The Sunday Mail
For many women in Zimbabwe, losing a husband does not just mean the loss of a loved one. It entails the loss of a father and a breadwinner.
It can also mean the loss of livestock, furniture, clothes and property to relatives who insist that what belonged to the man now belongs to them.
The repercussions can be devastating, sending the wife and her children into a spiral of poverty.
With hundreds of women lining up daily at lawyers’ offices around the country to lodge complaints of relatives seizing property of their deceased husbands, the case of the Mushore family in Nyazura is a poignant one.
The family is embroiled in an inheritance fight pitting the husband’s divorced wife, her two children and the husband’s relatives against the surviving wife and her two children.
They all want a share of the estate the deceased left behind. The patriarch of the family passed on, leaving a sizeable piece of land, a car, cattle and the two wives with children.
The husband never wrote a will, choosing to leave everything to his surviving wife and their children.
Although the case is still pending before the traditional courts, Mercy Mushore by virtue of being the surviving wife, feels she and her two children are entitled to everything that her husband worked for.
But children from the first wife say they are the rightful owners of their father’s property of which the second wife is having none of.
Speaking after attending the traditional court session, Mrs Mercy Mushore said: “My husband told me that I should take care of everything so that I can be able to fend for the family but relatives and the first wife — whom he had divorced — want to take everything.”
The divorced wife, the surviving wife and relatives of the husband are not talking to each other over this inheritance dispute.
Sadly the Mushore family is not alone in the ever-growing inheritance nightmare, they are just a microcosm of many families in the country who are battling inheritance issues, of which women are always at the receiving end.
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But why does this happen?
Who inherits what in a family after the demise of a father? Who should really inherit a man’s property? A son, daughter, brother or sister?
Inheritance is a practice of passing property, titles, debts, rights and other obligations upon death of an individual to a rightful heir. What usually forms the centre of most contestations, is what defines “rightful”.
The rules of inheritance differ between societies, juridisctions and have changed over time.
The law of inheritance differs depending on whether it is considered under customary law or under general law.
Ordinarily, inheritance issues revolve around land, money and in some cases the surviving wife or wives.
Traditionally, the heir is usually the first male child. Where none exists or where one is still too young to make decisions, inheritance is passed on to a male relative of the deceased.
But this practice often results in neglect and in some cases destitution for the family of the as there is usually nothing reserved for women under this arrangement.
The more enlightened ones write a will before they depart, which at times result in lots of quarrels, which are settled by the courts as the family members fail to agree.
Most of the these disputes arise because the husband and wife would not have discussed what is to be done in the event one passes away.
Sekuru Friday Chisanyu, a traditionalist, said men do not want to write a will because of fear and at times cultural reasons.
“To them inheritance is a secret which should not be discussed before death and a will is not a priority,” he said.
“This is the same reason why some greedy relatives think they should inherit all that has been left by the deceased, mistreating widows and orphans,” he added.
Chief Makoni, born Donald Kamba, said the issues of writing wills remains a challenge in rural areas because of customary laws.
“Some traditions don’t put much value on women inheriting property, even where their husbands die, it is the sons who take the lion’s share of the property,” he said.
In Zimbabwe, the will is a very critical document that is recognised by the laws of the land for it helps on matters to do with inheritance.
Surprisingly, people are not keen to write wills to guide families in the event of death. Probably the fear arises out of letting close relatives know know that one has a will, even if they do not divulge the details contained therein? Is it a sacred item that must be kept a secret from the rest of the family? At what stage is it prudent to prepare a will, only when one is “rich” or the moment one acquires a few assets?
Who should be the torch-bearers in the conscientisation of the members of the public about the significance of a will or just the law of inheritance?
First Lady Amai Auxilia Mnangagwa, who is also the ambassador of Women and Children’s Health, is moving around the country educating widows and women on how the law of inheritance works.
Dr Nicholas Manhangwa, a sociologist, says there are more disputes these days because people are now living in a money-obsessed culture.
“The opportunity to obtain money overrides ethical behaviour around the source of the money,” he said. “Adults should openly talk to their children about their wealth and how they expect it to be shared.”
But Sekuru Chisanyu said it is laziness and greedy that drive disputes when distributing property of the deceased.