Chapter IV Widows and the Economy
4.1.3. Customary Right to Land
4.1.4 Land Ownership.
4.1.5 The Spiritual Value of Land.
4.1.6 Other Problems for Farming Widows
One of the most consistent findings by various authors with regards to African widows is the degree to which they are economically self-reliant (Potash 1986:27). Like African women generally, they contribute substantially to household economy and often provide most or all of the support for themselves and their children. In some African societies, women are the primary subsistence producers and men in others. The type of and degree of female and male economic interdependence relates to labour organisation, the requirements of the productive technology and the pattern of income distribution. Men and women in some cases control their own income. But in many, resources are pulled together. This type of income control has implications for the widow. For one, the widow may not differentiate her personal income and property from that of the husband. Furthermore, since the influence of the kin group, the inheritance rules, and kinship ties are strong among many African societies and are often more emphasised than marital ties, a widow stands the chance of loosing access to property jointly acquired with her husband. The result is that the widow may have to start a new economic life on the death of the husband.
How does the above picture apply to the rural Igbo widows studied here? The assumption was that they will substantially differ from urban widows in terms of their economic survival strategies. They will invariably be dependent on agriculture and as such ownership and rights to inherit and use land will be very important to them. One would expect that the widow should inherit her husband's property and estate and sustain herself and her family from there. But this is not the case for these widows.
My focus in the interviews were what economic activities widows undertake. I further looked at the following: How significantly were widows' economic activities different from when their spouses were alive? What prompted the choice of economic activity which these widows undertake? What support, if any, do widows get from the extended family, children, levir and lovers (iko)? How is land, a major factor in a predominantly agricultural economy controlled in the family in terms of its allocation, use and inheritance? Since widows are not guaranteed part of their husband's wealth including land, we shall examine what economic activities they undertook.
Of the 80 widows interviewed, 28 were traders. 16 were farmers. 17 combined farming and trading (see Appendix A). Apart from farming and trading, 7 of the widows were engaged in various types of civil or public service. 4 were self employed in the service industry. 6 of the older widows were not engaged in any economic activity and two are apprenticed in a skills acquisition centre. Since my informants are rural widows, this percentage cannot be representative of Igbo widows. It cannot also be representative of the educated and urban elite widow. I assume however that they derive their major income from the civil and public sectors. The study concentrated on those widows who lived off farming, trading or a combination of both.
The importance of agriculture in Igbo economy cannot be overemphasised. Nwachukwu (1989) argues that up till 1900, a typical Igbo was in the main a farmer. Being the head of a household, he was the owner of productive resources and planned what to do, how to do it and the size of land to be cultivated. Labour consisted of the members of the family, neighbours, friends, in-laws and relations. Nwachukwu argues that there appears to have been a positive correlation between the number of wives, children and friends, and in-laws in Igboland and the size of his farm. Agriculture was the main economic activity of the Igbo for a very long time. Aside from assisting men in yam production, women had their own crops. These ranged from cassava, coco yam, maize, pepper, various types of vegetables and legumes which were exclusive to women. Agriculture and local trading went hand in hand for women. They sold the excess produce in the local markets and substantially provided food for the family.
Cassava was the major agricultural product for women. It was introduced by the Europeans into Igboland after 1914. Since it was looked upon as inferior to yam - the prestige staple crop and generally regarded as a man's crop, cassava thus became virtually women's crop. Its production and marketing devolved essentially on women. Ekechi noted that the adaptation of cassava as a food crop tended to enhance the economic position of women in society. Phoebe Ottenberg writing about Igbo women and cassava cultivation noted;
Women's acceptance of cassava meant not only the alleviation of the traditional famine period preceding the yam harvest but also a profound alteration in the economic and social relationship between husbands and wives. In pre-colonial times, if a woman's husband did not give her food, she was in a sorry plight; now she can subsist without her husband
Besides cassava offered a potential for capital accumulation and ultimately the assertion of some degree of independence. An Afikpo woman reportedly told an interviewer in 1952 that if a woman has any money she buys land and plants cassava. The year after she does this, she can have a crop for cassava meal which she can (also) sell and have her own money. Then she can say, "what is man? I have my own money"112. The introduction of cassava provided women an opportunity to have a special agricultural product.
Agriculture was also important for women in other ways. The Igbo lie in the palm belt of southern Nigeria. Agricultural output especially palm produce contributed substantially to the GDP (Gross domestic Product) of Nigeria as a whole. These palms grew wild in farm lands and who owned the land also owned the palm trees. Its processing however was the woman's duty. The palm oil belonged to the man while the palm kernel belonged to the woman. Agricultural export has been important and more pronounced in the fifteen years following the Second World War, when earnings from it were buoyant, and constituted the economic foundation of migration to the towns. From the 1960s an even stronger influence was exerted on the composition of the GDP. The volume of palm kernel in thousand tons were 409 in 1964-6; 213 in 1970-2 and 172 in 1976-8. For palm oil it was 146 for 1964-6; 10 for 1970 and 2 for 1976-8 . Palm produce for a long time constituted a major source of income for men as well as women. But it has over the years declined as a major source of income for rural dwellers. After the 1960s, agricultural export seized to be a major export earner. Petroleum emerged as the major export earner for Nigeria. Its volume was greatly increased after the Biafra secession was overcome in 1970. Although earnings for a woman were enhanced by income from palm produce, her inability to control the land and its resources as a widow also means a substantial loss of income from the palm trees.
Women raise various agricultural products for food and cash. Indeed profit from sale of agricultural products especially palm produce was the largest single source of capital for investment in trading. (See p.72)
When an Igbo woman becomes a widow, it would be preferable for her to continue to work the land. But inheriting land is impossible for an Igbo widow. She will be subjected to one of two legal system: statutory law or customary law. According to statutory law, a widow is allowed to inherit part of her husband's property and estate including land. Section 36 of the Nigerian Marriage Act provides for the widow in the following ways:
(a) a widow with children is entitled to one-third of her husband's estate;
(b) where the widow has no child, she is entitled to half of her husband's estate.
The above provision therefore, indicates that on paper, a widow is entitled to inherit from her husband on his death. Similarly, his children are entitled to inherit from his estate. Where the deceased is survived by both widow and children, the nuclear family is the sole beneficiary. But how does this apply in practice? In many cases, the applicable rules are difficult to discern. Even where they are known, the provisions are not really subject to precise interpretation. Evidence suggests that the widow's rights of inheritance under the Marriage Act are completely ignored by the deceased's relatives who regard the deceased's estate as their birth right. It also indicates that courts do not follow statutory law but customary law. One rule which most traditional African societies are unanimous about is that in the customary law of intestate succession, the widow has no place in the sense that she can never inherit from her husband. This is in line with the customary practice among the Igbo. In a case reported by Omiyi for example, portrays the inability of a wife to inherit property from the husband. The court held in this case that;
The native law and customs alleged here is, briefly, that property can not be allotted and descend through a wife. If such native law and custom existed, it would mean that on the death of the childless wife, not of the same family as her husband, property vested in her would pass away from the husband's family, from whom the wife became entitled to it, to the wife's family.
In a 1959 case which Omiyi also reported in her study, the husband was survived by three customary law widows. There were no children. Before his death the deceased instructed his senior wife to administer his property and use the income to maintain herself and the other wives, and to continue staying in the compound with the hope that they might have children for him. The senior wife attempted to carry out the wishes of her husband but was challenged by his nephew, the plaintiff in this case. He claimed not only that he was the rightful administrator of his uncle's estate but also that the widow should be expelled from the late husband's compound. It was held that a widow can neither inherit her husband's estate nor administer it.
Another case which illustrates this customary rule that a widow cannot inherit property was demonstrated in a 1988 land dispute. In this case, a widow from the research area, had sold a piece of land. Her son challenged her mother's right to sell any part of his father's land. In his judgement the traditional ruler of the town noted;
The Eze who is the custodian of the customs and traditions of this town in no equivocal manner condemn the practice of purported purchase of landed property from women or housewives. Such purchase is disallowed by the customary laws of the town particularly in a case such as this where the woman, a widow for that matter, has a grown up son who is the automatic heir to the estate of the deceased father.
In an appeal in the above case at the Customary Court in Ahiazu Mbaise in 1989, the court held that;
It is unheard of that a woman with a grown up son can sell her husband's land in the absence of the son...It would be uncustomary if this court were to find for a defendant claiming that he bought a piece of land of a man with a son from his wife
I attended the proceedings of a case during field work in 1995. In this case, a widow who had no surviving son had given all the land belonging to her late husband to a family member whom I would call 'A'. 'A' had taken care of the widow before she died. The extended family brought a case against 'A' in the village council. They claimed as follows;
1. That the widow had no right to give her husband's land over to one member of the family.
2. That although 'A' looked after the widow, he had no customary right to inherit the land alone.
3. That the land should be joint property. They based their claim further on the fact that the extended family had the customary right over the land since their brother had no son.
The village council decided that;
'A' could not inherit from the late widow as she had no right under customary law to transfer land to him
That 'A' be compensated with the plot of land given to the woman when she was married into the family.
That the other family members should pay back to 'A' some part of the money spent on maintaining the widow.
'A' refused the judgement and has taken the case to the customary court. This case is not yet finished, but it is reasonable to believe that the customary court will uphold the judgement of the village council. In these cases, the provisions of section 36 of the Nigerian Marriage Act are grossly neglected both by the courts and village council.
A similar case reported by Omiyi from a Ghana Law Report shows how wide-spread this practice was across many African societies. In this case a customary law widow sued her deceased husband's family claiming one-third of her husband's intestate estate basing her claim on two grounds. Firstly, she asserted that she helped the husband to acquire the property in question. Secondly she claimed that she was a lawful customary law widow and therefore was entitled under customary law to a share of her husband's estate. The court dismissed her claims although it was found out that she actually helped in the acquisition of the property. It was held that under customary law a widow does not become a co-owner of property she helped her husband to acquire . All over Igboland and indeed many parts of Africa, the customary law that a widow cannot inherit her deceased husband's property was notorious by frequent proof in the courts that it became judicially noticeable. In this context, the wife was deprived of inheritance rights in her deceased husband's estate because under the prevailing native laws and customs, the devolution of property follows the blood.
The facts given here raise one major problem, namely that of the economic survival for a widow in a rural Igbo society. The widow's position, her right to inherit property, use and alienate land is constrained by customary and cultural practices. Although comprehensive data are difficult to obtain, it is evident that informal mechanisms have evolved to give widows some access to productive resources.
Although a widow cannot inherit land, most widows gain some kind of access to their husband's land. They have this access as long as they have sons and continue to live in their husband's family. The farm land was to enable the widow to provide some support for herself. Generally such allocation was regarded as temporary since the land belonged to the children as a right. The widow looses control of such land when her sons get married and share their father's land. Mother-son relationship can go sour as a result of who should control land.
Except under special circumstances, widows and in fact most women have access to productive resources especially land only through husband-wife relationship. Although husband's were important sources of farms for widows, some were also fairly independent in the means by which they acquire farms. Widows are not prevented by customs from buying land. This they did through a male proxy or their adult sons. These practices have remained largely unchanged in Igbo society.
4.1.3. Customary Right to Land
A widow lacks the flexibility to manage land and its resources since it theoretically belongs to her children or the kin group. This imposed limitations to what the widow can do with the land. But to understand the widow's peculiar position, we must also examine the peoples' spiritual and ritual attachment to land. We must also examine their understanding of land as the only means of maintaining a cosmological balance between themselves, their ancestors and the generation yet unborn. For the people land is an affair for men. Three explanations may be offered here: (i) women lack customary right over land, (ii) women cannot own land and (iii) the spiritual value of land. To understand why women lack customary rights to land, it is important to know under which circumstances access to land may be gained. Meek, (1937:30) has classified land into the following categories; (i) land which are sacred or taboo, (ii) virgin land, (iii) farmland held in common by the members of a village, kin group, or extended family and iv) individual holdings.
The first class of lands include sacred groves surrounding the shrines of public cults (such as ala, the earth-deity and ekwensu, the spirit evil) It also includes the taboo lands or evil forest known as ajo ohia. These lands do not belong to the individual but are regarded as belonging to the deities or spirit and no one could normally attempt or be allowed to use any fraction of such land for farming purposes. Although some of these sacred groves have been tampered with as a result of the advent of Western religion, they are still in existence in many communities today.
The virgin forests are land which have remained unused for farming purposes because nobody has required it or because the village has forbidden farming there, lest it should lose its use as a means of defence or shade or a source of supplies of wood. If a piece of uncleared forest is of no obvious use to the village, any one is at liberty to clear it for farming purposes, and the land so cleared becomes his private farmland. He cannot be deprived of it, and he can pledge it or transmit it to his children. But if there is any uncertainty as to whether the village may require the uncleared land, the would be farmer must first obtain the permission of the local elders. Such opportunities of having access to land must have been the practice a long time ago. Even when this was the case, women and particularly widows would have no right to clear or lay claim to any of such plots. Customs and traditions as well as the rituals attached to land will prevent them from having such access to land.
The next class of land is farmland held in common by an entire village, kin group, or extended family. This is one of our major area of concern here. This land is formally apportioned out afresh each time it is to be farmed. It is held in reserve for the benefit of the whole group (in addition to individual holdings) and cannot therefore be pledged without the consent of the group as a whole. This land is regarded as ala ozuzu (land held in common). Land in some instances are held in common on behalf of the kin group or the extended family. This type of land is usually allocated to married males in a particular family for farming.
Individual holding is a very important practice today. These lands are usually handed on from father to son, or acquired by clearing virgin forest or in return for a loan or sales. Among the Igbo, population pressure has made land very scarce. Land so held belongs to a man and his immediate family and can be pledged without reference to anyone. In this way, those who can afford to, acquire additional land in perpetuity for themselves and their family. In some instances, it may be leased and the land could be redeemed when the cost of lease has been refunded. In all classes of land, a woman does not fit any of the categories through which land may be acquired.
In terms of this customary right to land, let us view this right from the perspective of a married and an unmarried woman. An unmarried daughter has like her brothers, the right to live in her father's house subject to all the normal incidents of local tenure. But since a woman does not actually undertake to cultivate land as of her own right, she is not usually given any farmland. An informant answered when asked why women could not inherit land;
why should a woman be allocated land? She does not belong to this community. She marries away from this village and can only have access to land where she marries. Her access to land will be through her husband and her children.
This implies that rights over the use of land depends primarily on agnate descent, and secondarily on local residence. Women do not fit into this arrangement since marriage is basically exogamous. As a result, the head of the family never revolves on the woman. She never expects to become head of the family, nor to inherit land when the husband dies.
With regard to family property, also, the position of the head of the family is inherited by the most senior adult male child. Failing that, the eldest adult male member of the family would inherit the property but never the woman. Thus a woman of what ever status is not allowed to inherit landed property.
Eze and Nwebo cited court cases which further clarify the above notions. They gave instances of such cases which took place in 1963 and 1967, indicating that women were not allowed to inherit landed property from their father and consequently have no locus standi to bring an action in respect of family property. In the 1963 case in particular, the supreme court of Nigeria held that;
By the customary law predominant in Igboland, a widow has no right to succeed to personal or real estate of her deceased husband. Of course, it would be absolute nonsense in the circumstances for a widow who is herself regarded as property to turn round to claim the property of her late husband. In such a case the only right available to her will be to be accommodated by the person who inherits the husband's estate until she remarries or becomes financially independent or dies .
Citing Obi's 'Manual of Customary Law', Eze and Nwebo observed further that in some areas within the Igbo society, a widow without a son has no right to remain a member of her late husband's family. The husband's heir or relative might even expel her from the husband's compound and other lands. Moreover, her limited rights in the family are subject to 'good' behaviour. Furthermore, the testamentary powers of the women are also restricted under the Igbo custom. In some communities in Igboland, a married woman or a widow who is living in her husband's family cannot as of right dispose of her landed property or economic crops by will, except to her own children or to members of her husband's family.
4.1.4 Land Ownership.
The same mode of thinking about customary right over land also created the atmosphere in which it was felt that a woman could not own land. Land ownership among the Igbo confers certain rights which are the same whether under statutory or customary law. But ownership is subject to differing interpretations. According to Lord Cohen, the meaning of the word `owner' is not always clear. In his opinion,
...the term `owner' is loosely used in West Africa. Sometimes, it denotes what is in effect absolute ownership; at other times is only to rights.
Chubb (1961:6) in his study of land tenure among the Igbo, pointed out also that:
in the main, the term, ownership, hardly connotes the exact relationship between such an occupier and his land. He has full right to its produce and may build and plant permanent crops as he pleases, but he regards himself as holding it in trust for the next generation.
Collaborating the above, an informant noted:
Land was here before our fathers were born. They did not own the land but merely farmed on it. But as population grew, people became more acquisitive. They had to acquire more farm land for their family...men acquired the land and women only helped to farm on it.
Also, the Pivy Council noted in a case brought before it at the beginning of the century that;
the notion of individual ownership is quite foreign to native ideas. Land belongs to the community, the village, or the family, never to the individual
Communal ownership was the system when population densities were small and no one man could own or lay exclusive claim to any piece of land. However, when a community, kin group or family migrated to a new region and cleared it for settlement, it could lay claims to it. This action according to Chubb conferred the strongest of all titles to the land. In such cases, the land holding passed on to descendants. I could not establish when individual holdings become very important in land ownership. But oral evidence suggests that this must have been long ago.
Even though Nwabueze argues otherwise (that is that family or communal land amongst the Igbo may have its origin in an individual founder who first acquired the land), he also recognises the possibility of a new settlement being founded by an entire community or family. They then entrust titular ownership to a strong patriarchal head or leader. This however, developed from customary rights of occupancy, into real ownership after many generations of continuos occupation. Due to abundance of land in the past perhaps, there was little or no friction and dispute over pieces of land until population pressure turned individuals into petty capitalists.
As Wigwe contends, in Igbo customary law, ownership is in the sense outlined above. But whatever meaning is attached to ownership denotes who has right to control and benefit from it. The right, however, has been challenged. Some are of the opinion that the idea of an absolute property in land is incompatible with the limits which society places on the use of land. Such titles, leases, and mortgages merely express man's desire for orderliness. In the above circumstance, women have no customary right to own land as members of a village group since they are expected to marry. Furthermore, they do not have such rights as married women or widows since they are theoretically strangers in the community.
4.1.5 The Spiritual Value of Land.
There is still a third explanation for widows problem in getting access to farm land. This can be sought in the spiritual value attached to land. In approaching the subject of land ownership in Igboland and its impact on the widow's economic existence and survival, it is important to emphasise that land is sacred. In the context of traditional religion, land is the basic matrix of existence. Land is described adoringly as `mother earth' or earth goddess ala and is generally regarded as the arch-divinity of every locality in Igboland. Chubb described land as the fons et erigo (fountain and origin) of human morality, productivity and fertility.
Actions which constitute desecration of the land or abomination include suicide, homicide, stealing of farm products especially yam and coco yam, giving birth to twins (in the past), incest, a widow getting pregnant during the period of mourning and a host of other actions. Ilogu (1974) has itemised about twenty-four `abominations' or ethical and social prohibitions and taboo of Igbo moral code associated with land. Any violation of these prohibitions is considered moral, spiritual and social pollution of the land. They therefore require appropriate ritual purification of the offender(s) and the community in order to appease the earth goddess. Echeruo (1978) has further emphasised the pre-eminence of ala among the other divinities and noted that;
one divinity, however, was beyond the capriciousness of Igbo men: that divinity is neither `Igwe' nor even Chukwu, but Ala, the goddess of the earth. She was the one divinity which no man nor woman and no community could afford to offend, much less discard. If ever there was a supreme god among the Igbo, it was ala.
In cases of abomination against the land, it has to be sanctified, placated and purified of the sacrilege (ikwa ala) by special rituals through the office of the appropriate priest (onye isi ala) using appropriate cult objects (egg, fowl, kola nuts) as advised by the oracle. It is true to say that the cult of the ancestors or ancestor worship is closely linked with land. In traditional Igbo society, ala has a special shrine established by the competent priest including the eze-ala (priest of the land) and marked out with special shrubs or trees. It is perhaps because of conceptualisation such as the above that land ownership is a special privilege and a matter of prestige in all cultures, and especially among the Igbo.
The myth, rituals, taboos, beliefs, sanctions and emotional commitment that this worship engender on the Igbo becomes an instrument of social, political and economic control. It also imposes some degree of conservatism and constraint on Igbo land utilisation and ownership. The priest of ala for example is subject to many taboos. Thus they are forbidden as a rule to eat in another house, to eat food cooked by a menstrous woman, or to sit or have sexual intercourse on the ground. In some communities, widows and tattooed persons are forbidden to enter the house of the priest of ala.
From the reflection on ala, it must be mentioned that any research into the foundations and principles of Igbo land use, inheritance and taboos associated with it must understand the people's moral and religious attachment to it and not only its utilitarian value as a means of production. This of course, has implications for women and widows especially since control of land and its use fall outside the area of women's domain in Igbo society.
The religious traditions help to explain the existing customary law practices as they relate to widows. Even in the case of statutory married women, it is difficult to see how she could inherit her husband's real property, especially if it is part of family property. In the main, land was not easily accessible to widows. Men dominated land through their religious and spiritual control of it. The ownership and inheritance system, the religious meaning attached to land ownership and other customary practices place women in a different position. It was therefore impossible for the widow to survive entirely from farming. As a result of these constraints, we can understand why widows take to trade and other economic activities.
4.1.6 Other Problems for Farming Widows
Many of the widows presented the issue of land as the major problem which they face in farming. This state of affair is wide-spread for many widows. A woman who was widowed in 1960 had this to say about her husband's farmland.
When my husband died, I was in real trouble if I touched his yam, palm trees or land. I have been a very miserable widow especially after his brothers took away my seven children. The girls were given away in marriage without my consent and the younger ones were given away to distant people where I could not see them. I had to go to my father's house to stay. On one occasion, I came to my husband's house to collect my goats which nobody was taking care of. They beat me up, took me to the police and bribed the magistrate to jail me. I was sentenced to three months and I served it because I could not pay the option of fine.
In spite of these constrains, these rural widows engaged in one form of subsistent agriculture or the other. Two major additional factors come into consideration. These are the question of the number of plots that can be put under cultivation as well as the labour requirements for the production of certain crops. Land continues to be scarce due to the population pressure on available land. In the early 1970s for example the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) estimated that the total area cropped in Nigeria (including bush fallow) was less than two-fifths of the area suitable for agriculture. The low ration, along with the widespread practice of shifting cultivation, suggest a favourable relationship of land to population. The impression is somewhat misleading. For Green & Rimmer (1981:70) notes that in some parts of the southern forest which includes Igboland, pressure of population has reduced fallow periods to interval too short to restore soil fertility. If we go by Leith-Ross's estimate of the fallow period in the 1930, she recorded that a farm in the Igbo area could lie fallow for four or five years during which time the land regains possession of its fertility. This was because of the abundance of land. Today however, a land in the Mbaise area cannot be left fallow for more than one year. Population pressure in this area has always been higher than most parts of Igboland.
As a result of this pressure on land, every effort is made by anyone who had the means to keep all available land in his or her possession. No wonder customary rules have persisted among the Igbo since they give men advantage in the control of land. This is critical for the widow considering that agriculture was the main occupation of over 60% of the rural population including the Igbo.
In terms of the labour requirements, there are certain crops which the widow cannot cultivate. There is also a significant reduction in the number of plots a widow can put to use after the death of the husband. The widow may not pull together the labour needed to farm large plots of land. 62 of the informants have access to between 4-6 plots of their former husband's total agricultural land. In the past, a family's total cultivated land could be as many as 10-12 plots. Some of the widows still have access to all their former husband's lands because they have not been shared between their unmarried children. With their status as a widow, they will not be able to put the land to effective use alone. The labour requirement and the traditional division of labour along gender lines also dictate what crops the widow can plant. Yam cultivation, for instance, is labour intensive and requires a lot of attention from planting to harvest. Basden (1966:147 ff.) called yam-the Igbo staff of life and noted as follows;
The cultivation of yams absorbs such a great proportion of time and energy that it deserves appropriate attention when writing about the occupation of the Ibos...the planting of yam is a serious and important business to the native, and under the old system of government any infringement of the farming etiquette led to grave consequences.
This of course limited the woman's ability to engage in yam cultivation. An informant widowed in 1995 answered when asked what crops she cultivates;
After my husbands death, I was instructed by his relatives to sell his yam tubers and take a little which I can manage alone. I plant cassava, and coco yam .
Another informant noted;
I had to sell my husband's yam tubers because people believed that since the owner is dead, the yam will continue to diminish yearly through poor harvest. The yam was sold in a far away market where buyers will not know that the owner was dead. My children took the yam to the market. They had to put on cloths that are not their normal mourning dresses. We sold the bulk of the yam because I could mot manage it without help. Today, I plant coco yam, maize, groundnut and vegetables"
Only 3 of the widows cultivated yam on an average scale. They could afford to buy the labour, had assistance from their male sons and in some cases were helped by relatives.
To continue farming the land she worked as a wife, certainly is no easy solution for an Igbo widow. No wonder many combine farming with trade and some even entirely replace farming by trade.
By trade, we mean everything that is connected directly with buying and selling, and more especially the functions of marketing. Trading fills up the lives of many Igbos. Trade was of two kinds; local as well as regional (or long distance) trade. Trading activities provided an alternative occupation for many widows who could not make a living through farming alone. Local trade in particular has been important for women in many ways. It provided avenue for the sale of excess farm produce such as coco-yam, palm produce, vegetables, groundnut, maize, pepper etc. Basden (1966:194) describing traditional Igbo society stated that it might be affirmed that the whole of the native trade was on the hands of women and by them largely the markets were controlled. Trading became more important for women especially during the early twentieth century. Women especially have responded to increasing level of trade during the later part of the century by turning to marketing goods and services to help sustain themselves and their family. Basden confirmed that in former times, the women had direct transaction with the trading posts. These were the produce buyers who bought palm oil and kernel from women, but there sprang up a class of middlemen who worked on commission, a source of women's agitation in later years.
Ordinarily, no Igboman took part in the actual buying and selling in the local market. He may occasionally assist in preparing the goods for the market and may, occasionally assist in carrying to and fro, but there his activities usually ceased. Seen against this background Ekechi noted that it was not surprising that women strongly resented any attempt to challenge their dominance in the cassava trade. Thus in 1938 women complained vehemently "against unfair male competition in the sphere of women's crops, especially cassava". What seems clear according to Ekechi is that not only did men intrude into spheres of women's economic activity, but also they ultimately dominated it, especially its long-distance trade sector. Several factors seem to have made this possible. The infrastructure developments (roads and rail ways) as well as the introduction of bicycles and motor lorries had facilitated the expansion of trade. Thus while women still dominated the cassava trade at the local markets, men had very likely ventured into long-distance trading using bicycles and motor lorries as mode of hauling cassava. And since these new modes of transport afforded increased opportunities for bulk trading as compared to the traditional head loading, they increasingly helped to promote higher profit. It is therefore reasonable to assume that prospects of a lucrative trade must have provided the impulse for men to engage in the cassava trade.
Equally important are cultural factors which also may have given men a decisive communal advantage over women. For example by the 1930s and 1940s few women, if any, ventured into long-distance trading (Ekechi 1989: 185). Besides, long distance trading entailed being away from home. In fact social and cultural (sexual) constraints tended to prohibit women from engaging in long-distance trade in the traditional economy. Women who habitually returned home late from even the local markets invariably incurred the displeasure of the elders as well as reprimands from their husbands. Furthermore, until recently, there were few women indeed who could afford to transport cassava by bicycles or motor lorries. Thus from the 1940s noted Ekechi, the marketing of fermented cassava in far-away markets seems to have devolved largely on men. In fact, by the 1950s and early 1960s, some informants noted that men dominated the long-distance trade in cassava to various parts of the Igbo hinterland. The cassava was sold in bulk to women who then retailed it in the local markets.
The commercialisation from the 1920s of the market which implied greater emphasis on a money economy, colonial exaction (such as taxation) and the drive towards self-improvement may have all combined to induce men to intrude into the sphere of women's business. It can be stated that colonialism and its impact on the larger society altered the economic and political position of women in Igboland. Mba (1982:69) summed it up as follows:
The position of women in Southern Nigerian Society was both diminished and enhanced under colonialism. In government and administration, there was almost total loss of their traditional areas of responsibility and participation because they were excluded from all levels of administration. In the economic realm, while colonialism provided increased opportunities for some women in trade, it also led to a take over by men of many areas formally reserved for women and to a gross under-utilisation of women in their traditional roles in agriculture.
From all indications, it appears that this was the state of affairs till the period of the Nigerian - Biafra Civil War between 1967 and 1970. The civil war had the Eastern region as the theatre of war. The Igbo economic and commercial activities were paralysed. Agriculture during the period was disrupted as people planted in fear or never planted at all. However, agrarian economy especially food production faired well in some rural areas of Igboland such as Udi, Ohaozara, Abakiliki, Afikpo. Beyond some of the Igbo boundaries, areas such as Etche and other parts of the present Rivers State became sources for procuring food. To a large extent the war changed the economic position of women in Igbo society once again.
Research in the Mbaise area indicate that regional trade outside the town and state boundaries increased during the war in addition to local trade. An informant noted that most women during and after the Nigeria-Biafra civil war were active traders. The civil war like colonialism led to a sexual reversal in inter-regional trade once more. Men could not freely engage in this trade during the war and the war created opportunity for most women to once more take control of the cassava trade.
Ahia Attack: Women on the Economic War Front
On the Igbo side teenage boys and men of up to 50 years and more were recruited or conscripted into the army. The war, according to one informant created a large widow population and poverty among the Igbo but liberated women in many ways. Women fought on the economic front. Asked why she took to trading during the war, this widow replied;
Before the war, I was dependent on my husband's income. When he died in the first year of the war, I had to start trading to save my children from hunger. We went to various places which would have been impossible if my husband was alive. In our group of ten, six were widows. The war changed things and it is difficult to reverse it now.
Changes during the war modified the position of women in general and widows in particular. Women became more involved in regional trade during the period of the civil war. This remained attractive for many women even after the war. I gathered from oral sources that a large percentage of women who are engaged in long distance trade today remain predominantly widows. Certain factors were responsible for this change. In the main, the social constraints within the society which prevented them from undertaking long-distance trade beyond the local areas as married women, became less important for the widow. Moreover, the widow had to survive. Survival for others during the war was also more important that the social constraints which prevented women from taking part in the trade in the past. Thus over many of women involved in such trade today are widows. The remaining are usually older women who have reached menopause.
At the end of the civil war in 1970, one would have expected that men would take over the long distance trade from the women once more. This did not appear to have been the case since women still dominate the trade. This can be explained by the following reasons: First, easy means of transportation by lorries which reduced time required for the trade made it possible for groups of women to engage in long distance trade. Women therefore do not have to be away from home for long periods of time. The labour requirement in the form of driving, loading and off loading of the goods were still being done by men. In addition, cassava trade has been traditionally looked upon as a female area of activity and men were ready to give it up for migration to the urban centres after the civil war. For the widow in particular, she had to fend for herself and was not obligated to be at home at any particular time.
It must be noted however that Igbo women in most cases combined farming and local trade. It was typical to hear many widow's say that they are both traders and farmers (see Appendix A). Farming for many is a way of life and not just an occupation. A lot of women would therefore farm some piece of land available to them in addition to trading. The fact that the society does not look kindly on a woman who buys all that she needs from the market makes it imperative that every one sees herself as a farmer also.
4.3 Kin Group and Communal Assistance
But farming and trading were not the only means of survival for widows. In purely traditional society and by the custom of widow inheritance, the heir succeeds to the wives of the deceased as regards the duty to maintain his widow. But the degree to which the heir or those who have inherited the widows provide maintenance and support for them depends on what the widow did. If she leaves her deceased husband's family and remarry there is no support. The rules governing inheritance are consistent with the general character of the social organisation. At the same time, they are so elastic and based on such equitable principles that they can be easily modified to meet changing conditions, such as the progressive tendency towards individualisation.
The Igbo custom of widow inheritance, whereby the heir or successor steps into the shoes of the deceased kin as regards the deceased's rights and obligation to his wives, was perhaps one of the most effective ways of providing for her in an intact traditional society. This was well and good for the bygone days. But today traditional obligations are easily evaded. They have become very burdensome and most people are no longer interested in widow inheritance. These arrangements have become unattractive to men for several reasons. In the past, a woman and her children increased a man's pool of labour for farming. As agriculture looses its importance as the means of sustenance, labour requirements also become less important.
Related to the above is the shortage of land for agriculture which implicitly reduces the number of plots that could be put under cultivation. Monogamy which increased with adaptation of western religion and culture has contributed to this decline. For the widow, there is increased tendency towards individualism. The widow, therefore, has to look else where for support and sustenance. A widow commented when asked what assistance she gets from the kin group.
I sustain myself by farming. I sell some of my products for cash. The extended family does not assist me in any way
For one widow, the case was different. She said;
Since my husband died, his property has been in my care though I placed some in the care of my in-laws. I have not had any problems. My in-laws are unique. They take good care of me and my children.
According to some informants, widow's children in some cases are shared among relatives and at times co-wives. At times, kinsmen involve widows in life sustenance such as share cropping.
The statistics indicate that the kin group play less role in assisting the widow. 69 of the informants indicated that they had no form of assistance from the kin group. 4 had some assistance from the kin group. 2 widows got assistance in the form of training their children from the extended family (see Appendix A). However, in most African societies where rules of seclusion, as among the Hausa of Northern Nigeria or limited access to resources as among the Swahili prevent widows from being self-reliant, widows depend partly on natal kin or either a new marriage.
Older widows among most rural communities also rely on the support provided by their children, especially by their sons. Daughters in-laws, co-wives, sons and occasionally daughters provide substantial assistance to the widow. In-laws in many instances provided assistance for the widow especially if her daughters married wisely and successfully. They provide for the widow in cash and in kind as well and protect her from undue maltreatment within and outside her home. Widows may also be protected by their own parents and their matrilineal kin. Brothers and sisters in most parts of Igboland supported the widow in various ways. Some of the informants noted the assistance from their children;
After my husbands death, my survival depended on what I could do for myself. But today, my children and in laws assist me. I thank God that I have these children to take care of me at old age.
There is much difference now and when my sons were not yet married. Initially, they cared for me, but now, their attention is divided between me and their own families I do not expect much any longer. I farm my husband's land since all my children live in the city. They are yet to share their father's land
One informant said she had assistance in cash from her lover and his wife. The lover also paid school fees for her children. In exchange, she rents part of her husband's land to her lover's family. This was the only example of assistance from a lover did not come to my notice. But I assume that other cases exist since many of the widows were not willing to answer such questions.
A final source of assistance could be found in the rural banking system and friendly societies. Widows who had guarantors were given small loans from the rural banking systems known as isusu and otu (triff and loans groups). Some of the informants indicated that they took loans from friendly societies for trading. The virtues of friendly societies were thrift and self-help, inculcation of the spirit of cautious husbanding of funds, a determination to save some amount however meagre, for the rainy day.
4.4 New Possibilities
Wage earners have never formed part of the Igbo social system in the traditional or rural societies. But with the introduction of colonial rule and education for women, salaried work has become an important part of Igbo economic life especially in the urban areas. It is increasingly becoming a possibility for rural women. Among the 80 widows interviewed, 7 used these possibilities to survive economically (see Appendix A). Western institutions and a variety of openings are available in this area. Teaching for women stands first; then comes, nursing in hospitals dotted about the rural areas. Those informants who have acquired western education find themselves in these professions while others are self employed in the service sector. This is an emerging trend and the possibilities open to widows in this sector will continue to increase.
Although I identified a case of prostitution among the informants, I could not establish how many women who get involved in the practice. I think however that there may be more cases than meet the eye. At least, this is an option for young widows in many other societies.
We may conclude that the social system determines what widows can do in the economy. The support system which formed the basis of widow sustenance in the past has given way to a more individualised survival system. But the customary rules which determined the system of inheritance of assets and property have not changed. Customary rules of inheritance as well as right to use property places the widow in a difficult position. Rules and regulations relating to the use of land for agriculture have remained unchanged over time. This is more pronounced if the widow has no male children who can inherit their father's land. The result is that the majority of widows in Igbo society have no secure land rights and are unable to ensure sustenance for themselves and their family through agriculture alone. Consequently, trading became an important supplementary source of income, in some cases even an alternative to farming. These two economic activities are also in many cases combined with assistance from nearest kin.