Tradition of Widowhood Rites and Practices in Bali Chamba Communities of Cameroon’s North West Region

For as long as humans have existed, so have traditions. One might argue that traditions, customs, and cultural norms are the reasons behind why some societies thrived while others slowly crumbled to their demise. Throughout history, across conti-nents, during peaceful times, and in war, traditions have been passed from one gener-ation to the next. Often though songs, rituals, and sacred texts, traditions have come to define the way some communities existed. Life, death, and life after death have been the underlying motif, the fabric which ties customary beliefs and traditions through rit-uals and practice. Widowhood is a rite which exists in all cultures and is typically asso-ciated with the way people think about life after death. In the Bali Chamba region of Cameroon’s north-west, the practice of widowhood rites and rituals, is both sacred and despised by those who undergo or bear witness to such custom. 
In order to better understand how such rituals came to be passed on from gen-eration to generation, it is important to look at the history of the Bali Chamba region. The Bali Chamba villages constitute one of the main ethnic groups in the Bamenda Grassfields in Cameroon’s north-west. They have unique roots, cultural values, and beliefs. The Chamba people migrated from the north of Cameroon in the Gashaka area and journeyed south-west into Koncha region of the Benue Valley, due to attacks from Bata and Fulani raids from Yola. At the time, the Chamba were a loose confederacy of raiding bands that evolved into a hierarchically organized mini-state. The date of this exodus may be in the first quarter or at the beginning of the second quarter of the 19th century. The Bali Chamba migrated southward, fighting their way through with weap-ons such as bows and poisonous arrows, spears, and gunpowder. They came on horseback and were very successful in wars. Their leader, Gawolbe, was killed at Bafu-Fondong, which led to the split of the Chamba into seven groups. These dispersed groups then took different routes under their respective leaders and finally settled in the Bamenda Grassfields. At the time, they included Balikumbat, Bali Nyonga, Bali Gham, Bali Ghashu, Bali Gangsin, Bali Muti, and Bali Konntan. Bali Muti later went northward through Wum to Takum in Nigeria, where they dominated a large part of the Kentu District. 
What are the rites and rituals associated with present-day widowhood practices in the Bali Chamba region? The Bali Chamba people are thought to believe that the wife was usually responsible for her husband’s death, even in cases of illness or un-natural deaths, such as a hunting accident or battle. The people had an overpowering belief in the ability of the ghost or death having an influence over the living. Widow-hood rituals were meant to uphold justice and vengeance in the death of a spouse. If a widow or a widower died during widowhood ritual, it was considered proof of guilt for being responsible for the death of the spouse. While widowers had to undergo similar practices, the duration of such an ordeal was significantly shorter than that of a widow. 
Among the villages of the Bamenda Grassfields, death was an important aspect of dai-ly life, and it was treated with utmost care and respect. The widow was the closest per-son to the deceased husband, and so it was expected of her to be ‘cleansed’ from the calamity and spirit of death , which was thought to make her to be unclean and impure. This ritual was considered the perfect means of disconnecting the spirit of the de-ceased spouse from the living spouse. 
The widowhood ritual safe-guarded and guaranteed the entrance and ac-ceptance of the deceased spouse into the world of the ancestors. Ancestorhood was to be achieved only if all the norms associated to widowhood were rigidly respected. Thus, a satisfactory completion of this ritual necessitated a restoration of a peaceful co-existence between the living and the death. 
Widowhood ritual served as a mark of transition or change of social status from a married woman to that of a widowed woman, brought about by death. It was believed that when the rituals were not performed, the victim might be inflicted by madness, swollen legs and stomach. To this effect, family members took the obligation that their relatives were properly cleansed in order to prevent what was to come in the aftermath of spousal death. The elderly widows proudly uphold this cultural practice as they have equally gone through such ordeals without objection. According to them, it was a mor-al, traditional, and cultural obligation of every widow to be cleansed and purified. At times, these elderly widows would see that  the ritual has been followed through with impunity and vengeance. 
In late December 2018, Community Agriculture and Environmental Protection Association (CAEPA Cameroon) set out to conduct a survey of surviving widows in Ba-li Chamba. As a non-government organisation based in Bamenda, Cameroon, CAEPA had access to both the widows who have undergone the widowhood rituals, as well as the notables who were involved in the administration. The notables, being part of the traditional council, including the Fons, were custodians of native laws and traditions, and thus had direct influence over the institution of widowhood. CAEPA was allowed to attend several funeral ceremonies in which they were both active participants and observers. The principal method used in acquiring survey data was through the use of a questionnaire that was administered in the Bali Chamba villages. Data was later ana-lyzed and quantified, in order to bring out a chronological and a thematic flow of knowledge to facilitate understanding of this still widely-practiced ritual. 
Based on data collected from the study, it was discovered that the fundamental rights of widows were violated as they had to perform repugnant and degrading cultur-al practices in the name of ritual cleansing or purification. Bali Chamba widows were confined, excluded and isolated during widowhood rites. Widow inheritance and wid-ow disinheritance were common aspects of widowhood. The hardship some widows had to endure are so unimaginable, that many prefer to live the remainder of their lives without a spouse, as they are more concerned about raising their children, having been left without an inheritance. 
Widow inheritance, or levirate marriage, was another aspect of widowhood, which was a common practice in many parts of African and Bamenda villages in par-ticular. After the death of a husband, his widow was expected to be inherited by the deceased relations. The traditional people believed that widow inheritance provided the widow with considerable security. The word levirate comes from a Hebrews word levir which means  brother in law this was an ancient custom which was practiced among the Semitic people and the Arabs of Yemen (Holy Bible, Ruth Chapter 1:9-21,4:1-6, Deuteronomy Chapter 25:5-10). Widowhood inheritance preserved and main-tained a continuous relationship between the widow, her children, and the deceased family. Through widow inheritance, the levir became the widow’s sole legitimate inti-mate partner, and the children produced from such relationship continued to bear the name of the deceased husband. 
Most levirs accepted to inherit widow(s), because it provided them with health. The traditional economy was characterized by subsistence agriculture, so men needed the widow and her children to provide labour for their farms. Equally, they received bride wealth from the widows grown up daughters which increases their health. In the traditional period, the levirate marriage was viewed rather positively, since it was a mechanism employed by culture and the society to provide and cater for widows and their children.  In the Bali Chamba communities, widows who opposed to be inherited were obliged to refund the bride price that was paid upon their marriage. Should the widow refuse to pay, she would be practically forced into the levirate marriage. 
The economic upliftment of some widows empowered them financially, and there-fore provided no reasons to seek the support of a levir. The empowerment of widows liberated them from oppression, discrimination and abuses. The prevalence of physical and mental abuse was high, as most levir became more interested in the acquiring of property than assisting the widow and her children. Furthermore, with the continuing rise in Western education, Christianity, and the widespread prevalence HIV/ AIDS, men lost interest in inheriting widows, and as such, polygamous marriages witnessed a sharp decline. 
Based on the data collected, it became clear that all of the widows who partici-pated in the survey had undergone some form of widowhood rite, including inher-itance that followed. The survey indicated that most of the widows were farmers and petit (petty) traders, with little to no formal education. As such, the widows believed that rejection of cleansing rituals would lead to madness, swollen legs and stomach, and suicidal tendencies. These findings were consistent across all of the villages surveyed by CAEPA. It was interesting to observe that, while widowhood rites were observed in every community of the Bali Chamba region, the duration varied from three days to three month for widows, while widowers lasted a day. The number if children a widow had varied from one to nine. This seemed to have little effect on the duration of the cleansing ritual. It is of importance to note that the widowhood institution is a well or-ganised and established aspect of the community, which has survived cultural extinc-tion, despite its repugnant and degrading nature. In the history of Balikumbat, for ex-ample, the widowhood institution experienced a shock in 2006, when a courageous widow outrightly rejected widowhood rites due to her religious stance. At the time, the normal duration of widowhood rite in Balikumbat was one week. Balikumbat is a war-ring community, and men could be needed at any moment to either participate in terri-torial protection or expansion. Nowadays, the duration of widowhood rites fluctuates between three days to one week. 
Across the communities surveyed by CAEPA, it was observed that widowhood practices followed similar rituals. Deeply rooted in ancient tradition, this meant for wid-ows to be stripped off their clothes, bodily hair removed (typically by means of shaving), sleeping on plantain leaves or on a bed made of bamboo, and being allowed to bathe in a stream once a week, until the cleansing ritual has been completed. Some commu-nities allowed widows to cover their exposed private parts with a white loincloth. Other may allow for a thin white garment to be worn. All hair is removed from the widow’s body, including the hair on her head, eyebrows, arms, legs, and the pubic area. The widow has to sits with legs stretched out and her hands stretched open on her legs. She eats from a calabash and drinks from another calabash which is washed once a week. She eats without washing of hands, as basic hygiene is neglected. 
As difficult as it is to recount the shame, humiliation, self-rejection, and denial the widows had to endure, it is important to note that an effort is being made across the Ba-li Chamba communities to lessen the burden placed upon the widows. The traditional authorities are aware of the negative effects of widowhood rites on widows and the general community, and have taken it upon themselves to modify some of the practic-es. In the traditional period, widows were completely naked, however, as time went on, they were dressed half naked in a white loin cloth just to cover the private part while the breast remained exposed. In more recent years, widows are normally dressed in ei-ther white or black depending on her wishes. Widows could wear shoes and head scarf during the burial of her husband. A widow could get pregnant during widowhood rites, which in the past was considered a taboo, and the widow would have to be cleansed a second time. 
Widows now sleep on mattress and not on the bare floor, plantain leaves or bam-boo bed. The hygienic situation of widows are also being investigated. Widows are al-lowed to bath early in the morning before sunrise and or late in the evening. In the past, widows would eat from plantain leaves, but later from a calabash. In the past, widows were bathed and dressed by the stream, but recently, they have been allowed to bathe behind the house. The results of the CAEPA study confirmed that there has also been a notable change in the duration of widowhood ritual in all the villages. Some rituals in the past would take as long as three-to-six months; more recently, this has been reduced to three to seven days, depending on circumstances. Widow inher-itance has equally declined drastically due to the spread of Christianity and moderniza-tion. The issue of widow disinheritance is more visible in cases of either a childless woman or a widow without a male child. 
Why is the practice of widowhood rites and rituals still in existence in Came-roon’s north-west and other parts of Africa? There is no simple answer. African women have been the upholders of their culture and have protected it against extinction. Some indigenes of the north-west region continued to respect their customs and traditions as they saw it as the only authentic means to give a deceased spouse a befitting burial which facilitated their entrance into ancestor hood and thus their culture was a treas-ured inheritance from their forth fathers. Some elderly widows enjoyed the notorious distinction of being identified as the few villagers who have categorically rejected the abandonment of widowhood rituals. They took upon themselves the responsibility to purify widows in and out of their family. Although women constituted a greater propor-tion of the rural population, they were the greater fraction of the illiterate population. On the other hand, most educated women attributed the persistence of widowhood rituals to the slow nature of the legal system of Cameroon. 
Customary marriages were redressed based on the law and custom of the people. In this case, widows were treated according to their cultural prescription. For this rea-son, most rural widows saw nothing wrong with the rituals since other widows had gone through it. Most African communities were patriarchal and so produced patriar-chal frameworks in which gender division was the other of the day. Patriarchy refers to the power relations in which women’s interest were subordinated to those of men. These power relation cuts across organization and ritual. Women were considered as only daughters, wives and widows of men. Although most of the villages in the Bamenda Grassfields were Christianized in the colonial and precolonial periods, the Christian religion has not been able to off root the indigenes from their traditional belief system associated with their traditional religion. The church seems to have failed to provide the widows with the required protection against the spirit of death which pur-portedly was provided by widowhood ritual. 
While most studies conducted to date focus on the widowhood practices and  rituals, may fail to neglect the difficulties widows faced afterward. Most widows experi-ence unhappiness, loneliness, low morals, and depression due to lack of preparation to face widowhood. In some cases, a husband may die because of a prolonged illness, but more often than not, the death would be sudden and without warning.  Another problem associated to widowhood was a sense of rejection and ostracism. Some wid-ows were not just denied their fundamental rights, they were physically abused by the in-laws and the male members of their society, making them even more weak and vul-nerable. Widows were ordinarily disinherited because land and property inheritance was a privilege to men. In the case where a widows has a male child, her right to inher-itance was guaranteed, as opposed to a widow without a son. Therefore, property dis-pute was a common characteristic of widowhood. 
Some widows were inherited either willingly or unwillingly, and in such a mar-riage, the widow was seen as an inferior wife. Children born in such unions found it difficult to adjust to the realities surrounding their family and through this, the inherited widows were exposed to HIV/ AIDS and other transmissible diseases. Widows were excluded from many activities during widowhood rites, and were imposed restriction and extensive mourning customs, such as seclusion and isolation. Widows were obliged to dress half-naked thereby exposing their body, which publicly shamed and degraded them. 
Widow’s responsibilities were increased as she has to single-handedly bring up her children. In some cases, children were withdrawn from school and girls were forced into early or unwanted marriages. The treatment given to some widows within the family and in the society as a whole could place a widow in a comfortable position or in a distress situation. This was especially common in cases were the widows were accused of having caused the late husband’s death. 
What can be done to help widows rehabilitate into their communities and become independent and self-sustained? The importance of agriculture in the Bali Chamba villages cannot be overemphasised.  Agriculture is the main economic activity of the rural population and it should be encouraged. Women’s access to land should be un-limited as it favours agriculture. Trading should be an option for widows; therefore, the government should provide them with interest-free loans in order to encourage their trading activities. All women, especially widows, should be given information and train-ing on modern farming techniques, as well as the availability and use of modern equipment, pesticides, and insecticides. 
Women and widows in particular should attend adult literacy classes, seminars, and training programmes offered to them by the state, religious bodies, and nongov-ernmental organizations such as CAEPA Cameroon. In addition to education and vo-cational training, women must be aware on their basic human rights (women’s rights) and to educate themselves on where to go for help.This can be done through the es-tablishment of victim telephone hotlines, community support groups, community work-shops, mentoring, peer-to-peer tutoring, and more. This would enable the widows with a safe and judgement-free environment in which to share experiences, seek support, offer advice, acquire new skills and ideas. It would provide them with a path to commu-nity reintegration, independence, and self-sustainment. Receiving education will also provide access to better-paid jobs and financial security. 
We cannot dismiss the traditional rulers as the custodians of our traditions. They need to be embraced as active participants who play a very important role in the modifi-cation of widowhood rituals. The traditional rulers in collaboration with the traditional council could use their positions and influences to change some of these cultural mal-practices. Women considering marriage should ensure that their unions are properly legalized in order to protect their rights as a legal widow which is stipulated in the Cameroon civil ordinance. Husbands should be encouraged to write a will which would give concise instructions on how their property would  be managed or divided after death. As societies evolve, so do traditions. New customs are created and old ones are abolished. In order for Bali Chamba community to survive and for its members to thrive, we must ensure that women are granted their basic human rights, are treated with dignity and respect, are given the right to education and healthcare, and that they are allowed to grieve after the death of a spouse. 

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