Living on the Edge? Never Give Up!!
Living on the Edge? Never Give Up!!
Beatrice Gikunda will never forget the 28th of May, 1982. On that day, her husband died. He had cancer. Their first-born was thirteen years old. Their last-born, a baby girl, was only two months old. In between were five other children. When the burial arrangements were over, Beatrice was summoned by elders: “We have decided that you will be inherited by your husband’s older brother, Gituma. If you refuse to be inherited, take your husband’s dead body and your seven children and leave. If you agree to be inherited, you will continue being a member of this clan and family and we will bury your husband on his land here.”
Beatrice was not prepared for this turn of events. She had only a split second to think of an answer. “I debated in my mind what to do. I realized that I had no place to take the lifeless body of my husband. I had seven young children. I was a primary school teacher earning $40 a month. There was nothing to think about. I agreed to being inherited.”
When Gituma’s wife watched her husband shake Beatrice’s hand, agreeing to inherit her and her seven children, she wept bitterly. No one had consulted her either. These were men’s decisions and women had no say in the matter. Gituma’s wife wept for herself and her two children. How would she live with seven more mouths to feed and another woman competing for her husband? She started drinking and never stopped.
Beatrice’s husband was buried. Beatrice, however, refused to be Gituma’s ‘wife’ after the burial. This marked the beginning of “hell on earth for me and my children. Even today, I have a case in court over the issue of my husbands land. These people have taken away everything from me,” Beatrice laments. Beatrice looks down for a few seconds, as if deep in thought. Then she brightens up and with a smile says: “The troubles I have gone through have made me stronger. This is why I am able to help so many women.”
Beatrice had to walk a tightrope to get her husband’s benefits; she had to feed, clothe and educate her seven children; she had to contend with her husband’s younger, abusive brother, and she had to continue teaching to earn a living. She explained: “When I got inherited, a man became the administrator of my husband’s estate. He was a signatory to my late husband’s benefits account, money that was set aside solely to cover the education expenses of my children. I could not get that money without the signature of the man.”
Although Beatrice worked day and night, it became impossible to make ends meet. Sometimes, she would boil water and feed the kids on water as dinner. Eventually, her husband’s brothers took her children on the grounds that she was unable to look after them. In the uncles’ homes, the children were fed on food the dogs ate. They were made servants. Within a month, they all ran away, explaining: “we would rather feed on water than stay in their houses. We make food for the dogs and they tell us to eat it.”
To keep alive, Beatrice and the children started working as laborers on other people’s land to supplement her meager salary. When she discovered that her brothers-in-law were colluding to take her husband’s land from her, it was the last straw - she went to court.
The brothers-in-law colluded to bring a boy in the home whom they said was sired by Beatrice’s husband. The brothers sent people to spray her crops with chemicals. They came and took her animals and car. Because Gituma was a senior government official, going to the local government agents to report all this harassment yielded no results. Beatrice, however, swore never to leave the land nor give up the fight. The case is still in court. Her children are all grown now and they are helping her fight. “I decided I would fight to the end,” Beatrice proclaims.
Beatrice started an organization called Future Care for widows and orphans in 2007. “I said to myself: if I suffer like this, and those mistreating me are wealthy people, what about those who have no one to help them and know nothing of their rights?” Through this organization, Beatrice has helped many women fight for their property. She works with Chiefs and Churches to help women who are facing challenges with their husbands and relatives when husbands die. Currently, she manages 33 cases of violence against women. She also rescues girls experiencing sexual harassment, who she takes to a rescue center near her home. Since 2009, she has rescued five girls who are survivors of rape and has had the perpetrators arrested and arraigned in court.
Beatrice is a member of Amani Communities Africa, which works to educate women on their human rights and peace. She also is a member of the Circles of Ten: Women for World Peace, through which grassroots women are linked to groups in USA to share ideas on peace. Beatrice leads many women’s groups in her region, including being the Vice President of the Africa Peace Forum.
When I heard Beatrice’s story, I was inspired by her courage. Her case is unique because her brothers-in-law were wealthy people. I felt that her story was important for people to understand how greed and selfishness leads to harassment of helpless families. Beatrice’s courage to stand her ground, learn from experience and form support groups for women is inspiring.
All of Beatrice’s children have completed high school. Two have bachelor’s degrees and the others have a higher diploma certificate. The children have built their mother a lovely stone house, and are continuing the legal battle for their dad’s land.
Beatrice’s parting words: “Please share my story with other women. And remember to remind them never to give up. God is always on the side of the widow and orphan.”
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 30 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most unheard regions of the world..