Home for Mrs Esther Kanebi is worse than a pigsty. The squalid structure built with weakened bamboo sticks and thinly draped with thorn polythene sheets and mosquito net can barely protect her from the elements.
The damp environment, which was littered with filth and vegetation provided ample breeding ground for mosquitoes and rodents.
Weakened by malnutrition and sickness that had ravaged her shrivelled body for years, the 76-year-old widow laid curled up in a corner of the hut, surrounded by old items, which Sunday PUNCH learnt were the only personal belongings she had.
Kanebi’s story is that of absolute abandonment, pain and penury. Her predicament is one that no mother prays to experience or recount, and a typical example of falling from grace to grass.
Sunday PUNCH’s attention was drawn to the dire plight of the woman by a concerned Nigerian, Chinelo Okafor. The young lady, known on Facebook as Nelojosh, told our correspondent that she was heartbroken after learning about Kanebi’s predicament and that she remained committed to ensuring that she got a new lease of life.
From banking to abject penury
Many may find it difficult to believe that Kanebi, who cut quite a pitiable sight, was once a top-notch banker.
Our correspondent gathered that she was an employee of African Continental Bank, a major indigenous bank that became distressed in the early 1990.
The widow claimed to have been among those unceremoniously disengaged from service and was not paid her severance benefits in full after the bank was taken over by the Central Bank of Nigeria.
Abandoned by children and in-laws
Our correspondent learnt that Kanebi was allegedly abandoned by her three children and late husband’s family, and left for dead.
Sunday PUNCH reliably gathered that though she was married to the late Mr John Kanebi from the Idumu Ohagbeme Quarters, Onicha Olona, in the Aniocha North Local Government Area of Delta State, the dingy hut, which has been her home for over a decade, sits on her parent’s land in the Ogbeofu Quarters, Ezi in the same local government area.
According to Mrs Kanebi, after the demise of her husband, she was rejected by his family members, who were unhappy that she did not give them money while working in the bank.
Kanebi also claimed that they wanted her to remarry her late husband’s brother, Ifeanyi, and became embittered when she turned down their proposal.
The elderly woman further alleged that her three children, Joe, Peter and Agilika, who were residing in Lagos, were rich but chose to turn their back on her.
In a raspy voice laden with emotion, Mrs Kanebi went down memory lane to chronicle a life that was once enmeshed in splendour, but later culminated in abject penury.
She recounted, “I am a widow. My husband died when I was very young. After his death, his family wanted me to get married to his younger brother, but I refused.
“Before then, I had issues with them, especially with my mother-in-law. After my husband’s burial, I performed all the traditional rites and returned to my job in Lagos.
“After a while, the bank became distressed and everybody’s appointment was terminated. Before then, many of us were pencilled down for promotion.
“None of the staff members was paid complete benefits. I was paid in bits and pieces and could not do anything meaningful with the money. I wanted to use my benefits to start life afresh, because after my husband died, his family members were not willing to support me and the children.”
Kanebi alleged that she was left to bear the burial expenses of her husband because the family felt she made a lot of money as a banker.
“When people hear that you work in a bank or an insurance company, they tend to believe that you have lots of money. That was what happened to me after my husband’s death,” she added.
Left to die
On how she ended up almost as a destitute, Kanebi said after she lost her job and husband, she became very sick and practically begged to feed.
The widow claimed that she later went to live with her second son, Peter, but that he rented another apartment after some months and moved out with his family
She recounted, “He left the apartment for me. I almost died in Lagos. At one point, I begged to feed and slept near drainages. Sometimes, neighbours would give me food.
“I sold some items by a street corner, but due to my unkempt appearance, people were unwilling to patronise me. It was the neighbours that contributed money to pay for my transportation back to Delta State.”
Bedridden by sickness
Sunday PUNCH learnt that due to the widened divide between Mrs Kanebi and her in-laws, she had no choice but to relocate to her parents’ village.
She, however, revealed that she lived at the mercy of the villagers and had yet to get any medical treatment since she returned.
Kanebi recounted, “I became very sick and was bedridden for a while. I started suffering from a recurring eye problem and could only see faintly.
“You can see how thin I am and how my body looks. If you knew me before, you would not believe that I can look this way. My skin was like glass.”
Continuing, Kanebi said, “I was told that I lacked blood and should eat more fruits and vegetables. If I was told that this is what would become of my life, I would have doubted it.
“Nobody cares or asks after my wellbeing. It is only a lady that uses a wheelchair that feeds me. She was the one who helped to build the place I am staying currently.
“God will repay my children in their own coin. I did nothing to them. I took good care of them and ensured that they did not lack anything. They are ungrateful children. If my husband were to be alive, I would not go through this.
“I enrolled the two boys at Atunrase Senior High School and Ijeshatedo Boys’ Secondary School in Lagos. The only girl I had schooled at St. Maria Goretti Girls’ Grammar School, Benin City, Edo State. They were all good schools.”
An emotional Kanebi claimed that her children were aware that she lived like a destitute in an unhealthy environment but chose to turn blind eyes to her plight.
“My children know that I am here. They are enjoying themselves in Lagos. The female among them is married to a pastor and the man is supporting her to maltreat me,” she added.
Esther Kanebi lied, say in-laws
Based on Mrs Kanebi’s account, Sunday PUNCH became privy to an emergency family meeting summoned by her in-laws and which was also attended by Chinelo, the lady that drew attention to her plight.
Events that unfolded and details that later emerged revealed that the widow’s predicament was borne out of deep-seethed anger and resentment towards certain laws (customs) and tradition of the land.
Kanebi’s in-laws accused her of abandoning her husband, John, when he was critically ill, and that she did not attend his burial.
They also claimed that she never mourned or performed some important burial rites in her husband’s honour.
They described her claim of abandonment as false and maintained that she should have told the truth, rather than brand them as people without an iota of conscience.
According to one of the elders at the meeting, Anthony Kanebi, the embattled Mrs Kanebi grievously offended her late husband and children.
He recounted, “All the allegations she levelled against us are false. She abandoned her children when they were tender for her mother-in-law and fled to Lagos to join her husband. She ran away on the pretext that she was going to fetch water.
“When her husband returned homesick, she abandoned him and he later died. She did not come home for his burial and does not even know his final resting place.
“She said her children refused to take care of her. I carried out discreet investigations and called other family members, only to learn that she threw her children out when they went to Lagos to look for her. The oldest was 13 years then. The young man is now in his 40s.
“Did you (Esther) bring them up as a mother was expected to? Where were you when your husband died? Did you mourn him and which person’s house did you stay during the period? Can you show us where he was buried? Who shaved your hair to signify that you had completed the mourning period? Going by tradition, it is only women within the family who are empowered to cut her hair, but she was nowhere to be found.”
“Going by our tradition, since she did not mourn her husband, nobody could have married her within the family. So, the claim that she was asked to marry a member of the family, Ifeanyi, is false. He was married with two children at the time. We were young then, but we asked questions.”
Mrs Kanebi maltreated her mother-in-law
Corroborating Anthony’s claims, another member of the Kanebi family, Edith, said their late aunt, Theresa Monye, was the eldest female member of the family empowered by tradition to shave Esther’s hair.
Edith stated, “She did not come home to bury her husband. If she did, she should tell us where she stayed.
“Esther’s husband was my uncle. My mother was the first daughter of the family, while her late husband was the first son. After my uncle married her, he left for Lagos, with a plan to pick her and the children later. Esther never lit firewood to cook for her mother-in-law, who provided everything for her throughout the period.
“She never mourned her husband. Our anger is that she did not take care of her children. She lied about everything. She tarnished our image and the good name of the Kanebi family.”
My mother abandoned us as toddlers – Son
Mrs Kanebi’s second son, Peter, who represented his siblings, accused their mother of abandoning them with their grandmother when they were toddlers.
He alleged that at the time she left, the youngest child was eight-month-old, while the two older twins were two.
He recounted, “We were nurtured by my grandmother. She breastfed me after my mother left. When I was 13 years old, I asked after my mother and was told that she left us and ran to Lagos to be with my father.
“My mother left the house under the pretext of going to fetch water and ran away. My grandmother brought me and my siblings up with produce from her farm.
“I met my mother for the first time when I was 13 years old. She could not recognise her first son, Joe, when she met him for the first time in December 2020.
“My grievance with my mother is that she abandoned us. She did not take care of us. She also accommodated and spent her money on another man known as Odunjo. She later had a daughter for him.
“When my sibling and I located her place in Lagos, through the help of an uncle, she told her lover that she was never married and did not have any child. It is unfortunate that my grandmother is not alive to witness today. My mother wronged us.”
Peter claimed that Mrs Kanebi got him arrested and remanded in the Ogwashi Uku Prison for a crime he did not commit, and that life had been difficult for him since then.
He added, “I worked as a cart pusher (porter) to survive in Lagos. Every day, my mother would be all dressed up and passed by me at the bus stop. She never acknowledged me as her son.
“When I turned 20, she came with her lover and a policeman to arrest me. It was not until we got to Delta State that I knew what my offence was. I was accused of breaking into my maternal grandmother’s house to steal. I was in prison for one year and my mother never showed up.
“My mother did not enrol us in school. If I had attended secondary school, I would not end up like this. Before I got a job as a driver in a company, I had worked as a conductor and bus driver.”
At the end of the meeting, even though Mrs Kanebi apologised and asked for forgiveness from her children and in-laws, no one agreed to accommodate her or take responsibility for her upkeep.
Following the outright rejection of the elderly woman, Chinelo, the young lady who promised to help Mrs Kanebi, got a family to accommodate her temporarily and also provided money for her basic needs.
Chinelo told Sunday PUNCH that she was putting up a self-contained apartment at the spot where the bamboo hut once stood.
She stated, “It is a challenge I have taken up to do. No matter what her offence is, Mrs Kanebi deserves to live and die with dignity. The apartment will be fitted with a kitchen and toilet.
“She will also get a caregiver because she is almost incapacitated. I know I can’t do this alone. When I need help, I know Nigerians will join to give her a good life. Mrs Kanebi also needs comprehensive medical treatment.”
Why I can’t take care of her – Son
When Sunday PUNCH reached out to Peter to know why he refused to take care of his mother after she begged for forgiveness, he explained that he was not financially stable at the moment.
He stated, “I have plans to take care of my mother. I have discussed with my wife and we may bring her to Lagos.
“However, things are quite difficult for me now. I live in a room with my elder brother, wife and four children. I have forgiven her, but I cannot accommodate her for now. I am struggling to survive.”
Before this report was filed, our correspondent reliably gathered that Mrs Kanebi’s stepbrother ordered that construction should be stopped at the site. It was learnt that he allegedly demanded to be paid N600,000 for the spot where the house was being built.
Ministry promises to investigate
The Delta State Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development said it was not aware of Mrs Kanebi’s case.
Speaking exclusively to Sunday PUNCH, the Special Assistant to the Commissioner, Lucky Futughe, said Mrs Kanebi’s case should be formally reported to the ministry’s area office at the local government headquarters.
“Let a formal report be made and we will look into it. We have our offices in all the local government areas. Processes will have to be followed and investigations carried out by our field officers. If it is women affairs or social welfare, the ministry will look into it. Cases are treated based on merit and availability of funds,” he added.
‘Practices that subjugate widows should be abolished’
According to the 2015 World Widows’ Report by the Loomba Foundation, there are 258 million widows across the world, of which 3.5 million are in Nigeria.
In May 2015, the Federal Government signed into law the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act to protect people against various forms of violence, including harmful widowhood practices.
According to human rights experts, it was the first time federal law expressly granted widows protection from abuse, but the enforcement remains weak.
The Founder, Christian Widows Widowers Initiative Nigeria, a Lagos-based NGO that supports widows and their vulnerable children, Beatrice Yesufu, said the case of Mrs Kanebi was peculiar but not rare. She said empathy was what should come to play in her case and appealed to her children and in-laws to forgive and take her back.
She, however, noted that cultural demands on widows could be quite traumatic and called for practices that subjugate widows to be abolished.
Yesufu said widows should be treated with dignity and given the psychological, moral and financial support they needed to live a normal life again.
She called on widows to respect traditions, especially those that would not infringe on their rights.
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“Widowhood is not a status, but a phase of life. I do not teach widows to be arrogant or violate culture as long as it does not violate their rights. Shaving of hair is meant to honour the dead. A woman is expected to mourn her husband as a sign of respect,” she added.