Forty-year-old Roseline Orwa, a widow and activist, has overcome many odds in life including divorce, childlessness and widowhood. Today she champions for the protection and advancement of widows’ rights in Kenya through her foundation – RONA Foundation. She took ESTHER KIRAGU through her life and the strides she is making in addressing the plight of widows in Kenya.

Every weekend, Roseline Orwa feeds over 300 children at Wagoma Orphans and Widows Centre in Bondo, Siaya County. This is one of the major projects under RONA foundation, which stands for relationships, opportunities, networking and advocacy. The centre is an oasis of hope to the many widows and orphans at Wagoma.

“Wagoma village is on the shores of Lake Victoria with a population of about 10,000, majority of whom are widows and orphans living without any hope. In addition, the HIV/AIDS rate in this village is so high and this is mainly because of the deep-rooted cultures, customs and traditions that no one dares to question but which I am asking the society to relook,” she says as we start the interview.

Through RONA Foundation, Roseline is providing relief to the widows by helping them find a sense of belonging and empowering them socially and economically. The foundation has several programmes such as Widow Host A Widow, Sauti Ya Wajane, and Sponsor a House for a Widow among many other activities, which are aimed at empowering widows. So far, the foundation has built 33 houses for some widows, created widow support groups and empowered many. The foundation is funded through Roseline’s tailoring activities done in her house in Nairobi, which also doubles up as the organisation’s head office. She also does farming in Bondo to supplement her income.

Overcoming widowhood, childlessness and divorce

So why is she so passionate about widows? “I have experienced childlessness, divorce and widowhood and the stigma that comes with these situations. In 2000, I walked out of my first marriage when the emotional, physical and mental abuse became unbearable. I was still in college when I met my then husband who was much older than me. In retrospect, I realise I was not ready for marriage. I was only 21 years old and very naive,” she recounts.

Roseline was not able to bear children in her marriage and unfortunately this became the constant bone of contention. She went from one doctor to another seeking a solution and clinging to every bit of hope that she would eventually conceive. She says the deep sense of emptiness at the realisation that a woman cannot conceive, is only something that God can heal. And that it helps if one’s spouse is understanding and supportive during that period.

In her case, Roseline went through physical, emotional and mental abuse in her marriage. “When it became unbearable, I got a divorce. I was 26 years old. But even then my ex-husband couldn’t allow me to divorce him peacefully. I underwent harassment and threats and on top of it, my mother had to return dowry to my husband’s family, which is a mocking and extremely humiliating exercise. Things moved from bad to worse when my house in Nairobi and my tailoring business were set on fire. Without any financial support, I became jobless and homeless. I was devasted,” she recounts.

Through the assistance of well-wishers, Roseline was able to set up her business and rebuild her life. She later found love and remarried in 2003 in what she describes as a happy marriage. However, it only lasted for a short stint as three-and-a-half-years later she was widowed at the age of 32. “My life changed. I lost my name and people simply referred to me as a widow and branded me a carrier of death,” she says.

Her community alienated her when she refused to be shaved as per the burial customs in her culture. To her shock, during the mourning period, there was a Nyatiti player who was entertaining the mourners but was supposedly paid to be her inheritor so as to cleanse her.

“The cleansing ritual is an extremely humiliating exercise where any villager is randomly picked and paid to sleep with a widow without any form of protection in order to cleanse off death. It took the intervention of my father-in-law to stop the cleansing exercise from happening to me,” she explains.

Grieving and in loneliness, Roseline tried reaching out to some politician friends of her deceased husband who had made promises to her during the burial ceremony. She got no help. It was then that she began wondering where other divorced, widowed and/or childless women in Kenya were.

“My experiences woke me up to the reality of a society where the value of a woman is pegged on being someone’s wife and a mother. And so I began looking for support groups by opening up my home in Nairobi on Saturday afternoons for divorced, childless and widowed women to meet and share their experiences. Word went round and we had huge turnouts. With time, the afternoon events turned to overnight stays. We would laugh, cry and pray together. The forums were therapeutical not just for me, but for those women too. Soon the house was too small for all of us,” Roseline explains the events that led to the establishment of RONA foundation.

Running RONA foundation…

In 2007, Roseline bought a piece of land in Wagoma in Bondo, Siaya County, which became Wagoma Orphans and Widows Centre – a model for loss and grief that can be replicated in any of the 47 counties in Kenya or anywhere in Africa. Today, RONA Foundation has registered a network of two million widows either individually or organised in widow groups and community based organisations (CBOs) across the country. According to the 2009 census report, there are over eight million widows in Kenya.

Roseline got a scholarship at the Amani Institute for Social Innovation Management Program in Brazil for a postgraduate fellowship programme which she says has really helped her learn how to manage the foundation as well as learn from those who have gone ahead of her in running NGOs.

“Immediately after completing the postgraduate course, I launched a Stop the Widow Abuse campaign on social media with the ultimate goal of creating widowhood laws. This attracted many widows who now form part of our network countrywide,” she explains.

The Wagoma Orphans and Widows Centre has become a centre of loss and grief sharing for many widows who also get legal address for abuse suffered. They also get psychosocial support and so far 33 widows have acquired houses thanks to the foundation. The centre also has 166 orphans, 36 of whom live in the centre. In addition, the centre has a dispensary and regularly carries out free medical camps and feeding programmes for the villagers.

Many women have been empowered through seminars, workshops and trainings on how to overcome widowhood and the legislations concerning woman empowerment. Through training of various widow leaders in different counties, RONA Foundation is replicating its work countrywide.

But it hasn’t been all rosy. Roseline cites a few cases of illiteracy among some widows, especially from up-country, that make it hard to train and empower them. In addition, some widows are still loyal to community traditions despite these traditions being abusive to them.

She explains, “It has been an amazing eight-year journey running RONA Foundation despite the challenges of endless needs which we are not always able to meet. I appeal for support from well-wishers who can either sponsor the children under our care with school fees, or support the centre with donations, dry food, clothes and shoes, medical supplies, blankets or by building a house for a widow.”

One of the greatest achievements of the RONA Foundation so far has been the widow policy breakthrough where the organisation played a great role in lobbying for the outlawing of widow cleansing exercises under domestic offence bill which was passed into law in 2015. The foundation is now pushing for a widow’s fund in the government, as well as a widow’s bill to address the abuse widows often go through.

Roseline’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. She was nominated as front-runner for NGO Diaspora Awards in Texas, USA – an award that recognises outstanding leaders globally. She is also a front-runner nominee for Giraffe Heroes Kenya Awards 2015. Roseline is a serving commissioned expert at the Ministry of Labour, Social Securities and Services, a government appointment to develop the family protection and promotion policy. She is also the national chairperson of Sauti ya Wajane Kenya. Besides caring for widows and orphans, Roseline manages to find time to mentor young women in advocacy.

As we conclude this interview, Roseline’s wish is that the society would be protectors of widows rather than abusers.

In addition, she wants the church to be at the frontline in highlighting and addressing issues at the grassroots level. She also wants the government to take the plight of widows in the country more seriously as widows are a force to reckon if the eight million statistics in the 2009 census report is anything to go by. In addition, widows can help in the fight against HIV/AIDS, which thrives in traditions and customs such as widow cleansing and inheritance.

You can contact Roseline through RONA Foundation Email: roseline@ronafoundation.co.ke Tel: 0723238812

Website: www.ronafoundation.co.ke

Published in January 2015