone and lonely. The prospects of their remarriage are low especially if they are already old. If they are still young and attractive, they may still get attention but maybe not marriage because in competition with them are many young, attractive and unmarried women all over the place. If they get hooked a second time, they are particularly lucky because some men hold young widows in suspicion. They tend to ask: How did her husband die? So I am going to inherit the burden of taking care of someone else’s children? Widowers do not have the problem of remarrying after their wives’ death. If a widower is rich he can easily remarry a twenty-something year old beauty and no questions are asked about his dead wife. And no one tells a man to cut his hair or wear black all his life or for a year or more. The men make the rules to suit them.

The dice is heavily loaded against women in the world. That is why women must prepare for widowhood before it comes. Get a good education that will lead to a good job and a good income. Learn a trade or a business that gives you an independent source of income. Inheritance laws in Nigeria are wacky or non-existent. What your husband does in his will to you or for you is unknown until he dies. Don’t forget that wills can be disobeyed or disputed by unconscionable and heartless relations because the man is no longer around to assert his authority. Legal battles over wills take years to resolve while some of them are actually unresolvable. They go on forever. Some couples solve these problems while they are alive by creating a joint account to which each of them has access even if the other dies. That guarantees that dead or alive the man’s children can be reasonably taken care of. Some men decide, while alive, to buy property or company shares for their wives in the wife’s names which no one can take away from them when he is gone. That way the woman will remain after the man’s death just an elder mourning her husband not an elder orphan, deprived and decrepit.

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