OKAKARARA, Namibia—For many women in this hardscrabble patch of southern Africa, the death of a husband doesn't just mean the loss of a loved one, a father and a breadwinner.
It also can mean the loss of cattle and chickens, tables and chairs, clothes and shoes. Tribal custom in much of this region treats a family's material possessions as belonging to the husband, and upon his death his relatives often swoop in to collect.
That's what happened to Helena Nekome, 40, when her husband died suddenly of complications from diabetes two years ago. Within days, Nekome said, her in-laws seized linens, kitchenware, electronics and clothes from her farm in rural northern Namibia.
"There was nothing I could do," said Nekome, who lives in the capital, Windhoek. Her complaint is common among widows in Namibia's tribal societies, where male-dominant customs still rule and wives—considered little more than property themselves—are powerless against their in-laws.
Across much of Africa, human rights advocates say, the practice of "estate grabbing" has worsened the toll from poverty and diseases such as AIDS, which kill off countless husbands and fathers in their prime. Their widows often are left struggling to care for young children without the most basic of household goods.
Rights advocates say the problem is especially acute in Namibia, where one in five people are thought to be infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS—one of the highest rates in Africa.
Every month, a handful of aggrieved widows report inheritance cases to the National Society for Human Rights in Windhoek. But experts think the actual number of cases is much higher because most Namibians live in rural areas and lack information or the willingness to challenge age-old tribal practices.
"It's an urgent problem," said Mercedes Ovis, a lawyer with the Legal Assistance Center, a legal aid group in Windhoek. "Many women and children are being left without anything to maintain them."
Namibia, like many African countries, has laws protecting inheritance rights in civil marriages. But in this largely rural country, most marriages are common-law unions, Ovis said, meaning they fall under tribal conventions and inheritance laws don't apply.
In traditional societies, inheritance often is governed by centuries-old practices that can be incredibly complex. Anthropological diagrams of some tribal-inheritance practices can fill entire pages.
In some parts of Africa, including some tribal societies in Kenya and Ethiopia, the widow herself is inherited by a brother-in-law and required to have sex with him to "cleanse" herself of the husband's evil spirit.
Here in the dry scrubland of northern Namibia, one of the dominant tribes is the Herero, a cattle-raising people who number about 100,000. When a Herero man dies, women go into a period of mourning, traditionally two weeks, though nowadays it's often shortened to several days. Widows cover themselves in black clothing and live apart from the rest of the clan, including their children.
It's during this period, rights workers say, that inheritance decisions are often made and a family's property seized.
"Women aren't allowed to take any decision," said Olga Tjiurutue, who runs a nonprofit group in Okakarara, a sleepy town in the hills of north-central Namibia. "Men come in and do whatever they want to do."
Women often are left destitute. Seventeen years have passed since Teresia Zaongara's husband died. She lost her family's six cows, their few scraps of wooden furniture, a misshapen mattress and all her steel pots and pans to her in-laws while she was sequestered in mourning.
She was left with just a barren plot of dusty land, and 16 children to care for.
"I had no right to say anything or do anything," said Zaongara, a 64-year-old Herero woman with silver braids and deep wrinkles on her chocolate-colored forehead.
Without cattle to raise, and unable to remarry because of cultural taboos, Zaongara and her children were forced into poverty. Today she lives with them and about a dozen grandchildren on a postage stamp-sized plot of land that's cluttered with mud huts, tin sheds and two rusting Volkswagen minibuses on blocks.
Only four of her children, now ages 35 to about 50, can get regular work. She makes money selling tobacco and tombo, a rough local beer. Her grandchildren scurry about the yard in hand-me-down clothes—tattered T-shirts and once-fluffy bedroom slippers.
"Everything changed for us" when her husband died, she said.
In Okakarara, some female aid workers are trying to teach men to draw up wills before they die. When a dead man has a will, Namibian law allows it to be enforced by a court. But even then women face strong resistance from traditional leaders.
"They say that we have invaded their space by trying to talk about inheritance," said Joynitha Tjiteere, who runs a women's advocacy program in Okakarara. "Sometimes they walk out of meetings."
There's another way out. A small number of couples, mostly in Windhoek and Namibia's larger towns, choose to marry without pooling their assets. In such marriages, a widow retains legal ownership of her property—a sort of prenuptial agreement.
This kind of arrangement helped Nekome, a widowed mother of three, retain her home and a real-estate business in Windhoek, which she owned before her marriage. The property was out of her in-laws' reach, and she said she could comfortably care for her children.
At the time of her wedding, she recalled, her friends thought it was a strange arrangement, that perhaps she didn't really love her husband.
"It's only those intelligent women who know about this," Nekome said. "You're still in love with the person, but you do it to protect yourself and protect your family."
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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