For widows in Africa, COVID-19 stole husbands, homes, future

May 10, 2022 GMT
Roseline Ujah, 49, sits on her bed in Umuida, Nigeria, Friday, Feb. 11, 2022. Ujah's husband Godwin fell severely ill with a fever and cough. Everyone assumed at first that the palm wine tapper had contracted malaria, but then he failed to improve on medications for that disease. Doctors at a local hospital diagnosed him with COVID-19, though there were no tests available locally to confirm their suspicion. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
Roseline Ujah, 49, sits on her bed in Umuida, Nigeria, Friday, Feb. 11, 2022. Ujah's husband Godwin fell severely ill with a fever and cough. Everyone assumed at first that the palm wine tapper had contracted malaria, but then he failed to improve on medications for that disease. Doctors at a local hospital diagnosed him with COVID-19, though there were no tests available locally to confirm their suspicion. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
Roseline Ujah, 49, sits on her bed in Umuida, Nigeria, Friday, Feb. 11, 2022. Ujah's husband Godwin fell severely ill with a fever and cough. Everyone assumed at first that the palm wine tapper had contracted malaria, but then he failed to improve on medications for that disease. Doctors at a local hospital diagnosed him with COVID-19, though there were no tests available locally to confirm their suspicion. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
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Roseline Ujah, 49, sits on her bed in Umuida, Nigeria, Friday, Feb. 11, 2022. Ujah's husband Godwin fell severely ill with a fever and cough. Everyone assumed at first that the palm wine tapper had contracted malaria, but then he failed to improve on medications for that disease. Doctors at a local hospital diagnosed him with COVID-19, though there were no tests available locally to confirm their suspicion. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
1 of 27
Roseline Ujah, 49, sits on her bed in Umuida, Nigeria, Friday, Feb. 11, 2022. Ujah's husband Godwin fell severely ill with a fever and cough. Everyone assumed at first that the palm wine tapper had contracted malaria, but then he failed to improve on medications for that disease. Doctors at a local hospital diagnosed him with COVID-19, though there were no tests available locally to confirm their suspicion. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

UMUIDA, Nigeria (AP) — As Anayo Mbah went into labor with her sixth child, her husband battled COVID-19 in another hospital across town. Jonas, a young motorcycle taxi driver, had been placed on oxygen after he started coughing up blood.

Jonas would never meet his daughter, Chinaza. Hours after the birth, Mbah’s sister-in-law called to say he was gone. Staff at the hospital in Nigeria soon asked Mbah and her newborn to leave. No one had come to pay her bill.

Anayo began the rites of widowhood at the home where she lived with her in-laws: Her head was shaved, and she was dressed in white clothing. But just weeks into the mourning period that traditionally lasts six months, her late husband’s relatives stopped providing food, then confronted her directly.

“They told me that it was better for me to find my own way,” Mbah, now 29, said. “They said even if I have to go and remarry, that I should do so. That the earlier I leave the house, the better for me and my children.”

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She left on foot for her mother’s home with only a plastic bag of belongings for Chinaza and her other children.

Across Africa, widowhood has long befallen great numbers of women — particularly in the continent’s least developed countries where medical facilities are scarce. Many widows are young, having married men decades older. And in some countries, men frequently have more than one wife, leaving several widows behind when they die.

Now, the pandemic has created an even larger population of widows on the continent, with African men more likely to die of the virus than women, and it has exacerbated the issues they face. Women such as Mbah say the pandemic has taken more than their husbands: In their widowhood, it’s cost them their extended families, their homes and their futures.

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This story is part of a yearlong series on how the pandemic is impacting women in Africa, most acutely in the least developed countries. The Associated Press series is funded by the European Journalism Centre’s European Development Journalism Grants program, which is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The AP is responsible for all content.

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Once widowed, women are often mistreated and disinherited. Laws prohibit many from acquiring land or give them only a fraction of their spouse’s wealth. In-laws can claim custody of children. Other in-laws disown the children and refuse to help, even if they’re the family’s only source of money and food. And young widows have no adult children to support them in impoverished communities with few jobs.

In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, some 70 percent of confirmed COVID-19 deaths have been men, according to data tracked by the Sex, Gender and COVID-19 Project. Similarly, more than 70 percent of deaths in Chad, Malawi, Somalia and Congo have been men, according to figures from the project. Other countries likely show similar trends but lack the resources to gather detailed figures.

Experts say some of the widows left behind have nothing while others are pressured to remarry brothers-in-law or be cut off. Widows can start experiencing mistreatment by their in-laws before their husbands are even buried.

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“Some are treated as outcasts, accused of being responsible for the death of their husband,” said Egodi Blessing Igwe, of WomenAid Collective, which has aided thousands of widows with legal services and family mediation.

In Congo, Vanessa Emedy Kamana had known her husband for a decade before he proposed marriage. She worked for the scholar as a personal assistant. By the time their friendship turned romantic, Godefroid Kamana was in his late 60s; she, a single mother in her late 20s.

When he died, relatives came to the family home where Kamana had just begun her period of mourning. Generally, widows are required to stay in their homes and can receive visitors. Mourning lengths vary by religion and ethnic group. Kamana, whose family is Muslim, was supposed to stay home for four months and 10 days. But her husband’s relatives didn’t wait that long to force her and her young son out on the street, showing up the night of his burial.

She feared her husband’s family would seek custody of her son, Jamel, whom Kamana had adopted and given his surname. Ultimately the relatives did not, because the boy — now 6 — wasn’t his biological child. They did, however, move swiftly to amass financial assets.

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She and her son now live in a smaller home her mother kept as a rental property. Kamana sells secondhand clothing at a market. She initially received 40% of her late husband’s salary, those funds will soon stop entirely.

It’s painful, Kamana said, when her late husband’s relatives insist they’ve lost more than she did: “No one will be able to replace him.”

In West Africa, widowhood is particularly fraught in the large swaths where many marriages are polygamous. The first wife or her children usually lay claim to the family home and financial assets.

Saliou Diallo, 35, said she’d have been left with nothing after a decade of marriage had her husband not thought to put her home under her name instead of his. Under Guinean law, a man’s multiple wives share a small percentage of his estate, with nearly all of it — 87.5 percent — going to his children.

Diallo’s husband, El Hadj, 74, had been building the home just for her and their 4-year-old daughter when he fell ill.

Diallo already knew the burden of losing a spouse: At 13, she became a second wife, only to be widowed in her early 20s. Then, El Hadj already had had several wives but wanted to marry Diallo and raise her three kids as his own.

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They’d spent a decade together before the virus hit El Hadj. In his final conversations with his wife, he lamented that her home didn’t have windows yet. That he hadn’t lived long enough to build a well so she wouldn’t have to carry water on her head. That other relatives would try to chase her off once he was gone.

Family asked Diallo for the papers of the house El Hadj had built for her. She provided photocopies but secretly kept the originals.

Her extended family ultimately helped raise money to put windows on her house. Still, she feels her husband’s absence. There’s electricity, but no light fixtures. She has just a few plastic chairs as furniture in her unpainted living room.

“I am sure God is saving a surprise for me. I surrender to him,” she said. “I keep my faith.”

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Larson also reported from Goma, Congo and Conakry, Guinea. Associated Press journalists Jerome Delay, Justin Kabumba and Moses Sawasawa in Goma, Congo and Boubacar Diallo in Conakry, Guinea, contributed.