Wife inheritance brings misery to a Shurugwi woman

By Regis Nhumba

Some traditional communities in Zimbabwe still practice wife inheritance (kugara nhaka) even in circumstances where the widow is unwilling to enter into such marriage. Cecilia Chikonye (32) who lives in the Nhema community in Shurugwi, about 310 kilometres south of Harare says she was traumatised when her late husband’s family ordered her to get married to her brother-in-law.

Cecilia says when her husband died, she decided that she was going to remain single and have adequate time to look after her children. She says she never imagined herself getting married again, especially to one of her brother-in-laws.

“When my husband passed on, his family made all the burial arrangements and the associated rituals. I was a mere spectator in all the arrangements. I was only consulted on minor issues. I was never bothered by this because I knew how these issues work in the family,” says Cecilia.

A few months after her late husband’s burial, Cecilia says she started to have regular visits from one of her late husband’s brothers. She says she was happy to get the support and help that he rendered.

“My brother-in-law was married and had his own family. He was struggling to look after his own wife and children so I never suspected that he would need to have another wife and more children. During his visits he would do some household chores and I was grateful for that,” says Cecilia.

A year after the demise of her husband, the family convened a memorial service for Cecilia’s late husband. Cecilia says it was during that service that her late husband’s estate would be distributed according to family tradition.

“During the preparations for the memorial service, I was instructed to bring together all my husband’s belongings such as clothes and other possessions. I knew that these items would be distributed according to the family tradition,” says Cecilia.

Cecilia says that the custom about wife inheritance is that the widow is given a wooden walking stick during the memorial service. The widow is given the option of giving that walking stick to one of the brothers-in-law if she wishes to re-marry or gives it to her own son if she is not interested in marriage.

“I had planned to give the walking stick to my son because I had no intention of getting married. I felt that getting married would complicate my life and affect my children. I had realised that I would look after myself better than getting married,” says Cecilia.

As the memorial services was underway, Cecilia says she was shocked when the family elders said that a decision had been made that she will be married to one of his late husband’s brother.

“They argued that I was still too young to remain alone and that I needed someone to help me look after the children. Why would I want to get help from someone who was already struggling? No one had asked me about this,” says Cecilia.

The elders had not anticipated any opposition to that arrangement and Cecilia says she gathered enough courage to express her opinion. She says she clearly told her in-laws that she was not interested in getting married and that she had the capacity to look after herself and her children.

“My response shocked everyone but I stood my ground. After a lengthy discussion, my in-laws gave in and said they would be monitoring my movements to ensure that I did not bring some men into their home,” says Cecilia.

Cecilia says a few days after the ceremony, one of his brother-in-laws visited during the night and threatened her with a knife before raping her. She says the following morning she reported the case to her family and her in-laws. She says she was disappointed that everyone counselled her not to report the case to the police.

“At this point I realised that I was losing the battle. I decided to agree to the marriage although I was not comfortable with it. My own family had sided with my in-laws. I had no one to support me. It is sad because even the women in both my family and my husband’s family agreed that I should re-marry,” says Cecilia.

Creative Centre for Communication and Development, Zimbabwe