Gender Focus with EMELDA MWITWA
DISPUTES over unsettled bride price were common in Zambia’s early days of independence until about two decades back.
When a woman died and her husband had not paid bride price in full, her funeral was not just a time of mourning, but also a battlefield for the two families.
Burial involving a subject of unsettled lobola would not take place without her widower paying his aggrieved in-laws, or alternatively it would take place without him witnessing his beloved’s final send-off.
Seemingly, lobola disputes at funerals have died down with the cultural shift towards modernity.
The creation of the Victim Support Unit (VSU) under the Zambia Police Service is also helping to protect widows and widowers from victimisation during and after the funeral of their spouses.
When alerted of the looming harassment of a widower, widow or orphans, the VSU is quick at intervening and dispensing justice to the victims.
This is why we are seeing a significant downward trend of the degrading treatment of widows and widowers over lobola and many other issues at funerals.
However, make no mistake to think that the harassment of grieving husbands and wives during funerals has completely been done away with.
The maltreatment has apparently taken a new twist and less alarming form. I have encountered a number of men who have been quietly tortured over unsettled lobola after the demise of their wives. Let me share two stories with the permission of the victims.
The first victim who I will call Mr Tee for convenience, had a white wedding with his wife of 20 years.
When she died, there was peace at the house of mourning without Mr Tee knowing that emotions were quietly brewing.
It was not until after burial that his in-laws cracked the whip during the usual insambo lya mfwa in the Bemba custom.
They said they could not cleanse him (freeing him to remarry after his spouse’s death) because he did not finish paying lobola.
He had to pay his dues with 500 percent interest, or else they would not release him with the blessings due to a widower.
Because his family only managed to raise 50 percent of what his in-laws were asking for, Mr Tee’s in-laws went away with his four children and some household goods that their daughter had bought.
Mr Tee’s in-laws left the house of mourning in fury, threatening that he will neither be cleansed nor get his children back until he pays the outstanding bride price.
Right now the man is scouting for a ‘ransom’ for his children because the pain of being separated from them after his wife’s demise is too much.
His family has opted for an out-of-court settlement to avoid a public scandal.
From what I gather, there are many similar disputes over unsettled lobola after the demise of one’s spouse.
The right approach though is to settle these issues when all is well, but it seems relatives want to wait until death strikes to ‘punish’ an erring in-law.
The second victim is Mr X, who met his dream woman after a failed marriage and the two quietly tied the knot.
They did not follow the traditional marriage rites because Mrs X was a widow when they met and it was Mr X’s second marriage, so he moved in with her after months of courtship.
When months of cohabitation turned into years, the happy couple introduced each other to their families and they were accepted as husband and wife.
The man says they had a blissful marriage and their doors were open to relatives from either side who would visit them time and again.
Like any other couple, they had dependants under their roof and once in a while, they would render financial support to relatives.
The couple took part in wedding celebrations in the family as husband and wife, and at funerals they laid wreaths as Mr and Mrs.
As far as Mr X was concerned, for eight years, he enjoyed good rapport with his in-laws until the day his wife died recently. At the funeral, they made it clear that he was not a mukamfwilwa (widower), but rather their daughter’s housemate.
Mr X’s misdemeanour, according to his in-laws, was moving into his wife’s house before the formal marriage talks were held.
Although, he later approached them formally and paid something towards his wife’s engagement, he did not pay the actual bride price or lobola if you like.
He lays blame on his late wife for allegedly stopping him from paying the money he was charged because she did not want some ‘selfish’ elements in the family to exploit him.
Mr X complained that during the funeral, his in-laws did not accord him the respect due to a widower and he felt humiliated before friends and relatives.
He laid wreaths on his wife’s grave under the tag of a friend and this just added salt to his injury.
After burial, he left the house of mourning with his clothes only and a few personal effects because the atmosphere was so hostile that he could not even talk about his inheritance from his late wife’s estate.
The couple was living in the woman’s house and it was obvious that Mr X, who had no children with the deceased, could not be allowed to continue living there after her demise.
He did not seek help from the VSU because he was shy to fight over a woman’s house.
Mr X’s mistake was his failure to formalise his union to a woman he had lived with for eight years.
The couple had no marriage certificate, so it’s difficult for him to make a claim on his late wife’s estate. Perhaps Mr X could seek redress in the local court, but he runs the risk of the case being dismissed because he did not pay bride price.
Previously, when a man and a woman cohabited for about six months, they were considered married under customary law even if no bride price was paid.
But of late, the local courts have been refusing to recognise as marriage unions where lobola was not paid to a woman’s family.
Personally, I blame Mr X’s family and his in-laws for not guiding the couple on what they needed to do to formalise their union. I feel it is wrong to wait until one spouse dies to settle issues of unfinished lobola.
Similarly, it is wrong for Mr Tee’s in-laws to ‘punish’ him for not paying lobola at a time when he was mourning his wife.
The obvious question is ‘where Mr Tee’s in-laws were in the 20 years that he failed to comply with the lobola tradition?’
In my view, family grievances should be settled as and when they crop up. The period of mourning is not ideal for settling old scores.
If I were Mr Tee, I would sue my in-laws for kidnapping my children over unsettled bride price.
My appeal to abused widowers and widows is that the law is there to protect everyone. There is no need to feel shy to seek justice in the courts of law.
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Gender Focus with EMELDA MWITWA