By Katy Migiro

NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Kenyan widow Rodah Nafula Wekesa clutched her children as her late husband's brother tried to hack his way into their mud-walled home with a machete, angered by her refusal to give up her land.

Wekesa had been disinherited by her in-laws from Kenya's Luo community after rejecting their demands that she have sex with a stranger - a traditional cleansing rite for widows.

She refused, knowing that she was HIV positive.

"The children wanted to cry but I said there was no need," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from the western town of Ahero.

"If it had become time for us to die, that was the time and we were waiting for our deaths."

Kenyan law grants widows the right to live on their late husbands' property until they die, but poor women are often evicted by land-hungry relatives, who use culture to justify their actions.

Harmful cleansing rituals, such as having sex with a stranger and cleaning the dead husband's corpse then drinking the water used to wash the body, have fueled the spread of diseases like HIV and Ebola in Africa, according to the Loomba Foundation which campaigns for widows' rights.

Rather than exacerbating family tensions through the courts, which are often expensive and slow, campaigners are working with traditional elders to protect widows.

The Kenya Legal and Ethical Issues Network on HIV and AIDS (KELIN) has trained almost 40 elders in western Kenya, who have resolved community disputes since pre-colonial times, to mediate in widows' inheritance disputes.

The initiative has resettled almost 400 widows on their late husbands' land since 2009.

"People are misinterpreting culture. We want to take it back to what it used to be," said program manager Onyango Ondeng ahead of International Widows' Day on Thursday.

Other rights groups, working with Kenya's Meru and Kalenjin communities in the highlands north of Nairobi, have developed similar projects.

"Inheritance does not have to be sexual," said Ondeng. "We brought in the elders (and) they have explained to the community that inheritance encompasses taking care of his brother's wife economically and letting her access land."

The elders have encouraged families to adopt safer rituals, such as getting a male relative to hang his coat in the widow's home to symbolize her inheritance by the family.

Wekesa's in-laws have now accepted her and she lives peacefully near Lake Victoria, rearing chickens and ducks.

"We are on very good terms," she said. "When there is a problem, they come to me for advice."

(Reporting by Katy Migiro. Editing by Emma Batha.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories.)