To 35-year-old Sunday Effiong, an indigene of Akwa Ibom State who lives in Idanre in Ondo State, there is no better definition for multiple tragedies than what has befallen him in the past few weeks.
The chain of events started on June 8, 2016 when he lost his wife, 28-year-old Joshua Justina, in a pitiable but avoidable manner in a farm, where she and her six-year-old nephew were knocked down by a tree being felled by someone in the farm. Since then, the father of three has been making efforts to deal with his numerous issues one at a time.
The couple, though not legally married before Justina’s death, live in a farm settlement, Ako School Camp, in Idanre with their three children, Abel, 8; Rose, 5; and John, 3. They both hail from Ukwok in Ini Local Government Area of Akwa Ibom State.
As if losing a wife and mother of his three children were not enough, the corpse of his wife has been on the floor of the mortuary at the general hospital, Idanre, due to what seems like a brewing clash of tradition between the Akwa Ibom people and the Idanre community.
Given the circumstances that led to Justina Joshua’s death, the Idanre community insists that the woman has to be buried in the forest, beside the tree, while her relatives and the Akwa Ibom community insist that the corpse has to be taken to her village for proper burial, in line with their own tradition.
With the prevailing conflict of tradition, the corpse of Justina is lying on the floor of the mortuary, covered with a black nylon, while the foetus in her womb had yet to be removed. It’s a revolting sight, and seeing it would make anyone cry.
Meanwhile, Sunday, had yet to perform the normal marriage rites, thus, he is likely faced with the obligation of marrying the corpse, but that is just one of his worries. His major concern at the moment, in his words to Saturday PUNCH, is how to secure Justina’s corpse and take it home to her parents, as her family had put him under enormous pressure.
When our correspondent spoke with Sunday on the phone on Thursday, he was barely audible, as he had been thoroughly overwhelmed by the tragedy. But shortly after the incident, he had explained how it all happened to the Ondo State Director, Legal Aid Council of Nigeria, Kubiat Ikpidungise, who gave the details to Saturday PUNCH.
The director told Saturday PUNCH that on June 8, Sunday had just come back from the farm when his pregnant wife and her six-year-old nephew went back to the farm to pluck corn. But while they were still at it, a tree being felled somewhere close by someone fell on them, and got them trapped.
Our correspondent gathered that the tree cutter, on seeing what had happened, allegedly took to his heels, leaving the woman and the boy stuck under the tree. About one to two hours later, the owner of the farm, known as Aye, who sent the person to cut the tree, arrived the farm to see the progress of work done on his farm.
“That was when he heard the cries of a woman and that of a child and he then went towards that direction,” Ikpidungise said.
She continued, “The man was able to pull out the small boy. He asked the boy to take him to their camp, which is occupied by cocoa farm workers in the area. The man took the boy to the camp for identification while the woman remained under the tree. The people in the camp identified the boy as he told them what had happened.
“Painfully, the sister of the deceased, who is the mother of the six-year-old boy, was there, so, the three of them and some other persons in the camp went to the forest to rescue the woman, who had, understandably, lost strength. All this while, the man who was cutting the tree was on the run.”
Thankfully, Ikpidungise added, they were still able to rescue Justina alive, they rushed her to a nearby clinic and she was still able to answer some questions posed to her about what happened. But on getting there, seeing that her situation had become critical, the medical director of the clinic referred them to the Idanre general hospital.
Still optimistic, they headed for the general hospital, but Justina gave up the ghost at the gate.
It was learnt that the case was reported at the Olofin police station in Idanre and the owner of the farm, Aye, was arrested. He was able to produce the tree cutter, who was also arrested but was later released by the police for reasons not clear to the family of deceased.
Since Justina’s death, the best treatment she had got was to be laid on a slate on the floor of the mortuary due to the inability of the family to pay, while the foetus in her womb is still there, given that she died pregnant. The neglect, according to information, is due to the inability of the leaders of the community and the deceased’s family to reach a compromise on Justina’s corpse, which was already decaying.
Ikpidungise said, “As it is, the corpse is still at the veranda of the mortuary at the General Hospital, Idanre, covered with a tarpaulin or something that looks like a thick nylon. The king is insisting that they won’t take the corpse out of that community because it will go against their tradition, while the husband and the Akwa Ibom community are also insisting that the corpse should be released to them so she can be buried in her parents’ village, more so that she didn’t die in the forest.
“The man who cut the tree should have rushed to the scene to rescue her or at least call for help. But he ran away, leaving her and the six-year-old boy trapped under the tree. The police arrested him and set him free. They need to produce the man who cut that tree, because he’s the only one who can explain what happened. Why are they shielding him?
“I don’t have any problem with the custom of the Idanre people, but somebody has died, she did not die by the tree and she did not die in the forest, let her be taken out for burial. The first concern is how the corpse should leave the veranda. In one of their threats, the community said if the family of the deceased insist on going away with the corpse, they would send the Akwa Ibom people in the town away and seven people would die, whether on their way to bury her or while coming back.
“When did human life become so worthless that it should be left unburied? Are we so concerned with custom and tradition that we treat human beings, even though dead, with disdain, by putting her on the floor, with the foetus still in her womb? If only they can take the corpse to the general hospital in Akure, she will be better treated. Where is Aye and the man who caused Justina’s untimely death; is Aye not guilty of vicarious liability?”
Those were the questions on the lips of Sunday, Ikpidungise, the Akwa Ibom community and some other persons. Bothered by the plight of Sunday and the deceased’s family, the Legal Aid director contacted the founder of Jeshabel Touch-A-Heart Foundation, a human rights advocacy group in Lagos, which told Saturday PUNCH about the brewing dissension as regards the treatment being meted to the deceased and her family.
Founder and coordinator of the foundation, Mrs. Favour Benson, described the development as unfortunate, saying the foundation also had reports of some other corpses of people from Akwa Ibom State that had been abandoned in different mortuaries in the community.
Meanwhile, the President of Akwa Ibom community, Ondo State chapter, Mr. Young Akpan, in a telephone interview with our correspondent, said the conflict at the moment arose from the conflicting traditions of the two communities. He queried the release of the man who felled the tree by the police.
He said, “They said in their tradition, if a tree falls on somebody and the person dies, they have to bury the person at the bottom of the tree. We told them that in our own tradition too, if a person dies in a strange land, our own tradition demands that we take the corpse of that person home for burial.”
But what is the way forward? He said, “At the end of the day, we resolved that they should sponsor some people to her village to go and tell her family and the head of that clan, if they insist on taking that line of action. I even told them to let somebody from the royal council lead them there but they said no. They, however, agreed to sponsor a delegation home. The delegation came back on Friday with a letter to the Oba of Idanre.”
The letter, which was signed by the Ukwok clan head, His Royal Highness John Ukpong, appealed to the traditional ruler of Idanre release the corpse for burial.
“We humbly appeal that the corpse be released for burial,” the letter, which was sighted by our correspondent, partly read.
Meanwhile, our correspondent sought the reaction of the traditional ruler of the community, the Owa of Idanre, Oba Frederick Aroloye, about the issue. He said according to the tradition of the community, the woman would have to be buried by the tree.
He said on the phone, “According to our tradition in Idanre, if somebody dies as a result of a fallen tree or he falls from a palm tree, the person must be buried there. In the same vein, if a person dies in the river, he or she would be buried beside the river. That is our tradition. They must abide with it.”
While the two towns are still going back and forth on the issue, the body of Justina still lies at the veranda of the general hospital in Idanre – where she has been since June 8, 2016.
“Her parents said we should return the corpse, while the Idanre community is also insisting that she can’t be taken out of the town. The head of her community has written a letter to the Owa of Idanre. That is where we are now,” he said.
When asked why the tree cutter was released and not prosecuted, the Police Public Relations Officer in Ondo State, Mr. Femi Joseph, promised to get back to our correspondent, but he had yet to do so as of press time.