Kenya: Courage Amid Pain As Widows Turn Tragedy to Victory

Overcoming the tough life of widowhood is not easy. These six women share their inspiring stories of courage and resilience amid their misfortunes.

Faustine's story

Faustine Wekesa, 59, lost her husband within minutes of the presidential election results announcement in 2007. He was caught up in the post-election violence that shook Kenya back then. But more misfortune awaited her.

Her mother-in-law later rejected her and forcibly took away two of her four children.

"My children kept falling sick and being mistreated while staying at their uncle's home in Kakamega County where my mother-in-law took them. I made up my mind and took them back a year later without anyone's knowledge. I then moved out of my home to frustrate their efforts to find me, and they eventually left me alone," she says.

Faustine, who makes school bags for a living, later realised that a number of HIV-positive women in the sprawling Mathare area had stopped taking their antiretroviral medication due to stigma.

She was inspired to form the Mathare 4A Vision Sisters support group to encourage them to live healthy lifestyles and take up income-generating activities.

"For one to join the group, she must provide a copy of her husband's death certificate. For those who cannot do so, a letter from the local chief confirming her widowhood will do," she adds.

Today, she's a proud grandmother of six.

Narotso's tale

Narotso Mulkhair, 45, is a mother of triplets and a member of the Mathare 4A Vision Sisters support group.

"When I joined the group, I was grieving the loss of my husband and was afraid to reveal my HIV status. Faustine has really gone out of her way to encourage us to take medication and live healthy, productive and positive lives. We have overcome the stigma and are moving on with our lives," she says.

She also works at the shop with Faustine, operating the sewing machine to make school bags. She is an expert at making beaded baskets too.

"My son will graduate from Moi University in August. His brother has already completed a degree in accounting and is pursuing his master's degree. The other sibling is pursuing an engineering course. At my age, I believe I still have a lot left to give my children. It's my wish to see my grandchildren someday," she adds.

The story of Pauline

On April 7, 2007, Pauline Muthusi got married to her long-time friend and high school sweetheart, Eric, at AIC Mbaraki Church in Likoni, Mombasa.

"It was a dream come true," says Pauline.

Five months later, Pauline became pregnant, but she had a miscarriage. She miscarried a second time in 2009, but never lost hope.

When she delivered a baby boy in September 2010, Pauline was over the moon.

"We named him Gift Mambo due to the miraculous nature of his birth," she adds.

Shortly after the baby's birth, her husband left the hospital for home to collect fresh clothes and other items for her and Baby Gift.

On the way home, Eric had an accident and was badly injured.

"We took him to St Francis Hospital where he was treated, and referred to Kenyatta National Hospital. After a few days, his condition worsened and we took him to Kijabe Hospital. On April 3, 2011, he collapsed in the house and passed away at KNH," says Pauline. She became a widow at 22.

The 33-year-old mother, whose son is now eight, then saved the Sh30,000 that sympathetic relatives had donated towards funeral expenses.

"It was what I used as capital to start my small chemist, which I run to date," says Pauline, a trained pharmaceutical technologist.

In 2012, she founded the God is Able Widows Group whose members do table banking and dressmaking in addition to making soaps and detergents. It has over 1,000 members spread across its branches in Mombasa, Machakos, Embu, Kajiado and Kiambu.

"Through the table banking and merry-go-round activities in our groups, we have managed to nurture a savings culture among members. In addition, we advocate the ending of widow abuse and poverty amongst them" she adds.

Her group engages counsellors to encourage the widows. She is glad that some of them who opened up and shared about their HIV positive status are now on medication.

Gladys' woes

Gladys Sanya was very close to her in-laws until tragedy struck. "We used to share meals and were always in conversation whenever I went visiting with my husband," she recalls.

When he tragically passed away after an accident in 2010, everything changed.

"My relatives loudly speculated whether I had anything to do with his death even before we had buried him. Some even told me to pack up and leave after the burial," says a pensive Gladys, who hails from Nyamaiya in Nyamira County.

Her in-laws locked the house she had built with her husband, with the cousin that tried to inherit her holding on to the keys.

She can no longer visit her matrimonial home "because I have nowhere to spend the night with my children," she says.

However, she has forgiven her husband's relatives.

"We must learn to forgive those who wronged us so that we can move on and heal from the emotional scars caused by the mistreatment we experienced," she says.

The 47-year-old mother of three decided to form a group called Rise Up Widows in order to help them recover.

"Widows from the Gusii community undergo a lot of oppression, rights violation and stigma, including being accused of bewitching or poisoning their husbands.

As a result, many end up losing land, property and their respectable social statuses," she says.

The group, which has branches in Komarock, Dandora, Kayole and Molo, Kisii and Nyamira counties, engages in table banking, M-Pesa and chama saving schemes. Potential members are vetted before they join the group. The admission process entails recommendation by group members.

"When some members joined us, they were traumatised, and always sad. But with time, they realise that we share the same misfortune and can forge ahead together," she says.

Esther's tale

When Esther Kabeni's husband, a KDF officer, returned from duty in Somalia, she was happy but unaware that her happiness would be short-lived.

"He complained of a backache, headache and fatigue, which I attributed to the stressful nature of his job. After just one week of his stay, he collapsed in the house. I took him to a hospital in the military camp from where he was referred to Forces Memorial Hospital. He died three days later," says the widow from Kandara, Murang'a County.

So unprepared for her husband's death that what followed shook her. "My in-laws abandoned me and later demanded a share of his pension and the little funding I received after his death," she says.

"At 27, I was left alone without food, rent or school fees to fend for my child, who was three years old. It was a bitter experience, which made me fear and distrust the institution of marriage."

In 2017, Esther started the Royal Widows and Couples Foundation, a support and empowerment group.

"Only the widows reached out to me at this dark period of self-doubt and sorrow. Deeply touched by the gesture, I resolved to do something for them as soon as I was back on my feet financially and emotionally," she says.

All one needs to do to join the group is fill a registration form, buy a T-shirt and participate in their activities.

"Our development plan is aimed at empowering widows. We register them in groups of 10 for easy management and maximum optimisation of funds. We engage in table banking and invite finance experts to teach group members how to save and grow using the funds we are able to obtain from our everyday economic activities," she adds.

"Most members joined the group after being abandoned with bills to pay and children to feed, clothe and educate. The most vulnerable even lacked food to eat. I'm glad to see the transformation that has taken place in their lives as they now make and sell detergents for a living," she says.

The story of Diana

On April 19, 2013, Diana Kamande's husband of 10 years tried to kill her and their children.

"I fought back while screaming for help but neighbours dismissed it as a normal fight between couples. Luckily for us, I managed to call my sister who rescued us. While in hospital nursing the injuries, I learnt he had killed himself."

This was only the beginning of her troubles.

"While in hospital, his relatives accused me of killing him and turning the sword on myself to hide the evidence and win the sympathy of the court," she says.

She adds that she was treated unfairly because she was young and only had daughters.

Some people told her she was young and could get married again.

"While in my hospital bed, special groups of widows and gender-based violence survivors were my regular visitors, which got me thinking about how we could help each other overcome our bitter past," she says.

All her life, she had been socialised to think of violence as a normal way of life for a widow and her children.

As she recovered, Diana's restless and active mind kept working on a plan to change the situation for widows.

"I started drafting a few points that I thought could bridge the gender gap in our constitution leading to widow abuse," she says.

"After I was discharged from the hospital, I invited widows so that we could start a loss and grief-sharing programme or an economic empowerment programme so as to champion widows' rights together."

They held their first meeting in September 2013 and have not looked back since then.

Today, the organisation has grown into a full-fledged NGO and boasts of thousands of members and affiliates countrywide.

"We are glad to serve widows of all ages and ethnic backgrounds. We're bound by widowhood. Our tribe is widowhood."

Diana says there is a Widows' Bill set to be debated in the Assembly and which she hopes will become law.

"It will help widows live a better life. We believe in 'changed lives as our product' and are very glad to report that this is what we are doing as an organisation to change the lives of our widows and our society," she adds.

Solicit sexual favours

"Our members in several groups affiliated to the NGO have been able to access monies from the Women Enterprise Fund and the National Government Affirmative Action Fund, Ngaaf," Mrs Kamande says.

"We're working with the government, private sector and other institutions to make more widows' dreams valid by enlarging our skills training centre."

There are laws and regulations geared towards the protection of widows, but Diana laments that this vulnerable group of women continues to face a number of challenges in the country.

Diana lamented that chiefs, Lands ministry officials and even police officers sometimes ignore widows' complaints.

She reveals that apart from asking widows for bribes, they sometimes solicit sexual favours in return for services.

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