Life After Loss
Societies all over the world “can force a jarring new identity on a woman whose husband has died: pariah, exile, nuisance, martyr, prey”
Though Togolese women often impress me with their quiet strength, Mahéiwé Bitho is anything but quiet. As I sat looking around at the tired faces of thirty women during my first visit to the widow’s group in my village, I noticed that there was something different about her. She had a spark of strength in her eye and confidence in her stride that most women here keep private. I remember thinking that maybe being a widow was a blessing in disguise: she had the ability to rule her own life and the freedom to show her strength on her sleeve as few women in Togo do. It was only after sitting down to discuss what being a widow in Togo really means that I understood the harsh realities that turned my adopted mother into the strong woman she is today.
After reading the article “Life After Loss” in the February 2017 edition of National Geographic (thanks mom and dad!), I realized widowhood might not mean freedom, as I had assumed. Societies all over the world frequently exert pressures on women whose husbands have died, imposing a new cultural identity with negative labels, i.e. nuisance, target, outcast, burden etc.… In addition, in many cultures widows are extremely vulnerable. According to the United Nations, there are around 259 million widows in the world, nearly half of whom live in poverty. As Togo is one of the most impoverished countries in the world, I decided to dig a bit further into what my group of widows in Togo face on a daily basis. What I learned was powerful, making me feel lucky to have stumbled across this group of awe-inspiring women.
When a woman’s husband dies in Togo the man’s family often claims right to his possessions. Though Togolese law technically protects equal inheritance rights, unless a woman has marriage papers, nothing can be done. Unfortunately, cultural customs often override the rights of women, especially in rural areas. When Koudjoukalo Kotoko’s husband died in 2004, his family came to “take it all,” including her house, his field, all the family’s money, a motorcycle, a bicycle, and even Kotoko’s camera. Mahéiwé Bitho’s husband became suddenly ill in 2003, going from healthy to dead in just two days. When his family showed up to take his possessions, she refused outright.
However, few women are as successful as Bitho. Like Kotoko, few women possess the marriage papers necessary to gain legal right to a deceased husband’s possessions. Even with marriage papers, there are rarely any government officials willing to help in a rural town like ours.
According to Kotoko, “some of the worst families won’t even support the children, they take everything and leave.” Her husband’s family did just this, leaving her “wonder[ing] how to support [her] kids.” She decided not to leave the village, and moved into a house owned by her father using his land to sustain her family. She made akpa (a lightly fermented corn based paste) to sell at the school and cultivated a small tomato garden to earn a bit of money, allowing her two sons to stay in school. Bitho began making and selling patte (a corn- based paste) and fufu (pounded yams) to sustain her three sons and daughter, ranging from 11 years to just months old at the time. When her husband’s brother died,
She was left completely on her own to support her four children. In 2009, she created a widows’ group in our village to help earn a little more money. Today, the group includes about 30 women who maintain a field of beans that earns just over 100,000 CFA a year, helping them support themselves independently
Though 100,000 CFA (US $170) may seem like a lot, split between the women, this comes to about 3,500 CFA (US $5.98) for each woman. To put this in perspective, Peace Corps gives me 129,000 CFA (US $220) monthly in a stipend meant to allow me to live at the same level as my neighbors and stay healthy. Though I definitely have more than almost anyone in my community, 3,500 CFA a year is not enough. For this reason, last Sunday, I organized a training for Mahéiwé Bitho and Koudjoukalo Kotoko to learn how to make liquid soap. They were instantly enthusiastic.
Bitho brought the two soap kits I bought to the widows’ group meeting this past Wednesday and spent four hours teaching the women how to make the soap and preparing two batches. Yesterday, we filled just under 25 liter-and-a-half bottles with our new liquid soap. Bitho is taking these bottles to the nearby market today to sell for 500 CFA each. If the group continues to make soap every month, they will earn an extra 55,200 CFA (US $95) a year with potential to make more soap and sell in more markets.
In Togolese society, widows are outcasts. They cannot remarry or even spend time with married women due to a strong belief that widows steal husbands. Unfortunately, our community does not support the widows’ group. Even if beliefs were to change, there is little the community can do with so little to go around as it is. There is not an organization in Togo, that Bitho knows of, that supports widows. With little support from their communities and none from their government, only the strongest women, like Bitho and Kotoko are able to persist.