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Togo: Dispossessed widow rebuilds her life with farming

Awade Solim waters her field of carrots and lettuce under a blazing sun. In the fierce heat, the 44-year-old widow perspires so much that her clothes are soaked. But she braves the heat six days a week to tend to her crops.

Mrs. Solim farms in Akodessewa, a neighbourhood on the eastern outskirts of Togo’s capital city, Lomé. She spends long days in her field, digging, watering, and weeding, while keeping an eye out for plants ready to be harvested. She says, “I often come very early to make the most of the morning before the sun rises. After 10 o’clock, it can get too hot to get much more work done.”

Mrs. Solim started farming only three years ago, after her husband passed away. She used to make her living selling cloth, but lost everything after his death. She says her life became a living hell.

She explains: “When my husband died, my in-laws forced me to go to our village more than 80 kilometres from Lomé to perform the rites of widowhood. Once the ceremony was completed, my brother- and sisters-in-law came and took everything that my husband and I took a lifetime to build up: our home, electrical appliances, motorcycles, everything. Then I found myself on the street with my two daughters, aged 15 and 19.”

But Mrs. Solim refused to give up. She decided to start a farm. She knew nothing about farming, so spent several weeks as an “intern,” learning basic gardening techniques in a friend’s field. Once she had enough confidence, she took a loan of 300,000 Central African francs [$600 US], and rented a one-hectare plot.

Her friend, Ayawa Akakpo, taught her as much as she could. Mrs. Akakpo has been a gardener for seven years, so she can appreciate the effort that Mrs. Solim puts into her work. She says: “I am amazed by [Mrs. Solim]. Three years ago, she knew nothing—but look at her field.” With a laugh, Mrs. Akakpo adds, “She’s a serious competitor now.”

Mrs. Solim has tried in vain to reclaim her property. Togolese law does not recognize the rights of widows and children to inherit property, despite numerous efforts by women’s rights organizations to change legislation.

Several organizations have sprung up to challenge national policies and support affected women and children. One of these is Fonds d’aides aux veuves et aux orphelins, or FONDAVO. FONDAVO has worked with more than 300 widows since its inception four years ago.

Dr. Charles Birregah is the founder of FONDAVO. He says: “The situation of widows in Togo is very worrying. On the death of their husbands, most of them lose their property and are often forced to submit to humiliating rites [associated with] widowhood.”

Mrs. Solim is one of the few widows who has recovered her livelihood, if not her possessions, and it’s thanks to her farm. She attributes her success to having the courage and, above all, the determination to escape from her dire situation.

Now, she earns enough from farming to send her children to school and otherwise support her family. She plans to lease more land with her profits, and expand her range of crops by planting peppers and other vegetables. She’ll have to take out another loan, but she says that the increased income makes it worthwhile.

This article was originally published in November 2015. Dates have been updated.