AFRICA, ANTHROPOLOGIE, ARCHIVES UNIVESITAIRES, ETHNOLOGIE, NIGERIA, sociologie
Chapter II Igbo Widowhood Rituals and Practices.
When one looks at widowhood in most African societies, it would be possible to give an immediate verdict on the matter. This would be a one-line economic interpretation. In the Igbo society as in many other societies, human greed exist in many families and the death of a male member of the family offers an opportunity to the other males of the family to increase their holding of the scarce and inelastic commodity-land. The commodity now in question can expand to other items of property. « It is acquisitiveness » writes Nwoga, « which basically controls the treatment of widows ». All other activities serve the same purpose and any mystification and other rituals, superstitious sanctions are geared to the oppression of the widow. Dehumanised and humiliated by the religious rituals and other practices Nwoga continued, the widow become more amenable to keep silent over other forms of oppression which end up ultimately as economic disposition.
If we examine the comments of two widows, this would appear to be the only reason. A 75 year old widow recounts her experience when she lost her husband in 1978;
I was ordered home from Lagos to explain the cause of his death. After I had narrated everything to them (in-laws), they asked for his pass book (bank savings book) and other valuable items which I gave over to them« 23.
A second informant, a 35 year old widow and mother of 4, noted;
Our entire property was confiscated. A lorry was sent from home to come and pack all the merchandise in his supermarket. All his electronic items were also packed away. For the past year the house has been like a battle ground between me and them.
Esther Nzewi has noted that in certain zones of Imo State;
the widows ordeal begin immediately the death of her husband is announced. The in-laws demand a list of the man’s property, holdings, investments, bank accounts etc. She is further required to take an oath as a proof that she has not concealed any relevant information on her husband’s wealth »
All we can derive from the above is a one way economic interpretation. But I think that it is a rather complex matter in most African societies. If we look at the matter in greater detail and into its various stages, it is my belief that a better understanding of the reasons for these activities will emerge. It can also give greater credibility to the past and thus, help us understand what changes are taking place.
Nzewi in « Widowhood practices: A Female Perspective » found out that widowhood practices in certain parts of Imo State begins after the burial ceremony but among the Mbaise Igbos, a woman becomes a widow (isi npke) when her husband dies. It is from this point of death of the husband that a woman begins to go through the rituals associated with widowhood. However, there are a lot of similarities in the rituals undergone by widows in the different parts of Igbo society. These practices, I define as sets of expectations as to actions and behaviour of the widow, action by others towards the widow, and rituals performed by, or on behalf of the widow from the time of the death of her husband. Later phases of these practices include issues of inheritance, the status of the widow, the remarriage of the widow and levirate relationships.
Among the Jukun of Western Sudan for example, « Formal lamentation for the dead man » writes C. K. Meek (1931:226);
is kept up by the female relatives for a period from three to six days. It is the Jukun practice for the female mourners to sleep in the hut of the deceased. Each morning large quantities of beer ( local beer) are sent to them by relatives and friends. The women give expression to loud cries of grief every day at sunrise when relatives and friends come to salute them.
Among some of the Jukun, a grave digger would periodically strike at the roof of the hut in which the women are sleeping. This was taken as signifying a knocking by the soul of the departed. At each of these knockings the women led by the wife or wives of the dead man, would break out into load lamentations .
G. T. Basden (1966:270) described the practice among the Niger Igbos in the 1930s; « It is when the moment of death arrives » writes Basden-
that the tumult begins. There is an out-burst of wailing, the women particularly giving full vent to their grief. Sometimes a wife or a mother will rush from the house heedless of direction, waving arms, and beating her breast as she bemoans her loss at the top of her voice. Such as one will wander aimlessly for hours crying the same words, until she becomes an automation. Eventually after possibly being out all night, she struggles back to her hut, physically and mentally exhausted
The practices related to the death of a man differs depending on the status of the dead person. The wife or wives of an ordinary man is expected to go into traumatic wailing immediately, to beat her chest, fling around her arms and go into falling down. Other women surround her immediately and restrain her and force her to sit down on the ground where they sit around her. This is widespread among all Igbo groups and in fact many other African societies. The wife or wives of a titled person in Mbaise is not allowed to go into any loud crying till appropriate arrangements have been made to inform other titled persons, in-laws and relatives who should know and confirm the death before any lament takes place. In neither case is death taken with stoicism and resignation hence intense wailing, weeping and hysteria is expected to be generated.
Among the Igbo, this kind of bitter wailing is expected to go on until the remains of the man has been buried. After that, the wife or wives are expected to enact a wail or two every morning between the hours of 5.00 am and 6.00 am for upwards of four days or more. Thereafter, they have to wail every morning of a feast day and recount to the hearing of their neighbours what their husband used to do for them on such occasions. Our examples can be extended by reference to the comments of some of the widows interviewed among the Mbaise. A widow noted;
It was an Orie day that my husband died. The Umuokpu gathered and accompanied me to my village where I was to cry and wail to inform my people of the death of my husband. After his burial, the Christian Mothers shaved my hair and instructed me to cry every morning and evening for four days after which I may or may not cry again.
Another widow recounted her experience;
Each mourning after the burial, my mother in-law took me out to the back of the house. I had a bath with very cold water. This was done very early in the morning when it was still very cold. As she did this, customs demanded that I must be crying and calling my husband the name I used to call him when he was alive. This lasted for four days. I stayed at home for the next three months mourning him without going out.
This is a pan-Igbo custom which has been practised from time. In Owerri area, ‘the widow is expected to shout and scream in tears on the death of her husband, otherwise she is fined or punished ».
I however came across a women widowed in 1979 who neither cried nor performed the rituals associated with widowhood. She said that she was a `born-again Christian’. But this was frowned upon by the women in the village. She was excommunicated from the village and no one would speak to this widow. For over a year no body bought or sold to her in this village. Recounting her experience, this widow told me;
They wanted to force me to perform the widowhood rituals which refused. They asked me if I was ready to face the consequences of my action. I accepted. They ordered that nobody should communicate in any way with me. They even asked the spirit of my dead husband to deal with me’
Although one may question how genuine sorrow can be which is programmed. Each of my informants noted that while it was natural to cry, it was a tradition of long standing to cry at particular periods of the day during the initial mourning period. This question is even more pertinent with the immediate following days before the actual burial when the wive(s) are enclosed in a room besides the body of their dead husband or in the same room with the corpse where they are supposed to wave away flies from perching on the corpse. As they are expected to sit on the ground and raise a wailing very early in the morning of every day, the quality of the crying is judged by the Umuokpu (patrilineal daughters).
In Igbo tradition, generally, the Umuokpu retains intense influence over what happens in the family in which they were born. In some cases, this means near tyrannical power over the women married by their ‘brothers’, particularly at the death of any of these ‘brothers’. The analysis of the power of umuokpu here is contrary to what Njaka (1975) has described them to be in relation to their authority. They usually insist on establishing that the wife has not come from another family to kill some member of their family in order to carry the wealth from their family over to her own. It is the Umuopku who give what they consider proper treatment to the wife of their brother along the lines they have decided she merited from her relationship with their brother. Some of my informants reflect on the above;
Initially, I was accused of causing the death of my husband because the Umuokpu and my in-laws said I was looking too healthy to have lost my husband. According to them, it did not show on me that I felt my husband’s death .
A second informant stated;
In fact several kinds of dehumanising treatments were meted out to me. Before my husband was buried, I was locked up with his corpse for three hours with the belief that if I killed him, I would die there. I was then forced to sleep in the grave yard for two days after his burial to finally convince them I did not kill my husband
Whatever the situation, however, these Umuokpu administer the Igba Mpke rules and regulations with vengeance, either out of spite for the widow, or to generate fines on which to feed fat or because they genuinely believe that it is the only way to maintain the necessary ritual balance for the good of the deceased and the living.
Sylvia Leith-Ross has also left us an account of how severe and spiteful the Owerri women could be in the administration of even an otherwise purely innocuous regulation in the 1930s. A monogamous wife, she has noted;
has a poor time if her husband dies and her relations-in-law do not like her, and they are not slow to take it out on her whenever they can. For example, the usual fee for her head-shaving, which is customary on her becoming a widow would be one shilling. If there had been say, five wives, the husband’s relatives who always undertook this shaving would thus have made five shillings. This they point out to her and spiteful add it was you who wanted to be alone. It was you who prevented your husband from marrying other wives. Now you can pay us five shillings. Again they might force her to go alone into her husband’s room to wash the body and they might lock her in so that she fears too much and she would sit and cry ‘if I ever marry again, I will choose a husband who has other wives
Now the point is that each woman treated in this manner is Nwaopku somewhere, while those who administer this kind of treatment on her are wives somewhere else. So each time a husband dies, there a few women who go home as Umuopku determined to revenge themselves or carry out the rituals which they have received themselves as ndom alu alu (married women) somewhere else.
The above of course is not a universal experience for all widows in Igbo society. Although widowhood ritual must be performed, they are not spiteful always as Leith Ross as described. A widow recounts her experience with the husbands family as follows;
I count myself as being lucky with my in-laws unlike others. My in-laws automatically transferred the love they had for their brother to me and my children. I thank God for them.
Before the burial, and immediately after the burial, up to seven to fourteen weeks while funeral visits still take place, the widow is supposed to be secluded in a most restricted manner. Tony Ubesie described this as ino na nso. What he described as taking place in the Awka area of Anambra State agrees with what G. T. Basden described in the early part of this century there. It also agrees with what B. N. Onah described in the Nsukka area, Talbot among the Kalabari in the Delta area and what current research in Mbaise shows. (see map 4 for the location of other areas). While some of these practices show genuine reaction to the loss of the husband, others help to clear the widow of any suspicion of killing her husband.
Ritual seclusion and general isolation of the widow for a certain period from the community or village is a wide spread practice in Africa. But its intensity and duration varies. In the Islamized communities of West Africa, this period was known as iddat or idda (the period of continence between being widowed and being allowed to remarry if a widow were so minded and still marriageable) (Afigbo 1989:10). On this J. S. Trimmingham (1959:182), an authority on African Islam, noted;
According to Islamic law the widow should observe idda for three periods of legal purity, or four months, ten days during which she may not remarry. A slave wife observes half the period. If the widow is pregnant the period is extended till her delivery. Custom varies slightly. In some places, it is four moons; in Hausaland some five months, others 130 days and others 122 days. Nupe said 115 days. In the Timbuktu region it lasts five months, and fifteen days.
For the non Islamic societies of Africa, the period of mourning is much longer, generally lasting twelve calendar months or thirteen lunar months. Meek (1931:226) reports that among the Jukun in the 1930s, the moral period of mourning is twelve months. But according to one of my male informants, in traditional Igbo society, the mourning period could last as long as three years. He said his mother’s mourning period lasted that long when his father died in 1921. Today, however, the actual period of mourning has been getting increasingly shorter. I did not find any rule today that the period of mourning must be more than twelve months.
In most parts of the Igbo society the early parts of this period are usually the most rigorous. During the first 28 days, the widow is not allowed to go to the stream or the market or enter the farmland. Certain rituals must be performed at the expiration of the twenty-eight days before the widow can perform normal activities. Most of the widows interviewed in Mbaise area left a description of what happens to a widow in the first few days of the mourning period. The first few days before the man is buried she must refrain from washing, sits on the ground. Her food is prepared separately and she is fed by another widow from either a broken or an old plate. These pots and plates are used because they are thrown away after the period of seclusion. They may be handed over to an older widow who assisted the new widow during this period. Holding a kitchen knife, or broom stick, she is not allowed to touch any part of her body with her hands but must use this knife or stick. At this time she is regarded as unclean. The knife or stick is also used to protect her from the spirits which may attack her during this period.
An informant, widowed in 1960, described her experience;
When my husband died, the Umuokpu took me to the back of the house. They first of all put their left and right fingers into my mouth and stretched my two hands behind my back. They removed my ear- rings and neck-lace and changed my wrapper for an old one which I was to use during the whole period before the burial. They gave me food in a broken calabash and fed me with their left and right hands simultaneously. For four days, they brought me out every morning and made a fire at the back of the house to warm my hands. After the fourth day one of the women who was also a widow accompanied me to the market for the final ritual. At the market place, I sat down and opened four different pack of green leaves that did not contain anything. As I opened each pack, I said « I have sold out evil luck and may evil and bad luck be far away from me ». This was done late at night to prevent people meeting us along the way .
In another community, an informant, widowed in 1993, noted;
The preliminary seclusion lasted for four days and I was required to cry in the morning and at night for these four days. I remained in the house after for three months without moving out. This helped to make widowhood a horrible experience for me. At the end of the three months, the Umuokpu performed the ritual of « mkpopu ezi » (bringing out). I cooked for them after which they dressed me with the mourning cloth. I used this for the remaining seven months .
The practice is about the same for most Igbo communities. In Uturu Okigwe, the description of the practice in traditional society by G. E. Ube states that;
before the advent of Christianity in Uturu, widows were not allowed to take a bath for about twelve days following the death of their husband’s. The widows were substantially denied food during the twelve days. To mark the end of the twelve day period, the widow goes to a bad bush dedicated to « evils » and scrap her hair with a blunt razor, thereafter she may take a bath and eat as she likes
Ube stated further that even in contemporary Uturu society, there are certain feasts in the year during which widows must leave her husband’s compound and sleep outside, example the feast of itu-aka. On such feasts, one hears widows crying out their sorrows very early in the morning.
Among Basden’s Niger Igbos, in the 1930s, specifically four days after the death of her husband, the widow;
moves from her husband’s house to a small hut in another part of the compound. While dwelling in the hut she wears no clothes unless perhaps a rag; she must sit on a block or wood and no where else; instead of sleeping mat a banana leaf must suffice…she is prohibited from washing her body or combing her hair.
One of the beliefs connected with this phase is that the husband is still hovering around and still seeks contact with his wife. So, the widow, if she has for any reason to go out of the house or compound, in order to avoid contact with the husband, never leaves and enters through the same gate or door through which the man’s spirit may be moving. Indeed, the widow is given her kitchen knife or stick to hold in order to chase away the spirit of her husband if he should try any contact with her.
Rationalising the whole concept of seclusion and ritual cleansing associated with widowhood, one male informants explained;
On the death of a husband, the widow is in sorrow, she has lost every thing she owns. She has to hold a knife (mma mkpe) or broom stick a protective object from the spirit world. She does not touch herself and must hold the knife for the whole period of seclusion. During this period she does not come out in the mourning to avoid meeting with the elders before they have had an opportunity to exchange greetings among themselves. This is because she is regarded as unclean during this period. After the fourth day she must go to the stream very early accompanied by another widow to perform the ritual cleansing. She must avoid being seen or exchange greetings with any one.
Although there were variations as to length and procedure of the ritual, there is basic agreement on the reason for the rituals. The intensity and procedure may have changed over time but the practices are still observed today. The major factors impacting on this tradition include Christianity and western education. During field work, I observed a widow holding a crucifix instead of a broom or a kitchen knife. I understood that this was a Christian symbol and was more acceptable to the Christian. Another woman told me, « the Reverend will not be annoyed if she is holding a cross ». This shows the difficulty of breaking with tradition. The Igbo Christian finds herself in the dilemma of keeping with the Christian faith and keeping with the traditions and customs (cf Widow no. 44).
It is after this period that the second instalment of her mourning begins and runs till a one year period. During this whole period and as part of the seclusion, the widow must not have sex and should she become pregnant during the period, this was a serious breach of taboo calling for its own purification.
In discussing the seclusion and isolation of the widow generally, mention has been made in passing that one other feature of widowhood practice in most African societies is the neglect of personal hygiene and the denial of many basic human comforts. We have already seen that in various parts of Igboland, the widow may not bath or wash her personal effects for the first few days. Washing and bathing during this period calls for punishment of the widow because she is assumed to be beautifying herself (icho mma). In most cases in the past, the widow could have only one set of mourning dress (akwa mpke). This is usually a black cloth which she must wear whenever she was in public. I observed during my field work that some people use white cloth instead of the traditional black cloth. I understand that today most mourners do not use black if the deceased died at old age. Some Igbo Christians also increasingly associate black with evil, tradition and custom and would rather wear a white mourning cloth. No informant could offer any other reason for this change.
One other important practice deserving of mention is the shaving of the head which is wide-spread throughout this area, irrespective of whether the society in question is attached to traditional religion or has embraced the Christian religious practice. Among the Mbaise as is the case in other Igbo communities and cultures, this practice extends to the shaving of the pubic hair. Both types of hair are either ritually burnt or thrown into the bad bush. At Mbaise, this practice was done after the whole mourning period. (Widow no. 1). This process takes place immediately the burial ceremony takes place. An informant said of her own ritual;
After the burial, I was taken to the back of the house by the Christian mothers and shaved. My hair including the pubic hair was shaved. It was buried in the ground because I was pregnant at the time. Else it should have been burnt.
In some cases, the practice is performed by the Umuokpu who are widows themselves. After the shaving, she is given a bath and dressed with the black mourning cloth and brought out as is the practice today. The shaving and bath symbolically represents the removal of all links between the widow and the deceased.
Some of my informants noted of the other expectations during the pre-Christian period. Before the 1920s some informants noted that widows were expected to keep food for their dead husbands in their former rooms. The dead man’s door must be kept open for a period of about seven days. He is expected to come and eat the food at night. This signifies that his spirit was at peace with his household. His rejection of the food indicated anger and disapproval of the burial rituals.
At the end of the ‘nso’ period the widow goes through a ritual cleansing. The detailed description by some of the widows shows how old and similar the process is. The ritual cleansing as noted involved the widow and her environment. All the dirt collected in the place where she had been secluded is now thrown into the bad bush as was done in the past. A graphic image of the process is that a strong nwada (daughter) comes very early in the morning before cockcrow, sweep up the room and the ashes and puts them into a container which the widow carries as they move before they can be seen to the bad bush. Even that early, to avoid the chance of being seen, the nwada proceeds the widow, shouting a warning, till they complete the journey. After the widow has thrown away the dirt, including the rags she has worn all this while, into the bush, they move to the stream where she is washed and shaved if it has not been done before. She is then brought home and continues the mourning till the second burial ceremonies. At the end of the one year mourning period, the mourning cloths are burnt and the hair cut again. The widow is at this time free to re-enter normal life.
The above is a brief description of what constitutes the widowhood practices in Igboland. Before we go on to discuss the sociology of these practices, it is necessary to emphasise that the mourning was not left for widows alone. Consequently, many other persons, men and women related to the deceased came under varying degrees of ritual cleansing and mourning. Men are also expected to mourn their wives, although the expectations would appear rather low-keyed. But wailing on the death of a man was not limited to his widow. His sisters and other relatives (men and women) as well as friends joined in. On occasions there was an undeclared competition to see who would wail longer and more bitterly than the other. However, there is no doubt that his widows were expected to come out top in the competition. Among the Igbo, the widow is more or less regarded as the « owner » of the corpse, and the Igbo say that a sympathiser does not cry more than the owner of the corpse.
Similarly, seclusion, ritual pollution and cleansing, restrictions with regard to food, bathing and washing were not limited to widows only. So also the wearing of black mourning cloth and shaving of the head. However Talbot’s (1926:474) view of the 1920s was that « widows have a very unhappy lot ». Afigbo (1989:14) notes of the 1980s;
Among the Igbo widowhood is a byword for defencelessness. Thus when you assault one who manages to fight effectively, she would taunt you saying that, perhaps, you thought you were dealing with a widow.
There is also the saying that why should a man who goes to his widow concubine be in a hurry to depart! Is it that he does not know where her husband has gone to? This implies that this lover has nothing to fear since the woman has no husband who may protest or harm him.
This perceived weak position and defencelessness of the widow comes out most prominently in the fact that as we shall see in chapter 4, she has no legal rights to property of her husband. In the Islamized communities of the Western Sudan studied by Trimmingham (1958:182), he noted that while the heir cannot turn a widow out of the house of the husband during the period of official mourning, he owes her neither food nor raiment, a practice that is said to run counter to the injunctions of the Sharia. It was perhaps because of this universally acknowledged weak position of the widow that most cultures permitted her to remarry at the expiration of the official mourning period. That this practice has continued over time calls for some comment on the sociology of the practice. Why some of these practices have survived in spite of the impact which western influences have had on the Igbo will be our concern in the following section:
It is only in the context of the social values, norms and beliefs from which they derive that we can begin to understand how widowhood practices came into existence and what functions they performed or still perform. When I first heard of widows in Mbaise having to scratch their bodies with sticks, I was horrified. But after I learnt that in Mbaise, like in other parts of Africa, a widow is seen as being in a state of ritual impurity and that until such defilement is removed, a widow cannot touch her body with her hands, the practice began to wear a different outlook. Whereas at first I thought the practice was a sort of physical punishment or torture, I now came to understand that it was actually for the protection of the widow from further pollution. She could not of, course, feed herself in such circumstance. The same reason may explain the practice of a widow being fed by another widow (usually an older widow). Whether the thinking behind the practice was correct or not, the practice looked somewhat more humane.
Furthermore, one factor fundamental to an understanding of widowhood practices in Africa is the people’s attitude to birth and death. While birth is seen as an occasion for joy and as a natural happening in all circumstances, death is seen as great and unredeemed tragedy even when it happens in extreme old age. If it happens in other than extreme old age, it is a still greater tragedy. Also unlike birth, it is never considered as fully natural. On this point, many anthropologists who have made a study of this matter are agreed as a few quotations will show. After investigating this matter, A. G. Leonard concluded around the turn of the century that;
it is impossible to discuss this matter of death without taking into consideration the question of witchcraft according to popular estimates, nearly every death is, in the first instance, at all events, attributed to or associated with the accursed magic (1906:174).
« There is » according to Talbot’s 1920s study,
a strange contradiction in the minds of the people. Death should be and often is, accepted with equanimity since nearly all recognised that the gods, jujus and over-soul only permit its approach when the person has earned it, yet they are liable when it touches them personally, to believe that it would not have come except through the machinations of some enemy, and in any case, whether deserved or not they attempt to revenge themselves on those who are deemed instrumental in causing it
Where the death in question is that of a young person, he continued, « all restraints are thrown overboard and explanation sought in witchcraft, juju or bad medicine. According to him, « one of the first acts of a bereaved family especially among the semi-Bantu, is to procure the services of a diviner and ask him to find out the cause, with the result that it is often followed by many other deaths-of those who are forced to undergo an ordeal on the accusation of witchcraft
« I have not » wrote E. Ilogu (1974:40), « come across any death that any Igbo accepts as a natural and biological end ». Afigbo concluded in this matter that almost in all cases,
the immediate or remote cause is sought in the wicked machinations of a human enemy or of a malevolent ancestor, ghost or juju.
Following from this attitude to death is the fact that, in Igboland, a funeral is much more than ensuring the repose of the soul or disposing of the earthly remains. Indeed, on many occasions, these two otherwise primary purposes of a funeral take the second place to the need to establish who or what evil spirit caused the death. In this kind of atmosphere, nobody is considered, as manifestly beyond suspicion-father, mother, brothers, sisters, husband, wife, friend or any known but unseen force. All had to be put through some kind of ordeal to make assurance doubly sure. « When the burial is finished », reports Basden for the Niger Igbos, « more omu are deposited on top of the grave. The closing words said over the grave are sokwu onye bulu-i (follow and fight (kill) the one who killed you) or imala onye bulu-i iso ya (you know the one who has killed you, follow him). This is still practised today among many Igbo communities if there is any suspicion irrespective of who is involved-a man, his wife or even a child.
A widow noted;
When I refused to perform some of the rituals associated with widowhood because of my Christian faith, the community implored my husband’s spirit to revenge me if I had any thing to do with his death
In this kind of atmosphere charged with superstition, the regime of denials and privations brought on the widow and widowers to some extent constituted a means of placing them under oath for the entire duration of the mourning. In 1938, Basden reported that should a widow die during this period, « no people of the village will touch the corpse. The reason for this repugnance may arise from a belief that a woman dying shortly after her husband is thereby proved to be guilty of causing his death ». Basden maintained that in certain situations a widow or whoever is involved may be expected to drink the remains of the water used in washing the dead man’s corpse as a way of proving ones innocence. It is expected that if one caused the death of such a person he would die within a certain period-usually one year. In Mbaise, it may involve crossing the coffin of the dead person. If one in such a circumstance fails to comply with all these rituals he would be considered guilty of murder.
Some other practices were explained by other aspects of the people’s beliefs. Africans tended to have an overpowering belief in the ability of the ghost of a dead person to come back to dispute his former property and all kinds of things with them. For one who was the priest of a local deity for example, a special ceremony had to be performed to « remove his hands » sepu ya aka from the priesthood. The same had to be done for an Ozo man. This is to remove their link with the as title holders since someone else must take this position. A husband is regarded as having such a stake in his wife. During my field work, a man died in one of the villages. It was alleged that he was killed by his wife who had died about three years earlier. The story was that the former wife had killed him out of jealousy because he had married a new wife. The remains of the former wife was exhumed and the skull ritually burnt to keep her spirit at rest. There was the fear that she may also attack the man’s widow or the children. The people felt that perhaps there were certain rituals which would have permanently separated the man from his wife which were not performed. This goes for a woman too when the husband dies.
In this culture who could be closer to a dead man than his wife? This fact made it necessary for many rituals to be performed to enable the man to hands-off his wife or wives. In this context it is reasonable to suggest that the unhygenic and appalling personal appearance of a widow was all part of an effort to make her no longer attractive to her otherwise would-be jealous, deceased husband. Allied to all this was the belief that, while death created for the dead the problem of gaining admission into the convocation of the ancestors of the community in the spirit world, it threatened the integrity and quiet repose of the community of the deceased’s living relations. They guarantee the dead easy admission into this convocation in the spirit world, « all the practice associated with death and dying must be meticulously gone through. If not, he would be considered to have been improperly or inconclusively buried and would be denied admission » A widow whose husband died in 1982 reported;
When my husband died, some one came and told me after a few days that he saw my husband in his dream. He reported that my husband is complaining that he is not at peace yet. By then he was not yet accepted by the dead ancestors. His sons performed certain rituals before his spirit finally rested.
The widow’s contribution to meeting these conditions include the observance of the practices highlighted. The dead man’s relations (male and female) had their part to play for the purpose of achieving the same goal. The satisfactory completion of these ceremonies, rituals and practices also helped to restore the balance and security which the death had sought to overthrow. Among other things, a perfunctory performance of the basics of the regime, would not only annoy the already established ancestors, but expose the community to the danger of being haunted by the ghost of the recently departed.
On this subject M. Reads has written as follows in connection with the Ngoni of Malawi in the 1950s (1970:196-7);
These were acts performed by the living for the dead to cause the spirit to be settled in a place it knew. The living had certain rites to carry out on their own behalf which, if omitted, would bring the displeasure of the ancestors upon them.
With these acts, not only were all individuals who played any part in the funeral purified of pollution, but the living community was re-integrated after the loss of one of its members. This is a common practice among the Igbo. A man for example who has not performed « the second burial » for his father or mother may not eat or drink if such ceremony is being performed for another person. He may not dance a certain kind of music (ese and uko) played at funerals if his parents were not honoured with the same music during their burial. Indeed it is customary to kill livestock ranging from goat to cattle to honour the dead. They are a mark of respect for the dead which will allow them to be accepted by their ancestors. Titled men as well as very old men have special ritual ceremonies performed for them when they die. This ceremony known as iwa nkita anya involves the killing of a dog and other rituals by the first son of the deceased the night before the burial. The living attribute any calamity or misfortune to their inability to properly bury the dead. These objectives of satisfying the ancestors and the recently dead and of protecting the living and restoring the integrity of the family and community helped to make the regime undergone by widows what it is.
What has been described above are some of the most important components of widowhood rituals among the Mbaise-Igbo of Eastern Nigeria. They were adopted for the purpose of meeting the varied needs of the dead, his living relations and dependants. They arose, from the strong sense of community between the living and the dead which formed a basic ingredient of the cosmology of Igbo peoples. This strong sense of community made those in the beyond and on this side of the grave so mutually interdependent that what affected the one either adversely or favourably, also affected the other in precisely the same manner.
The use of these ritual must therefore also be understood in the context of protecting the widow, her family and the society as a whole. We must however explore how far this protection goes. Does it apply to other aspects of the widow’s life during and after the period of mourning?