KAMPALA, UGANDA – Mary lived on the same small plot of land in her rural village in Uganda for 50 years. It was where she raised her children, grew her family’s food, and where she buried her husband when he died. As she grew older and frailer, she spent more and more of her days there, sitting in the open doorway of her one-room house.
A powerful neighbor was watching Mary age, and he made plans to quietly seize her little patch of land when she died. He was a wealthy traditional healer in their village, and well known in the community for his influence.
But when Mary’s adult grandson and his family came to stay with the elderly widow, the neighbor realized his plans were at risk. He grew angry and had his sons threaten Mary’s family with violence. He took over parts of Mary’s land for his own farm. He even used his influence to gain support from the local police, who tried forcing Mary to sign an agreement to leave her home.
A poor widow in her late 90s, Mary didn’t know what she would do. Stress left her sick with worry. She remembers, “I lived in fear that any day I could be forced to leave the place I have lived for over fifty years.”
Mary recalls kneeling down in her dusty front yard and praying someone would help her. Fortunately, the Local Council leader of her village, who had been trained by IJM Kampala on defending widows from property grabbing, heard her story and called IJM for help.
“I cried out to God in my trouble,” Mary says. “When IJM took on my case, I felt that God had brought me a rescuer...I realized there are people who care, and I became optimistic.”
Standing strong despite pressure
On June 18, IJM attorneys worked with the Local Council leader to defend Mary’s rights before her neighbor, the police and other community members. Dozens of people attended, but few took Mary’s side. Instead, they supported the powerful healer—simply because of his wealth and influence—and demanded Mary give him what he wanted.
Despite their hostility, IJM stood up for Mary’s rights and explained the truth of Uganda’s law protecting widows—and the strong punishments for those who tried to steal from them.
Through it all, the elderly widow stood her ground and refused to be intimidated. Mary repeated resolutely, “I do not want to be moved.”
“Had Mary not stood firm and insisted upon her rights, the result could have been very different,” says social worker Florence Sitenda. “She is a woman of great faith and strength.”
Legal help frees Mary from fear
After several hours of heated debate, IJM’s persistence and Mary’s courage paid off. Her neighbor relented, and agreed to leave the widow in peace at the risk of further criminal consequences. All parties signed an official agreement in front of their community, enforcing Mary’s right to stay in her home.
IJM helped to mark the official boundaries of Mary’s land, so everyone knows what’s rightfully hers. If her neighbor or any other person tries to evict her again, criminal charges will be filed.
“Mary and her family are extremely happy and relieved,” says Geraldine Kabami, the IJM attorney who defended Mary. “They will not have to be scared to cultivate their land or fear that any day someone may come and evict them from their home.”
Empowerment for the road ahead
IJM will continue to support Mary and her impoverished family as they reestablish their garden and build back courage after the neighbor’s violent threats. IJM is providing extra food and access to medical care that Mary has needed for some time.
Additionally, IJM attorneys will help Mary write a legal Will so her family will be protected on the land for generations to come.
“I am so full of joy and happiness,” Mary told us. “I can never tell you how grateful I am that I am able to stay in my home. Now I know that not only am I safe, but my grandson and his family will have a home even after I am gone.”
She added joyfully, “Thank you for fighting this fight for me.”