Mama Zimbi: The woman who helps Ghana's widows who are forced to sleep with husbands' corpses as part of humiliating ritual

The radio star on how her charity funds co-operative businesses that have helped dispossessed and spurned Ghanaian women turn their lives around

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.

www.wise-qatar.org