In most parts of the world, becoming a widow elicits sympathy. Not so among some communities in Ghana, where women are sometimes blamed for their husbands’ deaths, kicked out of the family homes or forced to undergo humiliating “widowhood” rituals.
Many Ghanaian women find themselves abandoned by their families when their husbands die, and sometimes have to take part in ceremonies that, according to local practices, ensure their dead husbands’ passage to the afterlife. These vary, but some women report having to spend nights alone with their dead husband’s corpse, and even drinking a soup made of his fingernails and hair.
Fighting this tradition has become the work of Joyce Akumaa Dongotey-Padi. Asked whether she is a “feminist” she looks confused. Instead she continues to describe how her charity – the Mama Zimbi Foundation – has helped and empowered thousands of Ghanaian widows, many of them thrown on the scrap heap by their families when their husbands died. She helps women, not just in the immediate aftermath of their husbands’ death but also with money, education and business. She also helps them regain the hope of a future. She has made it her mission to drag countless lives from a state of hopelessness to something much more fulfilling.
One of Ghana’s leading television and radio hosts, Mama Zimbi, as she is known to her viewers and listeners, has begun something of a revolution in Ghana. “On the radio and TV I was dealing a lot with women’s issues, health, the family, sex,” she tells The Independent. “Every time the show ended, we had lots of women coming in to tell us how they were being mistreated by their husbands.”
She is talking on a mango farm run exclusively by widows, which she has financed. Women from the nearby village of Akuni, 120 miles west of the capital, Accra, work on the farm, growing and selling the mangos, and have turned it into a profitable business.
“There was an increasing number whose husbands were dead, and they didn’t know what to do,” she says. “It was becoming a more regular question, so I decided to set up an organisation to deal with these issues.”
That was just over a decade ago, and now her foundation has helped thousands of women, not just with dealing with legal matters concerning their husbands’ deaths but also setting up businesses to help them survive.
A short drive from the mango farm is one of Mama Zimbi’s other projects. Inside a church building, 16 widows are making charcoal they will later sell at markets and by the roadside.
Beatrice Adzo Addedet, 74, has been a widow for more than a decade. She lived in Accra with her husband of 35 years, and worked at the airport. When he died, his family kicked her out of their matrimonial home. “We had no help from anyone – there is a stigma of being a widow in this country; it is very common,” she says. “At the death of my husband, his family said that everything belonged to them – they didn’t care.”
Anafah Josephine, 59, successfully took her brother-in-law to court when he tried to claim her property, but says that many widows face terrible threats and dangers.
“His family wanted to make me frightened,” she said. “One of my friends was the subject of a voodoo curse. There are some strange widowhood rites here in Ghana that are not healthy. Some women are forced to spend seven days locked in a room with only basic foods; they are told that unless they do it, their husbands won’t pass through to the afterlife.”
Few of the women refer to the rituals they endured themselves, preferring to cite the experiences of friends or relatives. There are other examples of widowhood rites against which the Mama Zimbi Foundation fights, including being locked in a room overnight with the husband’s corpse, and in some cases, being made to drink a soup made from the nails, teeth and hair of their late husband’s body.
Mama Zimbi was the first winner of the $20,000 (£12,800) Wise education award in 2009. The prize is funded by the Qatar Foundation.
However, that was the only outside assistance Mama Zimbi has ever received. She says that the Ghanaian government has been supportive, and a number of private businesses have provided machinery and tools, but that most of the finance needed to help some of the 8,000 widows who Mama Zimbi believes need assistance comes from her own pocket. Already, some 2,000 have been helped.
She admits that some of her first projects did not work, and she now relies on soft loans, which women use to form collectives and establish small businesses.
One such enterprise is an hour’s drive from Akuni, in a hamlet known as Okwenya. Here the widows make pots and bowls from the clay in the local soil. It is hard work, and over time they have developed their own rudimentary production line. Some older women, perhaps too advanced in years to do the work, sing traditional songs to maintain morale.
The Mama Zimbi foundation helps to recruit women into a collective and then provides them with a loan, used to buy materials and to pay for transport. The pot makers of Okwenya produce as many as 100 items a day. Mama Zimbi initially gave them 1,000 Ghanaian cedis (about £190), and they expect to make about 200 cedis each month from sales.
Ghana Malofah, 52, is a leader within the group, and with remarkable speed turns a lump of wet clay into a perfectly shaped fruit bowl. At a weekend market somewhere in London, it would comfortably fetch £20 or £30.
Like the women in Akuni, Malofah was thrown out of her home when her husband of 10 years died. “After he was buried and I performed the widowhood rites, I was sacked from the house,” she says.
“When he died, I lost everything. I arrived in the village and learnt this work. When I heard Mama Zimbi’s radio programme, I recruited other women and we set up this business.”
Mama Zimbi is a bundle of boundless energy. After showing The Independent several projects, she went back to Accra to host a two-hour long radio programme. She doesn’t blame anyone for the widows’ predicament, nor does she bemoan the lack of outside help. She clearly enjoys the spotlight her work has brought her.
Ultimately, however, she enables talented women to pull themselves up. She says she has kicked some women off projects because they were too lazy, and will only work with those who show promise of repaying her loans. And each time she speaks to a group of women she has helped, they sing, dance and clap in response. Whatever else she may be, Mama Zimbi is a hero to Ghana’s widows.
Source: Alistair Dawber, The Independent, center page (Monday 20 July 2015)
Akumaa Mama Zimbi is probably Ghana’s most popular sex therapist, a fixture on radio and TV. Colourful, garrulous and with one gold tooth, Mama Zimbi – Dr. Joyce Akumaa Dongotey-Padi – host a widely popular talk show, Odo Ahomaso, in the conservative west African nation. Even the grim-faced police at roadblocks crack a smile and call out her catchphrase – “Medaase” (Thank You) – which is emblazoned in pink across the back of her 4X4.
Even when the show is over, women call her, and some of their stories are heartbreaking. In Ghana, as in many African countries, a traditional gender bias often left women economically, politically and socially marginalized. When money is tight – a quarter of the population live below the international poverty line of $1.25 a day – it is boys who go to school.
Compelled by her callers’ experiences, Mama Zimbi has become a leading activist for women’s rights and education. Her Mama Zimbi Foundation helps women organize co-operatives and learn basic financial skills. “We teach people the reality,” she says. “You have to look after yourself.” The work is funded mostly out of her own pocket, aided by $20,000 from the Qatari backed World Innovation Summit for Education.
Most beneficiaries are widows, such as Beatrice Atzo Addede, kicked out of her family home when her husband died. Widows, lacking social status, are among Ghana’s most vulnerable people. Bank accounts and assets are typically held in the man’s name, and often his family will try to claim them after his death. Property should go to the widow and children but without education women often simply do not know the law is on their side. Ms Atzo Addede, 75, works with a charcoal making co-op in Akuni village in east Ghana. Each woman makes around 200 cedis (£37) a month, the income is an opportunity to escape the stigma of widowhood. “What we do now, we are free,” she says.
Small-scale farming is still the largest employer of women. Rural livelihoods are fragile and climate change has made them more so. Wet seasons are now unpredictable and farmers must adapt to stop crops dying. Agricultural advice is critical but many women are illiterate, and live far from public services. (For more information visit mamazimbi.org)
Source: Peter Guest, London Evening Standard – page 27 (17th July 2015)
Ace actress and Founder and Executive Director of Mama Zimbi Foundation, Akumaa Mama Zimbi, known in private life as Dr. Joyce Akumaa Dongotey-Padi, has once again hosted over 2,000 widows from across Ghana under one roof to renew their strength and instill in them a sense of purpose.
The widows conference is also to encourage them to learn to grow in self-confidence.
The 7th National Widows Alliance Conference (NAWAC-2015) was held at the Ghana International Trade Fair Centre, La in Accra.
The conference is part of the Widows Alliance Network (WANE) project for sustainable economic development of widows in Ghana, being undertaken by the Mama Zimbi Foundation (MZF).
The conference also continues to serve as the ideal dialogue platform for the advocacy of a comprehensive policy and legal direction for elevating the standards of widows in Ghana.
To date, WANE has formed over 400 widowhood clubs and associations to its credit with over 8,000 widows as members. The theme for NAWAC-2015 was ‘Transforming women through education’.
It was also to celebrate the United Nations International Widows Day.
Addressing the conference, the cultural icon and multiple international award-winner, Mama Zimbi stated that the Domestic violence Act, 2007, (Act 732), considers acts likely to cause physical abuse, economic deprivation, emotional verbal or psychological abuse, forcible detention of another person, and sexual abuse as acts of violence. However, Ghana is still living with many forms of outmoded traditional practices like some aspects of widowhood rights in some communities. This situation has created a marked difference and a class society where widows are found at the base of the ladder.
She has therefore called for the abolishment of all weird widowhood practices from the society.
She added that, her organization is currently striving to set up an ultra modern ‘Center for Skills and Entrepreneurship Training’ (CENSET) as a permanent place to provide vocational training, human rights education, reproductive health and social integration programs for women and girls. This center will also increase the rate of providing employable skills training and opportunities to widows in Ghana.
Key personalities who spoke at the conference included Hon. Dzifa Abla Gomashie (Deputy Minister, Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Creative Arts), Mrs. Eva Lokko (CEO-Totally Youth), Mrs. Hilary Gbedemah (Rector, The Law Institute), Madam Mary Benedicta Buako (Chairperson, Board of Directors, Mama Zimbi Foundation – MZF), Superintendent Patience Quaye (Director, Anti-Human Trafficking Unit of the Ghana Police Service), Nana ogyedom Tsetsewah I, (Mankrado of Gomoa Oguan, Osumpahen of Gomoa Akyempim Traditional Area; Tema Fantsehen; Mediator of Ogyedom ADR Center) and about 20 other Queenmothers.
Other dignitaries were Rev. George Obeng Appah (Priest in Charge, Sts Thomas More and John Fisher Catholic Churches, Achimota), Rev. Dr. Gabriel Ansah (Chancellor, Nasem University Fellowship; Board Member, MZF), Prophet Emmanuel Badu Kobi (General Overseer, Glorious Waves Church Int. Tema) and Rev. Dr. Ebenezer Conduah (Learning to Marry Forever). The MCs were Captain Smart and Afia Pokua Vim Lady, all of Adom FM.
Well known musicians who also thrilled the widows with their outstanding performances were Willie and Mike, Anita Afriyie and Gasmilla.
At the conference, the widows were given free medical examination, engaged in a mini-trade fair.
Widows from places as Tarkoradi, Tamale, Adawso, Akosombo, Somanya, Sampa and Hikpo were all at the conference.
Ace actress, broadcaster and multiple international award winner Akumaa Mama Zimbi, real name Joyce Akumaa Dongotey-Padi, has disclosed that the Widows Alliance Network (WANE) project for sustainable economic development of widows in Ghana, which is one of the projects undertaken by the Mama Zimbi Foundation (MZF), will hold its 6th National Widows Alliance Conference (NAWAC-2014) on Saturday, June 21st, 2014 at the Ghana International Trade Fair Centre, La with the theme “Empowering women through education”. This conference is also to celebrate the United Nations International Widows Day.
Through WANE, over 400 widow groupings have been formed in Ghana, with membership swelling to over 8,000 nationwide. The annual national Widows Alliance Conference for advocacy and national widows cohesion is organized on a large scale as the grand occasion where all of Ghana and Africa are made to appreciate the roles widows are playing as ambassadors of change in their communities. It also serves as the ideal dialogue platform for the advocacy of a comprehensive policy and legal direction for elevating the standards of widows in Ghana.
Mama Zimbi added that this annual event brings together all widows in Ghana under one roof to foster strength and a sense of purpose and also encourage widows to learn to grow in self confidence, to develop new skills as well as new friendships. She also stated that the Conference is also an appropriate forum to advocate against injustices faced by widows in certain cultures on the national level. This advocacy is done by raising awareness about widows’ plight in order to increase its profile and obtain commitments from governments, policy makers and donors for its needed attention. These widows as usual will also be given free medical examination, messages from important personalities, engage in a Mini-Trade Fair, receive gifts, sing, dance and have plenty to eat and drink as well.
Sponsors of NAWAC-2014 include Unibank – Caring for you, Gewah Hospital, Indomie Instant Noodles, Ice Cool Purified Water, Mobile Engineering Services and Fru Telli. Others include Bake Shop Classics, Danny’s Décor, Last Hour Catering Services,and Ghana International Trade Fair Center. The media partners are Multi TV, Capital TV, Citi FM, Adom FM, Media Fanbern, Websoft Solutions and DDP.