by Michéle Sigg
Suffering can play a significant role in the development of faith despite the pain that sufferers must endure seen in the way that the widows of Kitula (Kenya) look to Jesus as their kinsman-defender.
Mama Mwelu Katimba’s leathery hands deftly sift through the grains of rice on the platter as she painstakingly removes the bad grains and pebbles. Mama Mwelu is so old that she doesn’t know her age—probably between 95 and 100. The deep creases in her face speak of a life of hard manual labor out of doors, yet there is a gentle glow in her eyes. She speaks slowly and deliberately as she describes her life:
Suffering is pain. It is caused by things that make you unhappy, people that trouble you, family life that is not working. All my life, I have been working people’s shambas [farms] to educate my children. Life turned sour to me….I have been in deep darkness.…When I got saved there was a light that came into my heart. I was doing traditional dances and getting ecstatic and that would help me not feel my problems. But when I found Jesus, I found eternal joy. I used to sniff mbaki [tobacco]. I would go over the fire without burning my feet. Over many years. I am surprised that Jesus has saved me from all my darkness.
But now, the scene is lovely. Mama Mwelu is one of approximately twenty widows joyfully clapping and ululating as they sway in a dance to welcome us at their small meeting house in Kitula village (Ukambani region, Kenya). Beatrice Nthenya Wambua, the mother of my colleague, Zippy Wambua, and leader of the group, gives a short message on Psalm 121 that, she says, contains “good verses that iron our hearts.” Even when the widows and their children go without food, Beatrice affirms their collective desire to remain faithful to God, who is their refuge and strength: “We have hidden in the Lord because he has saved us. So we will not return to our traditional lives.”
Alice Muasya, secretary of the group, explains that Christ “has become part of us, part of our lives…. We do not have any other hope except him. He is our daily bread.” Earlier, the group sang a chorus in Kikamba that summarized who Jesus is for these women: “Jesus is the father of the fatherless, the husband to the widows, he is a complete substitute to what we have lost.” The widows describe Jesus as “our feeder, our shepherd. He feeds us. He does not leave us. He gives us soap…he is our husband. Without him, we cannot survive. He is the one who sends miracles and who has held our hand.” They say that Jesus also “knows what we are going through… Even when we didn’t know or have answers for our problems, he comes through for us. If he does not, we know he has heard our prayers.”
Most of these widows have faced similar struggles with poverty and deprivation. Following their husbands’ deaths, they were forced to work long hours in the shambas (farms) to scrape together a meager living, and if possible, school fees for their children. Some of their husbands drank away all the family money, leaving them with debts to local diviners or the hospital. Greedy relatives sometimes grabbed their land, and most widows said they were abandoned by their families and received no help from the church. Some said their children had followed the same destructive lifestyle as their fathers and did not bring home any money from their day’s work.
These women described how they served their respective churches—either the Africa Inland Church or the Roman Catholic Church—as Sunday School teachers and ministry leaders, evangelized in the community, sang in the choir, engaged in prayer and intercession, and helped with communion, the offering, or cleaning the church.
But when they were asked where their help came from in times of need, their answers were similar: “I have never seen help from the church except from my friends,” said Joyce. “Nobody helps me in famine, with clothes, when I’m sick,” added Mbinya. “When famine strikes, it’s only Zippy who comes around to help us,” said Monica. “The church prays for us, but they do not visit us,” said Mbinya. “We don’t see our neighbors or our church come to help.”
Social and Cultural Analysis
The testimonies of these widows illustrate how their “worries of the heart” are rooted in several interconnected socio-economic and cultural situations. These include lack of money for school fees, lack of cash (loss of bride wealth money), lack of authority to discipline wayward children, and land grabbed by relatives (Mutongi 1999, 67ff). Spiritual and emotional factors further contribute to their sense of alienation and isolation.
Socio-economic causes of widows’ suffering. Left destitute because their husbands had often frittered away their wages, the widows suffer from multiple insecurities. Food, water, and clothing are hard to come by, either because work in the shambas is scarce or because wages are insufficient. Medical care is inferior or lacking, and since there is no local clinic, children die. The closest clinics are miles away, over impracticable dirt roads. Women resort to local diviners whose efforts frequently fail, and lack of money prevents mothers from raising the fees to send surviving children to school.
The scarcity of work in the shambas can be explained by the region’s ongoing struggle with land degradation, drought, and the resultant crop failure. Ukambani as a whole is considered an endangered area where the lives and livelihoods of the inhabitants are threatened by land degradation and the lack of reliable water sources. Drought and famine are frequent in Ukambani, where most soils are impoverished and highly vulnerable to erosion.
The 1989 census revealed that most of the two million people in Ukambani earn their living as subsistence or commercial farmers in rural areas, while a few live from wage labor. Moreover, the population has increased to such an extent that the local people can no longer support themselves using subsistence agriculture. Even commercial agriculture is doomed to fail for lack of appropriate technology.
In this area around Kitula, the main sources of income are sand and building stone harvesting from the Nthake river (which is suffering extensive erosion because of this), farming, small businesses (e.g., sales of chickens or vegetables), and coffee growing. Factors that contribute to the area’s overall poverty level include lack of water, truck crews from Nairobi stealing sand from the riverbed, frequent outbreaks of cholera and dysentery due to lack of proper sanitation systems, and drugs and alcohol that are sold near the river where young people go to earn day wages.
Cultural causes of suffering. Among the Akamba people in this area, the traditional custom of widow inheritance or leviratic marriage is no longer practiced. This means that a widow can now inherit her husband’s property at his death if she is in good standing—that is, if her dowry was paid. However, one widow, Nduku, told us that her husband’s brothers had taken her land but were not helping her to pay for her children’s school fees. The widows generally reported being financially abandoned by their husband’s families. They also felt isolated, being far from their own extended families.
The widows’ isolation can be traced to the abandonment of the African traditional practice of leviratic union. This practice, similar to the practice in biblical times, was designed as a means of providing for a widow’s material needs, her need for community (emotional stability), her protection (from intruders who might take her property), her need for respectability within society (an unattached woman is viewed with suspicion), and her need to continue to procreate as long as possible.
The Western missionary church’s blanket condemnation of the leviratic union brings into stark relief how deeply it misunderstands the African worldview that undergirds this custom. This practice was condemned by both Catholic and Protestant missionaries when they arrived in Ukambani. For the African community, procreation is “the ultimate meaning in life” (Kirwen 1979, 12). Having lost their access to motherhood, widows struggle with feelings of unworthiness and hopelessness (Wamue 1996, 45-46).
The question of caring for widows has been an ongoing challenge in Akamba society; unfortunately, “the Church does not offer solution[s]. It is silent over abuse, suspicion, property inheritance, remarriages, conduct, [and] children” (Nwachukwu 1992, 67). This is despite the fact that Christianity has been present in Ukambani for over one hundred years.
Furthermore, Kenyan society today holds a negative view of widowhood, one that is fraught with stereotyping and stigmatization to which the Church should respond in a redemptive fashion, according to its “noble teaching” on widows and orphans (Wamue 1996, 45-46). Tragically, “some of this violence and abuse against a widow goes against Christian principles or traditional practices. The widow is therefore left at the crossroads where Christian principles and traditional practices are at times merged to oppress her physically and emotionally” (1996, 46).
I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth. And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God. —Job 19:25-26
For now is Christ risen from the dead, the first fruits of them that sleep.—
—From “I Know that my Redeemer Liveth” Part III, Scene 1, Handel’s Messiah
I often listen to Handel’s Messiah, in particular his beautiful aria, “I Know that my Redeemer Liveth,” written for a soprano voice. In the midst of this research and reflection, I was suddenly struck by Handel’s extraordinary spiritual insight in choosing a woman’s voice to interpret the words of this suffering man from ancient Mesopotamia. Handel’s choice recognized the essentially feminine nature of Job’s affliction, anguish, and hope.
Like the widows of Kitula, Job incarnates ultimate vulnerability: he has lost all his material possessions, his children, and even his wife, who in her faithlessness, deserts him spiritually by saying, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die” (Job 2:9). Job is as good as dead physically and he is abandoned by all but three of his friends, although these “friends” turn against him and condemn him, accusing him of wrongdoing. Their slander dirties him and he cannot wash off the filth of their damning words (9:30-31). Job does not recognize himself in their accusations (9:35b).
In his suffering, Job cries out for his voice to be heard (19:23-24), wishing that his story could be recorded on a scroll, a lead tablet, or an engraved rock. This “rock of justice” would proclaim his innocence and give him life, whereas another kind of rock would mete out death in a ritual stoning, traditionally used against adulterers, like in the episode of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11).
Job’s afflictions correspond to the circumstances of widows in Kenya, where the traditional view of the widow has changed for the worse since Independence (1963). Indeed, as soon as her husband dies, the Kenyan widow starts down a long, dark path of hopelessness:
Today, the widow faces many odds once she is confronted with the death of her husband…. It does not matter what may have caused her husband’s death…, the widow is to blame. Life becomes one long bitter struggle. She has to adapt immediately to cope with criticism and the socio-cultural stigma attached to widowhood. Cases of violence on a widow have dominated the mass media. These are characterised by disturbing burial disputes, widow invasion by in-laws, property grabbing, among others….The society tends to forget a widow and her children after the funeral. Former family friends treat her with mixed feelings, men acquaintances want to exploit her sexually, other women suspect her…. As a result of this, the widow is a deserted, neglected, and lonely woman. (Wamue 1996, 44-45)
Like Job, these widows long for a redeemer in the ancient Hebrew sense of go’el, the kinsman-defender—the nearest male relative responsible for defending the rights of the vulnerable.
According to this divinely-instituted law, the kinsman-defender would redeem the widow from slavery, regain her family property, and perhaps most importantly for an African widow, would provide her with an heir as a surrogate husband, thus giving her new life, both figuratively and literally. This kinsman-defender would fill the loss of her first husband, remove her social stigma, and ensure her membership in the family of the one who had paid her bride price.
In the face of despair and deprivation, the widows of Kitula look to Jesus as their kinsman-defender.
A Bright Hope: Blessed Peace Foundation
In its institutionalized expressions influenced by Western Christianity, the Church in Ukambani seems unable to act as an effective kinsman-defender for these widows in need. The Church in Ukambani and in much of rural Kenya is caught at the juncture of African tradition and Christian teaching, unable to see a way to reconcile the two in order to effectively care for the widows in their midst.
However, something is being done in Ukambani through the Blessed Peace Foundation (BPF, www.blessedpeace.org), a ministry founded to respond to the needs of destitute widows. In 2007, Zipporah (“Zippy”) Wambua, a doctoral student at Africa International University (formerly Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology), started an ecumenical widows’ fellowship in her home village of Kitula to implement her mother’s dream of ministering to her friends in need. She explains how the fellowship functions:
[The] widows have a strong social network among themselves….Those who have unsolved issues in their families find a sense of belonging in the widows’ team. Weekly fellowships and working the project farm and paraffin shop binds them together in many ways. They have found [a] new identity in the ministry despite their various denominations. (2011)
This ministry is the incarnation of the idea of the kinsman-defender in Job 19:25. It provides a new family, a new identity, good work, a sense of belonging and acceptance, and peace and justice. In addition to its ecumenism, the ministry reaches out to all widows—Christians, Muslims, or traditional religionists. Many decide to become believers as a result of their new family.
After 2007, Zippy decided to expand the ministry of the BPF beyond Kitula to include surrounding villages. Currently, there are four widows’ fellowship groups. Zippy raised money to purchase a grain mill (posho mill) that generates income for the widows and serves the local villages. The BPF provides microloans and builds one house a year for the most destitute widow in their midst. In August 2011, Zippy opened a home for vulnerable children in nearby Machakos that currently houses twenty-eight girls and boys and pays their school fees.
In Ukambani, the BPF is a pioneer Christian ministry to society’s most vulnerable. It provides a practical model of “pure and undefiled religion before God the Father,” which calls Christ’s followers “to care for orphans and widows in their misfortune” (James 1:27). At a time when the Church is too often guilty of inaction toward the least of these and tells the hungry brother or sister to “go in peace, keep warm, and eat well” (James 2:15-16) without providing for their needs, Zippy’s ministry through the Blessed Peace Foundation inspires, challenges, and calls those who follow Jesus to action.
Kirwen, Michael C. 1979. African Widows –An Empirical Study of the Problems of Adapting Western Christian Teachings on Marriage to the Leviratic Custom for the Care of Widows in Four Rural African Societies. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books.
Mutongi, Kenda. 1999. “‘Worries of the Heart’: Widowed Mothers, Daughters and Masculinities in Maragoli, Western Kenya, 1940-1960.” Journal of African History 40: 67-86.
Nwachuku, D. N. 1992. “The Christian Widow in African Culture.” The Will to Arise: Women, Tradition and the Church in Africa. I.” Eds. M. A. Oduyoye and R.A. Musimbi, 54-73. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books.
Wambua, Zipporah. 2011. Email letter to author. July 8.
Wamue, Grace and Mary Getui, eds. 1996. Violence against Women: Reflections by Kenyan Women Theologians. Nairobi: Acton Publishers.
Michèle Sigg is a doctoral student in World Christianity at Boston University School of Theology and the project manager for the Dictionary of African Christian Biography www.DACB.org. This research was part of an MTh degree at Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology (now AIU).
EMQ, Vol. 50, No. 1, pp. 36-42. Copyright © 2014 Billy Graham Center. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.