According to the Zimbabwean tradition, when a family member passes on, the properties he/she owns are re-distributed among all other family members. From what I have witnessed the ones who benefit the most from this system are the deceased’s relatives from the father’s side as they are the ones who carry the last name of the deceased. Usually this involves the aunts, uncles, and unfortunately distant relatives who weren’t that close to the deceased when the deceased was still around. If the deceased is female, the properties she owned cannot be inherited by her children because children belong to the husband. According to this culture, a girl child should never inherit any properties because one day she will get married and move on with her husband.
While this may seem so ridiculously outdated, truth is these customs are still being practiced in some parts of the country. I am least concerned by the issue of inheritance in itself as a means of acquiring wealth but my main concern is how this has negatively impacted the lifestyle of families who have lost their loved ones.
While trying to understand why inheritance issues are solved this way, common responses have been “Why would you question our elders”, and here are the three reasons why:
Some of these customs cannot be relevant and applicable today. For instance, it might have been good enough for a girl child to not get anything that her parents would have worked for back when marriage was the ultimate goal for women, but today girls go to school, girls have a voice, and girls are getting employed in the biggest tech companies. We are no longer living in an era were the only goal for girls was to get married. Selling the remaining properties and paying fees would help send the children to school and cover expenses for the family.
Another factor is the sudden status shift. I have witnessed several families shift from having it all and then dive straight into poverty within a moment of losing their loved ones. Many children have dropped from school because their father died and the family members came and took the remaining properties, so they hardly have any one to pay for their fees. I know of cases whereby children became homeless because the aunties came and claimed their parents’ house and these children had never met these aunties before. For the same reasons, there are many children living in the streets of Harare. Many wives and children refuse to fight relatives because either they have surrendered to the popular belief/threat that if you fight elders who practice these customs, a bad omen will fall upon you and your family or, they have surrendered simply because of the exhaustion of having been through a funeral.
Thirdly, this system does not in any way consider assisting people who might actually be in need of the aid and are not in any way related to the deceased. This has been a means of financing people who are able to work for themselves but hardly have any discipline to do so. Donations for orphans in homes and the disabled are not as common.
While the inheritance custom may seem appealing within the cultural reasoning this has fuelled the attitude of laziness, selfishness and greediness within our society. Most relatives feel entitled to own what they have never worked for. There is a lot of the idea that “He/she was the bread winner of the family” which simply translates to “The one who put the most effort so now everyone else deserves what this person might have earned.”
The quick answer is certainly to encourage people to write Legal Wills. However, in reality for one reason or the other, most people do not get a chance to do so before passing on.
I believe this situation calls for something more than just raising awareness about Wills.
It requires a change of attitude and the need to have a work ethic. We need to get rid of the idea of entitlement and we need to start focusing on responsibilities rather than “rights”. We need to realize that the only thing that one deserves is what one has actually worked for. It is important that we encourage each other to work hard so that instead of grabbing properties from children, we can now look out for each other’s families when our friends and loved ones are gone. The less effort we put into pulling each other down the more we can raise each other, rise personally, and build up our country.
Most importantly, the bad omen excuse has been used for way too long. I am a child and I look forward to becoming a mother one day. This is not the world I hope to bring my children into. We need to start educating each other and to support the families going through these difficult times.