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

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

UMUIDA, Nigeria – When Anayo Mbah gave birth to her sixth child, her husband fought COVID-19 at another hospital across the city. Jonas, a young motorcycle taxi driver, had been put on oxygen after he started coughing up blood.

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

Mbah began the rituals of widowhood in the home where she lived with her in-laws: Her head was shaved and she was dressed in white. But just a few weeks into the mourning period, which traditionally lasts six months, her deceased husband’s relatives stopped giving food and then confronted her directly.

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

She walked to her mother’s home with only a plastic bag of belongings for Chinaza and her other children.

“I decided I could die if I continued to stay here with my kids,” she said.

Across Africa, widowhood has long affected a large number of women – especially in the continent’s least developed countries, where medical facilities are scarce. Many widows are young and have married men who are decades older. And in some lands, husbands often have more than one wife, leaving several widows dead.

Now, the coronavirus pandemic has created an even larger population of widows on the continent, with African men far more likely to die from the virus than women, and this has exacerbated the problems they face. Women like Mbah say the pandemic has taken more than their men: In their widowhood, it has cost them their extended families, their homes, and their future.


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


Once widowed, women are often mistreated and made hereditary. Laws forbid many to acquire land or give them only a fraction of their spouse’s wealth, and widows in places like southeastern Nigeria face suspicion of their husband’s death during the mourning period. In-laws may claim custody of children; tradition says that children belong to the father. Other in-laws deny the children and refuse to help, even though they are the family’s only source of money and food. And young widows have no adult children to support them in communities of extreme poverty and get jobs for women with limited education.

In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, about 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 the deaths in Chad, Malawi, Somalia and the Congo have been men, according to figures from the project, which is the world’s largest database tracking traces of coronavirus differences between men and women. Other countries are likely to show similar trends, but lack the resources to collect detailed figures.

Experts say some of the bereaved widows have nothing, while others are being pressured to remarry or be cut off. Widows can begin to experience abuse from their in-laws before their husbands are even buried.

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

Some experts say that widows are facing the harshest reality in Nigeria. There, Mbah is now raising her children without financial support from her in-laws, who even kept the motorcycle her husband rode as a taxi. She has four jobs, including one as a cleaning assistant at a school where she can no longer afford to send her children.

Her husband had no will and she has not filed a lawsuit against her in-laws. She fears it would only make her situation worse, and finding the time would be nearly impossible.

For some widows who are pursuing lawsuits, a will saves the day, Igwe from the women’s rights organization said.

“The will can really help if men can have the courage to prepare for it and keep updating it,” she said. “In this part of the world, unfortunately, we do not like to talk about death.”

Even in the widowhood, women are often still under the supervision of men – adult sons or brothers – and may not be able to pursue a case if the family believes it will bring stigma or shame.

In the Congo, Vanessa Emedy Kamana had known her husband for a decade before proposing marriage. She worked for the scholar as a personal assistant. When their friendship became romantic, Godefroid Kamana was in the late 60s; she, a single mother in her late 20s. She said she was attracted to his youthful spirit and intellect: He worked in a think tank and had two doctorates from European universities.

When he was first tested positive for COVID-19, there was no hospital bed for him, despite his age and status as a diabetic, in the eastern city of Goma, a humanitarian hub with a large presence of the UN peacekeeping mission. Once a place was secured, his wife spent most of her last days searching for oxygen and pleading with the sellers.

On the night of his funeral, 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 to stay at home for four months and 10 days. But her husband’s relatives did not wait long to force her and her little son out on the streets.

“I was deprived of everything, for all my belongings,” she said.

She feared that her husband’s family would seek custody of her son, Jamel, whom Kamana had adopted and given his last name. In the end, the relatives did not because the boy – now 6 – was not his biological child. However, they moved quickly to amass the financial assets.

“I did not realize it because I was at home crying for my husband,” she said. “But they came and said, ‘These bank accounts belong to us.’

She, her son and their cat now live in a smaller home that her mother had as a rental home. Kamana sells used clothes at a market while her son is in school. And even though she originally received 40% of her deceased husband’s salary, those funds will soon stop altogether.

Kamana’s marriage was relatively new. He had paid the dowry to her family in 2020, but they had no public ceremony due to COVID-19 restrictions. What mattered most, she said, was that he had accepted her son as his own. Now the family has taken a bank account set up for the boy.

And it’s painful, Kamana said, as some of her deceased husband’s relatives insist they have lost more than she did.

“No one will be able to replace him,” she said.

In West Africa, widowhood is especially filled in the great shards where many marriages are polygamous. Every wife performs the rituals of mourning, but it is the first wife or her children who usually claim the family home and other financial assets.

Saliou Diallo, 35, said she would have been left with nothing after a decade of marriage if her husband had not thought of putting her home under her name instead of his. Even after his death, she lives in fear that her husband’s older children or relatives will try to take over her small residence on the outskirts of Guinea’s capital, Conakry.

Under Guinean law, a man’s multiple wives share a small percentage of his property, with almost everything – 87.5 percent – going to his children, said Yansane Fatou Balde, a women’s rights activist. Women rarely dispute their inheritance because of the stigma and cost.

Diallo’s husband, El Hadj, 74, had built the house only for her and their 4-year-old daughter when he fell ill with COVID-19. Diallo was also infected – and scared. She already knew the burden of losing a spouse: As a 13-year-old, she became another wife, only to become a widow in her early 20s.

Her next attempt at marriage dissolved when the husband did not adopt her three children. Then she was introduced to El Hadj, who had already married several women, but who was willing to raise Diallo’s three children as her own.

They spent a decade together before the virus hit El Hadj. In his last conversations with his wife, he lamented that her home did not yet have windows. That he had not lived long enough to build a well so she would not have to carry water on her head every day. That other relatives would try to chase her away when he was gone.

Under grief, the first wife refused to support Diallo financially – who could not attend the funeral because she was tested positive for the virus. Then the first wife’s children came to Diallo’s house and recaptured the car he had given her. They took all his documents and checkbooks.

“They wanted to chase me away, too,” Diallo said. “I said to them, ‘Let me finish my grief and see my husband’s grave.’

The children asked for the papers from the house El Hadj had built for her. She provided photocopies, but kept the originals secret.

Her extended family eventually helped raise money to put windows on her house. Still, she notices her husband’s absence. There is power but no light fixtures. The walls are finished but not painted, and only a few plastic lawns and a mini-fridge furnish the home.

“I’m sure God is saving a surprise for me. I surrender to him,” she said. “In the meantime, I live on the help of my parents. They support me and I keep my faith.”

In Diallo’s case, the law has protected her home. But where laws do not protect widows, the resolution of inheritance disputes often comes down to family mediation alone.

Back in Nigeria, Roseline Ujah, 49, spent three decades as part of her husband’s extended family. She shared duties and meals with them and even helped care for her mother and father-in-law in their later years.

But she said her husband’s brother began planning to make her and her seven children hereditary before her husband, Godwin, had even been buried. Her sister-in-law intervened and managed to save a small portion of the land where Ujah now grows cocoyam, a root vegetable.

When her husband – who harvested palm wine – first became ill, everyone assumed it was malaria. But the medicine failed and his breathing became troublesome. Hospital doctors diagnosed him with COVID-19, although no tests were available for confirmation. With no money for a hospital stay, Ujah turned to traditional medicine.

“I kept begging God not to let him die,” she said. “He kept getting weaker and weaker, and we were looking for solutions for him.” He died in their home and was buried in his front yard.

Only her sister-in-law brought food to the family during their six-month mourning. Ujah was banned from leaving the home. Without the support of her extended family, she had to send her children to work on the neighbors’ farms for income. Some days they ate nothing at all.

“It was only from the door that I could call the attention of passers-by to help me get something on the market,” she said.

Godwin’s two youngest children – 13-year-old Chidimma and 11-year-old Chimuanya – have been particularly affected by his death as their relationship with their father’s family has deteriorated.

Ujah is left to fight for its family’s survival and makes brooms to sell at the local market. She knows her husband would have confronted her family over their poor treatment of her. Without him, she turns to her faith.

“I look up to God and tell him I have no one else,” she said. “He is my husband and father to my children and to the family, and I will not marry another man.”


Larson also reported from Goma, Congo and Conakry, Guinea. Associated Press writer Boubacar Diallo in Conakry, Guinea, contributed.


Watch the full series on how the pandemic affects women in Africa:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.