When Teleo Yianka’s husband died in 2015, she was chased away from her marital home in Kajiado. She was left to her own devices and had to struggle to build a mud house in an area far away from the rest of the community.
The house she built was the size of a toilet, and she lived there with her three children and mother-in-law.
Looking at pictures of Teleo in 2015, you would think she was not less than 40 years old, but she was only 23. The difficulties of life had taken a toll on her.
In another case, Grace, a woman from Siaya, had to leave her marital home when her husband died because she refused to be inherited by her late spouse’s elder brother. Widow inheritance is still practised in some remote parts of the county.
The practice is believed to be a way of ensuring the widow and her children are taken care of financially after her husband’s demise. But the practice has many retrogressive aspects.
Part of inheritance usually involves ‘cleansing’ — a practice that includes the widow having unprotected sex with a stranger before remarrying, ostensibly to chase away evil spirits and make sure her children are not cursed and do not die. This has led to the rapid rise in cases of HIV and Aids.
Teleo and Grace’s stories are just two of the many where widows are ostracised.
It is this sad state of affairs that led Power Woman International founder Nana Wanjau to dedicate her time to helping such women.
Nana’s interest in helping widows comes from her own experience growing up. She was raised by her grandmother and when her grandfather died, life took a negative turn.
She and her grandmother were forced out of their home and had to rebuild their lives from scratch in a different area. “I was still very young and did not quite understand what was happening, but I knew something was amiss. When we moved to a new area, we were not accepted there, either. One day when we were asleep, we heard people cutting down our crops and it was the community around us. They said we could not live there because my grandmother was a widow. That made me see how much widows can suffer. It taught me how uncertain life can be. We always lived in fear, wondering whether they would attack us again.”
Nana’s PWI foundation identifies vulnerable widows with young children across the country and helps them pick up the pieces of their lives after being shunned and forgotten by the community.
It works with the church and chiefs to identify the most needy cases and to get land to build houses for them. In the case of Teleo, the foundation built her a permanent house and is helping her educate her children.
Grey and ashen
“When I first met Teleo, she was grey and ashen. She looked hopeless and had given up on life. She looked like a cucu [grandmother] because of the hard life she lived, yet she was only 23,” Nana says.
PWI supports widows based in four areas — building homes for them, counselling, economic empowerment and education for their young children for at least 10 years.
Nana says many widows from remote areas have no sense of self-worth and no desire to live, and that is why counselling is a major component of the process of transforming their lives.
“When we first started helping widows, I felt the first step was building them houses because it would be futile to try and empower them economically when at the end of the day they would go back to the shacks they had previously lived in. But even after building them houses, we realised they still looked down on themselves. We needed to restore their dignity and help them get their power back, and that is where counselling comes in,” she says.
Widows are taken through a six-month counselling programme, where they rediscover themselves and are helped to realise they are worthy human beings.
Nana partnered with Nestle and the Chandaria Industries to train women on how to save and run small businesses. After the training, the women are given a batch of goods from Nestle to sell. The beneficiaries of the first round of training were from Kajiado, Machakos and Murang’a counties.
“When I look at Teleo, she is now so beautiful. I think to myself: Is this the same ashen woman I knew some time back? She is glowing now,” Nana says.
She continued, “For another widow called Esther, one day she called me up and said she had made Sh4,000 net profit and she was ecstatic. She said she wanted more products to sell. It’s not much, but to her Sh4,000 was a fortune. I live for these success stories,” Nana says.
Remembering the early days
Nana says when she first visited widows across the country after she launched PWI, the response was poor.
“We gathered a number of widows and tried to reach out to them, but they would just stare at us. They were like: Who are these PWI people anyway and what do they want? They were so unbothered. They just wanted us to finish talking and leave,” Nana says.
Nana says even as PWI started building houses, she questioned the wisdom in starting the project, but it is during the handover that she realised that she was making an impact, one widow at a time.
“Grace pulled me aside after the ceremony and told me: ‘You have healed my soul. You are medicine to my soul.’ That statement alone gave me fresh energy to continue with the cause,” Nana says.
PWI’s work was recognised by the Estonian Parliament in October last year.
Looking for partners
The main challenge the foundation faces is acquiring land to settle widows. PWI plans to build villages complete with houses, shopping centres, schools and other amenities, where ostracised women can have a sense of community.
The villages will be named AnneMarie, after Nana’s grandmother. Each village will have eight houses.
PWI is looking to partner with organisations which can give financial support or offer their expertise to help widows in bookkeeping, security, construction, health, law and agriculture.
Nana is also looking at PWI building houses using cheaper brick material.
Although widow ostracisation is most prevalent among widows in the village, city dwellers are not immune to it.
Nana says that apart from grieving their late husbands, many women have to deal with exclusion.
“I have talked to women who live in the city and they also suffer. They are forgotten once their husbands die. They tell me that when their husbands were alive, they were invited for graduation ceremonies and other life events, but all of a sudden, they just hear about these events and they realise they are being excluded because they do not have husbands.”
Nana concludes by saying, “No woman should lose her dignity because she lost her husband. It is time we respected widows. I want to help end the cycle of poverty widows go through and to stop their children from ending up in crime and prostitution as they try to get by.”
Widow inheritance fact box
Although some community elders deny it still happens, widow cleansing and inheritance still persist in some regions of Kenya, including Western and Nyanza.
The idea behind widow inheritance was to ensure she and her children were taken care of by the relative who inherits her. But the rituals that accompany it have led to the rapid rise in HIV and Aids.
Some men have made a business out of widow cleansing and charge for it. The end of cleansing signifies the end of mourning and the widow and her children are fully accepted in the society.
During inheritance, the widow is usually inherited by the deceased’s elder brother, and if there is none, a close cousin.
Power Woman International contacts:
Phone: (+254) 728 257 141
Email: [email protected]
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