Grandmothers’ Testimonies

Magret Ongwen

Nyanza Region, Kenya

I speak with passion because I know what wife inheritance did in my family.

It happens in the community because people still believe in it, especially people who have not experienced what I have experienced. It is something that is still happening apart from the very few people who really understand what HIV and AIDS is.

Wife inheritance is a cultural thing in the Luo community. If your husband died, you had to be inherited. You were supposed to be inherited by your in-law, a brother-in-law. This has gone on for a long time. The main reason I resisted being inherited was because I knew that HIV and AIDS had come to my home because of inheritance—my husband inherited a lady earlier who was infected, and this is how he caught the disease.

In the days when my husband got infected with HIV and AIDS, there was still no medication. I and my cowives were just taking him to the hospital, we were not knowing what was going on with him. We spent all that we had on medication, even the land that we had we had to sell for treatment. It was almost at the last minute that we discovered that he was HIV-positive. But I tested negative, and I decided that I was not going to be inherited.

My husband still wanted us to be together as husband and wife and to make love. But I felt like I was going to get infected. My husband was angry and said from then on he was not even going to eat food from me, he wouldn’t touch anything I prepared—it’s like now I was not even part of the family. He did not beat me but he was so wild. He kept on chasing me and I would run all the time, and that’s why eventually I decided to go and ask the administration office for help. The administration officer took his assistant and one community member and they went to the home to talk to my husband.

After my husband’s death, it became like a real war in the family. It was not an easy thing. My family members threatened me, and they would not visit me in my home. They considered me unclean because I wasn’t inherited. They did not confront me directly, but they kept on telling the children nasty things like that I was unclean. They were trying to pressure me through my children. They wanted to create a rift between me and my children. They were telling them that they would die because I wasn’t inherited, and that they shouldn’t eat with me because I was an outcast.

It was hard to go against my family and my community. But the main drive I had really came from what I experienced when my husband got sick. One minute he would be well and the next minute he would not even be able to move. So, when he died, I said to myself “What if I’m inherited and I go through the same thing? What about the children that I have, who will take care of them?” So that was my main drive.

My husband got sick in 1992, and he died in the year 2000. In the same year, one of my co-wives died. In 2001, another one died. In 2002, another one died. In 2003, the last one died. And when all of my co-wives died, they left me with their children. I now had six orphans, plus my own children and grandchildren to take care of.

The question was, how was I ever going to be able to support them? When I got married my husband was working with the Ministry of Water and he had money. Because of the sickness, he went and withdrew all of his savings, even his pension, and he used it all for treatment. He sold everything, even most of the land that we had.

I need to work very hard now to take care of my family. The food is not plenty but at least we can survive on what we have. I do farming and the children help me. I plant vegetables. I also plant mangoes and po-po that I can sell from the farm.

Most of the land we owned was sold, and even the land I was left with is not secure—the son of my brother-in-law is troubling me up to this moment that he wants the land. The land was demarcated with a fence and a title posted. He has gone and slapped off the title from the fence and claimed it is his land. I have reported the problem to the local administration, but so far no action has been taken. It’s the usual bureaucratic process. They are slow to help me probably because they know I am a widow; other people they work for more quickly. They think other people’s concerns are more important to deal with.

Paying for school fees and uniforms is also a big challenge. For one child I was lucky, I got a bursary for him from the local administration. But sometimes I can’t pay so I have to keep the children out of school. Two of the children are out of school right now, and I’m trying to find the money for them to go back to school.

A lot of help with supporting the children has come from PENAF. I heard about them in 2007 and became a member. PENAF told us that being together and united is something good, and that we could save money together. They taught us about table banking, and if we save, save, save, within a year we can buy uniforms for the children. From my little savings from table banking, I am now able to buy clothes for the children, and sometimes PENAF also helps me with the uniforms, and with foodstuffs.

So my family is still here, and we are surviving. I love my children very much, and they are such a source of strength for me. The community had said that the children and grandchildren would die because I was not inherited, but all of them have survived. One of my sons has even been able to build himself a house. And I now have a great grandchild! This makes me happy.

I’ve proven, by my example, that the ideas people have about wife inheritance are not true. Your children will not die if you are not inherited. I’ve proven them wrong, because I even share the same house with my children. The people who used to say that I would be the death of my own children are now just looking at me. They also said that the children of women who aren’t inherited will not get married, but one of my co-wives’ daughters got married the other day, and everyone is marveling in the community.

I have gained a lot of respect, and the young women in the community who have lost their husbands now consult me. There are women who have not been inherited because of advice I gave them. And there have been no deaths of the children in their homes, so they are doing well.

Other people are also coming to tell us about the dangers of wife inheritance, such as the community health workers at PENAF who come to our group meetings. And I talk about wife inheritance at the PENAF meetings, and also when I go to church.

Things are changing, people are trying to understand, but wife inheritance is still existing. My community is now divided, some want to get rid of it, some still want to keep it. I believe that when people begin to see more examples, that’s when the practice will start to really go away.

It was not an easy thing to lose so much of my family to AIDS. I would cry. Sometimes I would even be confused. I thank God that God did not leave me. The Catholic Church came to me and asked me to help in teaching, so that I would go and teach the children in school and forget about many things. When I’m with the children, and the church and the mothers, I feel good. Also, I’ve gone for the HIV test and I am very glad to know I am negative. But, most of all, what makes me happy is that even though the community said my children would die because I wasn’t inherited, they’re all still alive and still here with me.