Monday, July 9, 2012

Replacing Rites with Rights

A lifetime in Cameroon is not a long time. By Western standards, the life expectancy for a Cameroonian is shockingly short – forty-eight. Whether ended by accident, illness or just general poor health, the lives of most Cameroonians are brief. This high rate of mortality itself qualifies as a tragedy, but it still doesn’t capture the full scale of the misfortune experienced, for it is often those left behind after a death that continue to suffer on a scale that can’t be as easily measured. Widows, in particular, are a group that are subjected to practices that add to the hardships they endure in the wake of their husbands’ deaths.

Known as widowhood rites, these practices subject the widows to treatment that amounts to abuse. I’ve copied the following description of the widowhood rites to capture the disturbing nature of these practices:

Culture demands that the widow undergoes certain traditional mourning rituals before and after the burial of her spouse. These traditional mourning rites are expected of the widow and are born out of the contention that she is impure and contaminated – and thus needs purification – in some cases she is actually blamed for the death of her husband. Some of the mourning rites include seclusion and general isolation in which she is confined and all her body hair (including her pubic hair) and that of her children is shaved using one ‘razor’ (could be a piece of broken glass), and she is not permitted to go to market, farm, or talk with anyone outside kin family.

The widow is also deprived of attending to her personal hygiene. She can only wear one dress, usually sackcloth throughout the mourning period which lasts from three to six months or in a few cases up to a year.

She must always sit on the floor and has to eat with unwashed hands and from a broken dirty plate.

If the family of the deceased see her secretly attempting to attend to her personal hygiene, she may be whipped, spat upon and scolded that she is trying to beautify herself to attract men and they may even accuse her of being responsible for her husband’s death. She is required to swear on the corpse of her husband that she is innocent and afterwards, drink the corpse’s bath water.

Throughout the mourning period, between 5am and 6am the widow wakes up the family and neighbourhood with strenuous early morning crying and wailing, recounting to the hearing of the entire village how much her husband used to do for them.

In most traditional Cameroonian societies the extended (and not the nuclear) family owns the body of the dead person and exercises complete control over the corpse – so, the widow is expected to submit to the dictates of her husband’s family. The period offers an opportunity for any member of the husband’s family, who has been aggrieved in the past, to get even. Such persons are free to scold her on the pretence that she did not treat her husband well when he was alive.

After the burial, the widow may be stripped of all assets, property (and even children on occasion) by the kin family leaving the widow homeless and destitute.

Since most rural Cameroonian marriages are traditional marriages (and sometimes polygamous) with the initial payment of ‘Bride Price’, the widow is seen as the “property” of the kin family. When the husband dies she can be given to her husband’s brother or other male relative, without her permission, where she may be expected to carry out the sexual and other duties of a wife.

Cloaked in the guise of “tradition” and “custom” as a means of providing a rationale for such brutality, the widowhood rites have been practised in Cameroon for centuries. Changing such a long-standing set of cultural behaviours is no small task, but there has finally begun to be movement in that regard, and VSO is now a part of that. I’ve been asked to lead a project team that will seek to expand a pilot project that successfully advocated for the abolition of widowhood rites in one of the Fondoms, or tribal chiefdoms, of Cameroon last year.

The implementation of this project will adopt the methodology of the pilot and look to replicate its success in five more Fondoms in Cameroon. Phase One will consist of a one-day workshop, to be held in each of the five quarters of a Fondom on five consecutive days with a focus on the identification of stigmatic and discriminatory practices in relation to women. Fifty people will attend each session, with the result that 250 people from each of the five quarters of the Fondom will receive training. Each workshop will include the following: participatory identification of gender issues focusing on the practice of widowhood rites and dispossession of land and property; awareness raising of women’s rights and civil law; and the identification of possible community resolutions.

Phase Two will take place two months after the first phase and will consist of follow-up workshops for three days that will be set up as follows:

• Day 1: Traditional Leaders Day

This will provide the opportunity to discuss community concerns identified in Phase 1 with the Fon and traditional leaders and negotiate for the agreement banning widowhood rites and the dispossession of land.

• Day 2: Community Day

On this day, participants from Phase 1 will meet and an evaluation conducted of how peoples’ lives have changed as a result of the workshops. Testimonies will be received and community-selected representatives will form the new Community Advocacy Group to ensure the sustainability of the advocacy efforts.

• Day 3: Advocacy Training Day

Basic Advocacy Training will take place with the new Community Advocacy Group – training will include such activities as the knowledge and use of active listening, open question techniques, influencing and negotiation skills and how to source knowledge and information needed for effective advocacy.

Phase Three will be the ceremony for the signing by the Fon of a community agreement banning widowhood rites and the dispossession of land. Subsequent to this ceremony, the legalising of this agreement with a notary public will be finalised to ensure its permanence.

This project promises to be a very important initiative to eliminate the abuse and cruelty inflicted by the widowhood rites. I hope to be able to provide you with regular updates as the project progresses through its different phases.


cochrane said...


Good luck on this, Glenn. Clearly work that needs doing so 'wish you every success as you proceed.


Anonymous said...

What makes anyone unclean after the death of someone else? As the King would say to Anna, It's a puzzlement. In the most superstitious contexts, I can almost fathom someone causing another person's death in mysterious ways - even to the point of admitting "if looks could kill" they would - hence, I could almost see how the widow could somehow be accused of causing her husband's death simply by being the widow/survivor [guilt by association and by not dying instead of the husband - strange but somehow "understandable" in a twisted Kafka sort of way]. And I can see where pollution could come from handling the dead body - both physical and even possibly spiritual/social pollution - after all that's why we have undertakers isn't it? But what is the uncleanliness associated with simply being a widow or widower? In some societies, grief can be so overwhelming that a widow can die from it, and may even be expected to die from it, but this is not the same thing. One the one hand, this is about contagion. Are people afraid of becoming widows or widowers if they come in contact with the survivor of a recently deceased spouse? Is widowdom somehow catching or contagious? One the other hand, this is about revenge - getting even with the survivor for having survived.... The whole issue of contagion takes on many meanings when one has to ritualize the post death experience of the survivor because of some notion of pollution now experienced by them simply because of their survivor status. What is equally unclear in these descriptions is whether there is any remediation involved in these rites: is the widow somehow cleansed because of such rites and rituals and therefore accepted back into the social structure? or is this simply a way to be abusive towards a person, and in particular a woman, without much benefit to anyone and especially to the woman? Has cleansing been replaced by ball-faced vengeance...and hence the unremitting cruelty of it all. I can see rites/rituals having a purpose if cleansing or some kind of amelioration is intended, but these widow rites as described seem to be simply acts of cruelty. Isn't being a widow cruel enough for anyone? why inflict so much more pain? to what end? Picking up on the blood pollution theme, in some traditional Christian churches, there is/was a post partum ritual called "churching" where the new mother was ritually received back into the congregation through a form of "cleansing" rite. It seems to have come from a post partum Jewish temple ritual described in New Testament scripture where Mary went to the temple after the birth of Jesus to be cleansed. If memory recalls, it became a Candlemas celebration. Again, a ritual cleansing to overcome pollution from blood experienced during the birth event. Cleansing and readmission to the general congregation were the intent - beneficial to say the least, even if insulting to women who were considered unclean because they gave a man a son. Minimally, these rites did not intentionally cause physical pain, even if they were emotionally and socially abusive in that they set women apart as polluted by blood. This is my first comment - one of puzzlement and reminiscence of possible similar rites in other contexts. I have a second comment to make but in another section...Victor

Anonymous said...

Second Comment: while I find the process and approach as described very laudable, I also find it very Western in its organizational structure - phase 1, phase 2, phase 3...and now we will do this, and then we will do that, and then we will have this meeting with this speaker and share these experiences...and teach people to behave in such and such a way. There is a systematic logic here, and indeed as a process it reminds me of what we would do in business to deal with a difficult situation. But will it work in Cameroon? Is it Afric-centric as a process that will lead to a long-lasting potential solution in Cameroon? I am not questioning the need or even the intended goal. There is a need: something must be done to end this cruelty. I am not questioning the goal: something must be done to end this kind of ritual or at least replace it with a less cruel ritual. But is there any intent in this project as outlined to "keep the practice" but delete the cruelty? Or is the intent ipso facto to eliminate a cultural and seemingly ancient practice? if so, have we considered that there may be a purpose [even a valid purpose] to this ritual - buried somewhere in ancient lore and custom? Can we somehow recapture the original intent of a "widowhood ritual" in a less cruel incarnation? The cultural roots are deep and that leads me to think that weeding out this practice entirely may not be possible. But eliminating the unremitting cruelty may be possible, while keeping some kind of ritual that re-instates the widow into society. There are some very critical issues inherent in this situation: on the one hand, what outsider group has any right to interfere with the practices of another group? on the other hand, is inherent cruelty necessarily integral to any practice to begin with? Can we separate the ritual associated with widowhood from the cruelty of how that ritual is currently practiced? I know I may be using Occam's razor here to split hairs, but there is a part of me that wants to see an effective solution and not just an imposed solution to this situation. I fear that an imposed solution will be short term at best, if it is achieved at all. My process teachers always told me that (a) you must follow process from beginning to end to get to a valid solution or be condemned to relive the process if you fail to deal with each process step in its entirety, but (b) you must apply the process appropriate to the situation without imposing one that may be foreign to that situation. None of this is easy... I just wonder if the process contemplated in this project will be effective in Cameroon. Consider this the wisdom of an armchair observer in the comfort of his Toronto office. I will never condone cruelty no matter what the cultural context, but I can see value in ritual if repurposed for the good of all members of the community - especially if it is meant to bring comfort to the grief stricken and eliminate any status as outcast in society. In many Mediterranean societies even today, the widow wears perpetual and unflattering black both as a sign of never ending grief and as a status symbol of being an outcast - no longer able to marry. In some villages, it is bad luck to marry a widow because you may end up being her next dead husband, even if not her actual victim since she is not the causer of death. Cameroon is not alone in such cruel do we eliminate cruelty and make someone whole again even in their grief? Victor