Ugandan Widow’s Relatives Stole Everything. Now She’s Fighting Back


BY KATHRYN CARLSON, Pulitzer Center, 09/28/2017

Betty Nanozi, who was widowed just three weeks after her son, John Paul, was born. Over the 11 years of her widowhood, she describes how her husband’s children from a previous marriage (all adults) robbed her of everything twice, even threatening the life of her son

In some parts of the world, a husband’s death brings his widow not only personal grief but also a new life of extraordinary hardship, poverty, powerlessness, and abuse.

In Uganda, widowed women can suffer a multitude of injustices: They can be forced out of their homes, robbed of everything they own, made to marry a brother-in-law, physically attacked or harmed — even their children can be taken away from them. These offenses stem from traditional Buganda culture, where women would never be able to own or inherit land. And while the Ugandan Constitution grants equal rights to men and women, people in rural areas continue to take advantage of these women with little fear of consequences.

This is the story of Betty Nanozi, who was widowed just three weeks after her son, John Paul, was born. Over the 11 years of her widowhood, she describes how her husband’s children from a previous marriage (all adults) robbed her of everything twice, even threatening the life of her son (their half brother.) Now, with the help of attorneys, social workers, and criminal investigators from the International Justice Mission, Nanozi is fighting back.

ENFORCING THE LAW, Mukono District, Uganda

“The humble petition of Tumushabe Clare Glorious showeth as follows.” In Uganda legal documents are composed in flowery, colonial-era English, and on a midsummer morning an attorney named Diana Angwech balanced two thick files on her lap, thumbing pages, reviewing. The improvised courtroom was a small red building between a corn patch and a stand of banana trees, an hour’s drive from the capital, Kampala. Inside, on the concrete floor, a few wooden benches faced the magistrate’s desk, which atop its clean surface displayed only a calendar, a Quran, and an old Bible held together with string.

A guard at the door stepped aside, and the people came in, filling the benches beside and behind Angwech. The widow Clare Tumushabe carried her two-year-old daughter, the youngest of her six children, and sat down in the fourth row. Tumushabe had once been a more timid woman, but her head was now high as she studied the courtroom around her; she had been pregnant with this daughter when her husband died—a sharp headache, a hospital unable to revive him—and she was learning how to speak with clarity and passion about what happened to her next.

She was summoned—mourning, pregnant—to a meeting of important members of her deceased husband’s family and clan. They informed her that the children now belonged not to her but to them; directed her to keep her hands off all crops on the household plot, as they also were no longer hers; and presented to her the brother-in-law—her husband’s oldest sibling, 20 years Tumushabe’s senior—who would move into the home at once and take her as the third of his wives.

The house and three acres Tumushabe’s husband had inherited from his father must pass wholly to them, the in-laws said. As the widow, Tumushabe, by tradition, was essentially part of the property, like the coffee bushes and the jackfruit trees.

Christine Namatovu and her son Andrew bring solace to each other in the house Namatovu’s in-laws tried to seize when her husband died. Pushing widows off their property is common practice in this region; Namatovu, with the help of lawyers, fought back.

Tumushabe told them this was nonsense. She said she would never take this man into her bed, that her husband had left papers proving the land passed to her. The in-laws said she had apparently bewitched and stupefied her husband and that she might want to see just how much help he would be to her now, from that freshly dug grave in which he lay. Tumushabe summoned police. She harvested some crops and chopped trees for firewood. Threats escalated; epithets were directed at the children. One day a man from her husband’s family appeared on the property shouting that today Tumushabe would die, and because Tumushabe’s hand was cut during the encounter by a panga—a broad-bladed African machete—Diana Angwech had an assault charge with which to haul one of Tumushabe’s tormentors into court.

You work with what the situation brings you, Angwech and her colleagues kept reminding us, as Toensing and I followed them through their rounds in villages of central Uganda: You commiserate, you counsel, you try to enlighten police officers and village elders, you visit community forums to explain that bullying a new widow into giving over her family property is prohibited even when the bullies are her own in-laws. “People were in shock—‘Oh my God, this is actually wrong?’ ” said a lawyer named Nina Asiimwe, recalling the first public talks she gave after joining other Ugandan professionals in the Kampala office of International Justice Mission (IJM), the organization that employs Angwech. “They thought it was normal. An injustice, but normal. OK’d by society.”

Think of these Ugandans as a widows’ defense brigade: attorneys, social workers, and criminal investigators using their nation’s own justice system to undo long-held assumptions about women who have lost their husbands. IJM is a U.S.-based nonprofit that supports legal advocacy in other countries for impoverished victims of violent abuse, and in one sense the agenda of its employees in Kampala is modest. They operate a pilot program, within one large, mostly rural district east of the capital, that provides free lawyers and caseworkers for victims of a crime known throughout eastern and southern Africa as “property grabbing”—extorting vulnerable people, by verbal threats or physical attacks, into giving up possession of land that is rightfully theirs.

For reasons both ancient and modern, widowed women are the most frequent victims of property grabbing in this region of the world. More than two-thirds of Uganda’s 39 million people raise at least some of their own food, and holding title to one’s own home and attached land remains a powerful assurance of material security: meals for the children, firewood for cooking, crops to sell at market. Because graves are often placed near the home, the person in charge of the family property also possesses ancestral history, honor, status. And the rapid growth of Uganda’s population, along with the arrival of mortgage banking, are pushing up the value of land. A house and the cropland around it now constitute potential loan collateral for business investments or the accumulation of more land.

In the days after Solome Sekimuli’s husband died of diabetes last summer, while the traditional mourning fire was still burning outside their home in the central region of the country, men from her husband’s family barged into the bedroom they had shared. They flung open her wardrobe and threw Sekimuli’s clothes out the window to burn on the fire; these relatives wanted her gone at once. Preparing for church soon afterward, a frightened and grieving Sekimuli is comforted by her fellow parishioners.

These are things traditional Ugandan culture does not easily concede to a widow. The constitution, rewritten in 1995 and a source of national pride, promises gender equality. Modern statutes explicitly extend inheritance rights to wives and female children. But in practice, especially in the rural areas that make up most of Uganda, it’s still widely assumed that only men should own or inherit land, that widowhood terminates a woman’s social legitimacy, and that it’s up to her husband’s family and clan to decide what happens next—who will take the property, who will take the children, who will have sex with her now. “Plus the stigma,” Asiimwe said. “If you’re a widow, bad luck. You’re cursed. You’re blamed for the death of your spouse. It could be that he had several homes, several wives, that he brought HIV into the house. But when he dies, it’s you. You killed him.”

So with widows as their clients, IJM advocates in the villages and courtrooms of Uganda’s Mukono District have an audacious goal: to broadcast across Mukono, and perhaps throughout Uganda and beyond, the idea that seizing these women’s homes and crops—as well as the assaults, threats, forgeries, and verbal abuse this often entails—is not only wrong but punishable by the courts. Diplomacy is crucial; in village meetings Asiimwe always addresses her elders as “my fathers” and “my mothers.” She tells them she knows widow abuse is typically treated as a family dispute to be worked out among clan leaders or by village councils, whose elected heads command respect.

But their efforts are often inadequate, she insists, and council heads can be bought off or threatened. In Luganda, the primary indigenous language of the area, she uses blunt words: okubba, stealing, and kimenya mateeka, criminal. She implores her listeners to remember the likely future for a widow who is chased from her home by panga-brandishing property grabbers: Her birth family may not take her back, because they can’t afford to or no longer regard her as one of them. Such a widow may be left to the streets, perhaps forced into prostitution. “Then of course the society around them is going to face a problem of insecurity,” Asiimwe said. “The children will become street children. People who used to eat three times a day are going to eat once a day. Malnutrition will come into play.”

Joseph Ssenkima (at center), accused of terrorizing a Mukono District widow named Betty Nanozi, is believed to be one of more than 70 people who destroyed her crops and threatened her son’s life. Since Nanozi’s husband died, members of his family and their allies have tried to drive her from the home he willed to her. Police working with International Justice Mission pursued suspects for weeks.

The buy-in is slow. A former national police officer who now directs IJM’s Mukono District investigations said his policing friends were initially perplexed as he began heading into village constabularies, teaching officers to gather property-grabbing evidence and take seriously threats of violence against widows who try to fight back. Colleagues of his generation would raise an eyebrow, he told us: “ ‘What is the issue here? Is this an important matter?’ ”

The threats are so credible and widespread, in fact, that they are sometimes directed at case investigators, which is why IJM asked that this investigator’s name not be published. And the cases themselves can be enormously complex. Uganda sanctions multiple ways to possess land, both precolonial and modern, so it can be hard to prove who held ownership rights even before the husband died. Ugandans are wary of wills, such obvious portents of death. Cohabitation relationships are common, even though those aren’t legal marriages; many women who regard themselves as wives turn out not to be, for inheritance purposes. “But I believe that there is hope,” lawyer and casework director Alice Muhairwe Mparana told Toensing and me last June. “We are not 100 percent there, but we have begun the work. We already have nine convictions this year.”

Some of the charges that stuck during the first half of 2016: unlawful eviction, criminal trespass, intermeddling, which means impermissibly interfering with someone else’s business matters. There is no law in Uganda, or anywhere else, making it criminal to treat a widow as though her life no longer has value. But June 23 marked the sixth International Widows’ Day, and in the biggest town in Mukono, a grassy square facing the courthouse was given over to a special commemoration, with microphones, a uniformed band, hundreds of folding chairs, and a tented seating area roped off, as the signpost read, for “Honoured Widows.” Important people rose to speak: the police chief, for example; and the head magistrate; and Clare Glorious Tumushabe, who took more time at the microphone than any of them.

With help, Tumushabe said, she had remained on her family property. “I only loved one man,” she shouted in Luganda, her voice rising like a preacher’s, and the Honoured Widows cheered. “I said to my husband’s clan, ‘How would you give me to another man? I didn’t get married to a whole clan.’ ”

Three months later Toensing and I got the news: The man who attacked Tumushabe had been convicted of “assault occasioning actual bodily harm” and was commencing his yearlong sentence in jail. Tumushabe and the lawyers were exultant. But his siblings were furious, and the lead investigator was worried about the widow and her children. “We have beefed up security for her,” he said. “And we have looked into going to the community, to sensitize them. She’s isolated where she lives. But she is tough and strong.”