Cast Out By Custom – How One Kenyan Widow Won The Right To Own Property

By Isaiah Esipisu

Mother of two was sent away from her village in Ngeri-Kisiambi hills in Homa Bay County after she refused to be “inherited” – by another man – following her husband’s death


Her husband’s death should have meant banishment from her matrimonial home in western Kenya, according to custom, but Caroline Peres Achieng Oyumbo’s return there 13 years later is being hailed as a breakthrough for widows’ rights to property.

The mother of two was sent away from her village in Ngeri-Kisiambi hills in Homa Bay County in 2003, after she refused to be “inherited” – by another man – following her husband’s death.

Wife inheritance is a Suba custom requiring a widow to remarry following certain sexual rituals that “end mourning”. The custom has been blamed as a factor in the spread of AIDS.

Today, however, the 43-year-old primary school teacher is awaiting the completion of construction on her new two-bedroom house in the village despite not having been “inherited” – an outcome that would usually be considered unthinkable.

“Managing to bend this customary rule is a major breakthrough that gives hope to several women in this community who are suffering silently under some of these dehumanising cultural beliefs,” Oyumbo said.

Oyumbo, who teaches at a school on Mfangano Island in Lake Victoria, won her reprieve through a project known as Working with Cultural Structures to Ensure Access to Justice by Widows and Orphans, run by the Kenya Legal and Ethical Issues Network on HIV and AIDS (KELIN), and elders’ and widows’ support groups.

With their help, she ended an isolation caused by a custom that is prevalent in Sub-Saharan Africa and which rights groups say infringes on the rights of widows in the Suba and Luo communities to freedom, property ownership and basic dignity.


According to Suba and Luo beliefs, becoming widowed means that a woman becomes “unclean”, and needs “cleansing”. Until a widow has been “cleansed” and then “inherited”, she is forbidden to undertake tasks such home repairs, or growing vegetables.

If a new widow fails to initiate the “cleansing” process, the elders take matters into their hands. If she fails to comply with their orders, she is banished from her matrimonial home.

That was the harsh reality for Oyumbo, after her husband died of cancer. “I was banished, and for 10 years and for all that time, I lived in isolation with my two sons in a rental house in Mbita town, 20 km from our home,” she said.

Allan Maleche, executive director of KELIN, said the organisation has resolved more than 300 similar cases in Homa Bay and Kisumu in western Kenya.

“We have come across several devastating cases where women in particular have been denied their right to own and inherit property based on cultural beliefs,” Maleche said.

In order to be cleansed, custom requires a widow to undergo the “Tero Chola” ritual, where she must have sex with a member of the community who is chosen to sleep with new widows without protection for the first time after their husbands are buried.


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