Losing a husband to death, no matter how often you hissed, “I wish you were dead” in a spate of range whenever he came home late and drunk is no mean feat. The trauma of leading the rest of your life as a widow is incommensurable, or so it seems.

The agony occasioned by this sad state of affairs is, perhaps, the reason elders in most parts of Western and Luo Nyanza came up with the concept of wife inheritance. However, before this happens, widow cleansing has to take place. This, elders believe, is done so as to exorcise the dead husband’s spirit through sex with an in-law. Strange as it sounds, the culture is still widely practiced in the rural areas.

Ker Nyandiko Ongadi, an anthropologist and elder in the South Nyanza faction of Luo Council of Elders starts explaining the culture by stating that according to Luo tradition, a wife belongs to the entire village.

Thus, when a woman loses her husband, family members and relatives meet and decide on who will take care of the widow and her children.

“Traditional brew would be served to the men as they deliberate not only on the burial program, but also on who was best suited to take care of the widow and her children,” says the culture enthusiast.

Once they settle on the best candidate for the job, all the nominee has to do is hang his coat in the widow’s house to symbolise he is the new man in charge. Hanging the coat is symbolic in sending a strong message to male visitors who harbour intention of inheriting the widow that the territory is already marked.

Interestingly, the woman has no say in the process and has to accept whoever the elders and family had chosen for her.

How family chooses wife inheritor

A number of factors are considered when choosing the inheritor, from the age of the widow to the wealth the deceased has left behind.

“A young widow will require an energetic man who would help her around the home and also meet her conjugal needs. If the man left vast land and cattle, the inheritor has to be picked from among his real blood brothers or a very close family member so that the wealth is retained in the family,” Ker explains.

It doesn’t matter if the chosen inheritor is married, the wife is not expected to throw tantrums but to accept the widow and live together as “Nyieke (Co-wives)”.

Strangely, before a woman is officially inherited, she has to get permission from her dead husband. She has to spend a night with the corpse before she is ‘freed’ to marry another man. Ker says the ‘sleeping together’ doesn’t necessarily have to be intercourse per se, one just has to lay next to the corpse and dream about making love to it, which symbolises permission from the deceased for her to move on to another man.

Seeking permission from dead hubby

If the ‘mandatory dream’ doesn’t come to her, the elders have to sweet-talk the corpse, begging it to ‘set free’ the widow. Only then, says Ker, would she get inherited. So serious is this culture in some areas that women who refuse to be cleansed and inherited get chased away or cursed by elders.