by Emily Okoneyoh
It all started on a cold rainy day. The cold hands of the most dreaded snatched him away from us. Although I was too young to understand, I could tell a tragedy had befallen me. The compound was as quiet as a graveyard, so much that the slightest sound – like the drop of a needle— would be heard from a mile away. Everyone gave me that stare, that one that screams pity. How did I know? I could just tell. I sobbed for days constantly asking, “Mommy, when is daddy coming back?” But she looked at me with a smile on her face and said “soon my dear.” It was a few days to my eight birthday and I was full of expectations. What did I know? This went on for weeks, until the faithful day I saw his lifeless body in what looked to me at the time like a wooden house lowered to the ground. “Mommy, why is daddy in there?” I asked. She replied and said, “He is going home to rest my dear”. I wanted to know why he would not come home with us, but as always she had an answer; she told me told me it was because his father wanted him to come home. There I was thinking I had a mean Grandpa who I hadn’t met. My real tragedy lay a few meters from me, and not only had I met them, but I knew them well.
Then came the vultures. Oh! How they took everything, oh yes! Everything. I found it ironic that they would strip a dead man of his properties while he lay in the arms of death; yes, he was stripped of his flesh by vultures. Vultures! They were out to get us and I hated these creatures. They took the house I had come to love and call home, every item of clothing my dad owned and other properties, claiming it was their brother’s, a brother they never cared for. After all was said and done, they asked us to move out that night. My mom pleaded and they allowed us to stay the night. “Out of the kindness of our hearts we will let you stay,” they said. What kind heart? If those cold stones were what they called hearts, then I would rather live without a heart, I thought.
Growing older I became inquisitive. I wanted to know why everyone who thought loved us treated us with so much disdain. I asked my mom and she would say “it’s the tradition.” What tradition? Laid down by whom? Why so much cruelty? What kind of tradition gives the brother of a deceased the right to own his late brother’s widow like she was his property? All this questions lingered in my mind as I sought answers. I came to the realization that everything they had done was permissible under the customs of my village. According to those customs, if a man dies without leaving an heir (a male child) and his only surviving child is female, she has no claim to her inheritance, while his widow is seen as a failure because she could not bear a male child. Hence, her in-laws force her to swear an oath to vindicate her from the knowledge of his death. The tradition subjects the widow to be shaven of every hair on her body while being made to drink the water used to bathe the corpse of her late husband. The widow is expected to go mad if guilty or worse drop dead. If innocent, they offer her a chance to stay and raise her child only if she agrees to marry a brother of her late husband to continue the bloodline of her husband.
Years later my worse fear came to life, my mom had decided to re-marry. As much as I was happy for her knowing her lonely days would be over, I couldn’t help but fear that my childhood nightmares would resurface; that she would go through the same ordeal she went through with my dad’s family, little did I know she had married the devil himself. He would complain and talk bad at her, everything I did was wrong in his sight, and not once did my mom stand up for me or herself all because he was a “man.” That made him superior in her mind. One faithful morning I heard him tell my mom that he would not waste his money on my education simply because I am female. “If you insist she goes to school, then you will pay with your money. After all the education, don’t you know a woman’s place is in the kitchen?” he said. This made me realize how badly I wanted to prove them wrong.
Therefore, I thought to myself that the only reason I was doomed to this fate was because I am female. If I had been a male child, I would not have had to deal with this in the first place. The so-called traditions would have protected me and my interests and would not have hijacked my inheritance. If the culture and beliefs didn’t treat female education with so much irrelevance, maybe, just maybe my mom would have had a proper form of education and would have been able to stand her ground against the inhumane treatment she was subjected to. But then again, I realized that the only reason they were loyal to the tradition was because they lacked knowledge as well as a superior body like the government to regulate these barbaric acts and ensure female education. I swore to myself, that I would grow up a different woman than the one who raised me. I would get an education and return home to prove to them that “the stone which the builders rejected, has become the chief corner stone.”