Raise awareness with; The trial and other stories
Book Title: The Trial and Other Stories
Author: Ifeoma Okoye
Publisher: African Heritage Press New York, Lagos (2005)
Number of pages: 86
Book Review: Dr. Bukar Usman
Jhe book ‘The Trial and Other Stories’ written by Ifeoma Okoye contains 9 stories about widowhood in Igbo land. Much of the settings are in Enugu, Enugu State, where the author is based. Other places include Onitsha, Abakaliki and Owerri and several villages. Outside of Igbo lands, settings include Lagos, Kano, Ibadan and Calabar.
The first story, Soul Healers, is about a woman who resides in Lagos but whose two children attend school in Owerri. One was five and a half years old while the other was 4 years old. Her husband was a civil engineer in Kano when his business collapsed. Although the woman graduated, she was unemployed. A friend of his found him a job in a bank in Lagos. She defied her husband and left with the children to return to work. The husband who refused to follow them died suddenly of a stroke. Her relatives blamed the woman for the death of her husband by abandoning him in Kano. To punish her, they took the children away from her, entrusted them to the husband’s elder sister in Owerri. She was warned not to visit them. She couldn’t afford to obey the instruction. Children are her soul healers and she was ready to die for them.
The widow went to Owerri to look for her children. She hired a taxi to take them to Enugu for a flight back to Lagos.
The second story, entitled Between Women, is about a woman who was an orphan and a widow. Her five-and-a-half-year-old daughter lived with her mother-in-law in a village in Ebonyi State while she worked in Enugu as a domestic servant and had not seen her daughter for nearly two years. She had wanted to bring the girl to Enugu but her employer’s wife did not agree. She repeatedly asked permission to visit her daughter, but the employer’s wife, who was insensitive to her fate, did not accept. The widow could not afford to quit her job even though she was paid a pittance.
The widow learned from her aunt who lives in Enugu that her daughter was hospitalized in Abakaliki. She asked again for permission to visit her daughter and was refused. Finally, she slipped away, quitting her job for good because her daughter had given meaning to her life.
Strange Disease is the title of the third story in which a widow’s brother-in-law insists on marrying her. She didn’t want to but was afraid to tell him because he might hurt her and her two teenage boys. To get away with it, she pretended she had a weird illness and stripped naked in front of the man to prove her point. That’s when the brother-in-law left her for good.
“The Speechless Victim”, which is the fourth story in the book, is about an 18-year-old widow with a baby and toddler who quarreled with a middle-aged woman for space to beg. The middle-aged woman reluctantly took her in following the intervention of a bystander who mediated. A passerby watched the quarrel. After the settlement, she was approached by the teenage beggar for money to buy food for her children. The woman angrily avoided her, asking her to go get a job. The teenage beggar then traced the passerby’s desk to beg her to get him a job. She said her husband died the year before and she got married because her mother needed the bride price to treat her father who had been seriously ill for years. She was two months pregnant when her husband died. She has been a victim of child marriage, child widowhood and global imbalances. His desperation was pitiful, so the woman resolved to find him a job after giving him some money for transportation and a few days of meals.
“The Trial” is the fifth story that also serves as the title of the book. It is the story of a widow from a village who was judged by a team of thirty women made up of relatives of her husband. Her brother-in-law who initially did not approve of her marriage had accused her of poisoning her husband. Hence the traditional lawsuit that, if proven, she would die within 28 days of the trial. Her mother advised her to stand trial or else she and her relatives would be ostracized by the whole town and she would be branded a husband killer.
She was determined to prove her innocence. To do this, she had to stand up against her brother-in-law.
As the trial continued despite her explanations, the brother-in-law washed her dead husband’s hands in a bowl of water and was asked to drink it to prove his innocence. She thought of something to stop the trial. She noticed that the brother-in-law had dipped his index finger in the bowl of water. She had already been warned to be on the lookout for such an event. In a counter move, she accused the brother-in-law of putting something in the water and therefore refused to drink. Instead, she insisted that the brother-in-law drink the water first.
Sixth story, “The New Business Woman” chronicles the challenges of a woman whose husband was a car parts dealer in Enugu before he died of hepatitis. She had three dependent children, so she decided to continue running the business even though she didn’t know how and the business was dominated by men. She knew the business was profitable and was determined not to part with the store.
A kind spare parts dealer agreed to pass her on because he said her late husband was a good man. The woman was thus relieved of her anxieties as she was determined to shame her detractors who wanted her to get rid of the shop.
“From Wife to Concubine”, the seventh story, is the story of a widow whose brother-in-law was a former policeman and lives in a village in Anambra State. He wanted to dispossess his late brother’s wife of a building in Onitsha. She resolved to do everything she could to prevent him from taking the case to court where he was most likely to win due to his connections. She discovered that her marriage certificate and other important documents that would support her claims had disappeared from her room in Onitsha where she lived with her husband before his death. She was unable to obtain a copy of the marriage certificate because the fire had emptied part of the register.
Besides being subjected to dehumanizing widowhood rites, her brother-in-law would tell people that after all, she was not legally married to his brother and was just a concubine.
She told her in-laws that the building was hers and reminded them that it was he and her husband who had pleaded for her to register the property in the husband’s name so as not to embarrass him among his friends because it was strange for a man. live in his wife’s house. Despite her explanations, the brother-in-law gave her and her children three months to vacate the property. An idea then occurred to him. She confronted her brother-in-law with a secret about the circumstances of the death of her husband’s cousin who allegedly committed suicide on a farm. The secret was that the brother-in-law was involved in the death, being the one who went to the farm with a gun. Since the brother-in-law didn’t want the secret out, he returned her marriage certificate and nothing more was said about her ownership of the property.
‘Second Chance’, being the eighth floor, is the case of a widow with two children who went to see her husband’s paternal uncle to tell him of her plans to remarry a widower who had three children. The husband’s uncle did not object to the marriage but said she would not take the children with her. The woman said she couldn’t leave the children who were only five and three years old. The husband’s uncle said they could take the children away from him, if need be, by force, in accordance with tradition. She was in a dilemma as to whether she should marry and leave the children or be left alone in poverty.
“Girl for Sale” is the title of the last and ninth story in the book. It is about a widow who worried about the mistreatment she suffered from her brother-in-law. It was the same type of treatment his mother had received at the hands of his father. Her father had sold his 4 young daughters, one after another, to those who could pay the highest dowry. It was in turn that her father gave her in marriage at the age of 16. She lost her first son, who was 23, and the second, who was 21, ended up with two daughters.
Her brother-in-law married one of the girls and got a nice dowry. According to tradition, she did not know the amount because a woman was not supposed to know. When her second daughter was to be married, she decided that what had happened the first time would not happen again. She would only allow a token amount or nothing at all for the brother-in-law to get nothing. The brother-in-law gathered the extended family led by an 80-year-old man to beg her. She stood her ground and did what she wanted.
The fate of widows and their children in Igbo land depicted in the stories is somewhat pitiful and horrifying. Although some practices may have served society in the past, they obviously require serious consideration in modern times.
Dr Bukar Usman, Former Permanent Secretary to the Presidency, Abuja