For Zimbabwe's Dead, a Final Indignity
As More Perish and Poverty Deepens, Kin Abandon Traditions

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 11, 2009

HARARE, Zimbabwe -- Noel Nefitali died of cholera on Dec. 28 at age 35, though no one passing by his grave site would know that.

The cheapest chipboard coffin and funeral parlor fees alone had sent his family far into debt, making a $10 painted grave marker seem a luxury item. With regret, they flagged the dirt mound with a jagged chunk of concrete scavenged from the street.

"I don't think he is happy," Nefitali's 21-year-old son, Gilbert, said in the back yard of the township house where he and 10 other jobless relatives survived on his late father's income from hawking candy at a market. "Because he was buried like a bandit."

The family's story is another example of the twisted arithmetic of crumbling Zimbabwe. In a nation where life expectancy is in the mid-30s, graveyards fill more quickly than ever, spurred by a collapsed health-care system, hunger, AIDS and a raging cholera outbreak. But massive unemployment and the world's highest inflation rate are pushing burial costs out of reach and causing proud funeral traditions to wither.

Some Zimbabweans turn to overseas relatives or elected officials for help, but for many, the things that once seemed crucial for a dignified farewell are gone. No more flowers or fancy coffins. No more engraved granite tombstones, which cost hundreds of dollars and are often stolen anyway. No more mourning for a week over meals of warm cabbage, soft cornmeal and freshly slaughtered beef.

For the Nefitali family, it meant no white gown for Noel's body or blankets to lay over it and under the coffin, according to tradition. Not even tea for visitors.

His death was a brutal and swift blow, emotionally and financially. However meager his earnings, Noel was the family's breadwinner.

On Christmas Day, he went to a party. The next day, the vomiting and diarrhea started. On the 28th, severely dehydrated, he died. Though cholera has been coursing through their suburb, Mabvuku, where sewage collects in street-side pools, the family did not consider that it had infected strong Noel, his son said.

On a recent hot afternoon, Noel's father reached into his thick cardigan and pulled out the crinkled blue receipt from Angel Light Funeral Services: Body removal, $60. Administrative fee, $40. Mortuary charge, $120. Undertaker's fee, $50. Total: $270.

Then, a note at the bottom: Paid $50 and "left phone Samsung Slide." The family had one week to pay the balance or they would lose one of their prized possessions, the cellphone. To the coffin shop, they owed an additional $40, Gilbert Nefitali said.

It is difficult to compare how much it would have cost in the past, before everyone, including the funeral homes, demanded U.S. dollars. But Gilbert Nefitali said he is sure he could have managed.

"Five years ago, it was possible. You could at least give your relative a decent burial," he said. "We could feed the mourners. They were taking Zim dollars then, and people had little, but enough to spare."

Much used to be different. Two decades ago, before Zimbabwe's enviable infrastructure and robust economy broke down under the leadership of President Robert Mugabe, the average life span was 60 years. Now, according to the United Nations, about 20 percent of adults are HIV-positive. In five months, cholera -- a disease easily preventable with clean water and good sanitation -- has killed nearly 1,800 people. Public hospitals have shut, and private health care is an impossibility for the 80 percent of people estimated to be jobless.

Cemeteries tell part of the story. Noel Nefitali was buried in a row of fresh mounds in a weedy field of graves over which grass has not had time to grow. One grave in the section is flagged only with a yellow Zimbabwean license plate that emerges horizontally from the earth. Nearby, according to metal markers painted with block letters, lie Pinos Muchakazi, dead Dec. 29 at age 17; Sheila Jayiro, dead Aug. 2 at age 44; and Virginia Njeku, dead Nov. 16 at age 19.

"You can go to any of our cemeteries at any time of day, on any day of the week, and you will see two, three, sometimes four or five funerals taking place," said David Coltart, an opposition party senator. "Our hospitals should be full to overflowing, and yet they're empty. People are at home, dying."

In the economy of teeming Chitungwiza, a suburb south of Harare, the capital, death is a clear player. Funeral parlor signs, roadside headstone carvers and coffin workshops are common sights. But they are not necessarily flourishing.

One longtime carpenter, Mazakwatira Kafera, got into the coffinmaking business last year. He said many customers must barter for the plain, $100 pine coffins that take him 30 minutes to assemble. A young tombstone carver said business has dropped since granite prices forced him to quintuple the cost of his simplest model, to $200.

KC Funerals prepares few lavish ceremonies now, making most of its revenue from its mortuary, which handles overflow from packed hospital morgues.

"The funeral industry seems to be the only viable industry at the moment. . . . The death rate is high," manager Tapiwa Chitekeshe said from behind his front counter, above which hung a framed poster of Mugabe. But, he added, "situations are very, very hard. People will break down their wardrobe to make a coffin."

The burial indignities extend to the public sector. One health official who works in the lone cholera treatment center in Chitungwiza, where the illness had killed 148 people as of Jan. 5, said the government long ago ran out of body bags. Now cholera victims, whose bodies and graves must be sprayed with disinfectant, are interred in three plastic trash bags -- one each for the head, torso and feet.

The official said many families cannot afford the coffins required in Zimbabwe, where regulations still thrive amid the chaos. So corpses stay in the morgue, sometimes rotting because of power outages, he said.

"Some of my colleagues, witnessing people in dire poverty, they just bury them in plastic," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared government retribution. "It's not allowed. But the situation is what it is."

To cope with funeral costs, many poorer Zimbabweans used to join burial societies, clubs whose members gathered in smart uniforms and paid dues to foot the bill when a member died. But Phillip Makawa, a leader of the Zimbabwe Burial Society in Chitungwiza, said the economic collapse has changed even that. His society, founded in 1982, has lost two-thirds of its membership since last year, he said, because monthly dues of a few dollars are too much.

The remaining members still meet in their white shirts and black pants each month, now to discuss what they will do when the inevitable happens: two burials in one week and not enough money to pay for them.

"We are looking for members," said Makawa, 46, who said he tries to impress on people the need for funeral preparations. "How can I express it? Nowadays death is a thing. Death can come at any time, to anyone. Young, old, middle age."

It could soon befall the Nefitali family again. Of the 11 remaining household members, four were ill from cholera on a recent afternoon. Three were in the hospital, but the family knew nothing of their conditions, because they could not afford the bus ride to visit, and the cellphone that sometimes rang with updates was now at the funeral parlor. Inside the dark house, Gilbert Nefitali's grandmother lay ill under a heap of blankets, but there was no money to take her to the hospital.

Clean water would help, he knew. But tap water had run only once in two months, he and neighbors said, and the electricity or firewood needed to boil it was rarely available.

Sewage seeped into the borehole water the family purchased from neighbors, Gilbert Nefitali said, but what were the alternatives?

"We wouldn't know where to start," he said, imagining another funeral. "For sure, the situation is critical."

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