The widows’ retreat began with joyous reunion. I was greeted upon arrival at the retreat with outstretched hands for the usual hand-shake greeting and words of “Opaki Yesu” (Luo), and “Misas Yeso” (Masaai) meaning Praise Jesus and “Bwana asifiwe” (Swahili) meaning Praise the Lord. I had met many of the women present on previous occasions in their villages but somehow this was different. These women were excited as they anticipated a retreat just for them. How they needed this gathering of common-experience women for encouragement and spiritual refreshment for surely no one apart from those in similar circumstances would be able to understand the challenges they had to face as widows in the Kenyan society.
As I taught one session entitled “Dealing with Discouragement and Self-pity”, I watched the women respond as I presented the 5 stages of grief. No one had ever openly talked about what they were feeling as they processed their grief and no one had ever offered suggestions as to how to get through their grief. What I was talking about was exactly what they were experiencing. In Kenya, there is no such thing as grief support groups. These widows are left to cope as best they can without the comfort and support of family or friends or even church because to do so would invite cultural confrontation and even ostracism. These women are bound by a culture of fear.
Being with other widows opened the way to share their experiences where they felt freedom and acceptance. One after another, women stood to tell their stories of the difficult challenges they had or were facing. One woman shared how, when she refused to be inherited (a practice which requires widows to become the wife of a brother to her deceased husband), her husband’s male relatives dug into the foundation of her house so that it would fall and she was thus left
with no place to live. She had no choice but to return to her father’s house. Furthermore, her children were taken from her. Another widow spoke of the difficulty she had to get the pension benefits which her husband, as a teacher, had paid into. She was forced to pay unpaid taxes which may have already been paid and to pay back salary which supposedly her husband had been paid after he had died! Another widow had confided that “a man” (the brother of her husband) had been given the responsibility to care for her but because she had refused to perform the “duties of a wife” he declined to repair her house which was falling down. Culturally she was not to ask assistance from anyone else, even her grown children, and if they would make the repairs they “would die as would she”. These widows live under a cloud of fear and to resist the pressure of culture means taking a great risk.
The Sunday morning service served to challenge the widows to stand firm as Christian women freed from the fear imposed by cultural practices. Bishop Dingili, preaching from Daniel 6, encouraged the women to put their trust in God as Daniel did when he refused to obey the orders of Darius which forbade him to pray. God honoured Daniel’s faithfulness and even the lions’ mouths were shut.
God’s presence was very much evident and as these widows return to live in difficult circumstances, we need to pray that their resolve to live as Christian women would be strengthened and that the church would rise up to demonstrate the biblical model of caring for widows and orphans