Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

High Cost of Dying

Planning ahead, even for one’s own funeral, is increasingly difficult in Zimbabwe’s second city.
By Yamikani Mwando
Moses Ndlovu leads the discussion as a group of men plan their future – or to be more precise, their own funerals. They belong to one of many “burial societies” in Zimbabwe’s second city, Bulawayo, gathering at a local beer hall once a month to pool money to pay for the elaborate rituals required when death befalls one of their number.

Ndlovu has been a burial society member since the Seventies, but these days he worries that spiralling inflation is undermining the viability of the system.

The societies deposit funds in a local bank where the interest accrued should cover the costs in the event that one member dies. But that only worked well when the Zimbabwean economy was still stable, a decade or more ago.

“Funeral costs are rising each week,” Ndlovu told IWPR, “and no matter how much you put in, you are likely to be buried like a pauper.”

He estimated that the cheapest, most modest funeral available was priced at six times the monthly wage of the highest earners in his burial society.

With annual inflation estimated to be over 350,000 per cent, one way of keeping a burial society in funds is to require contributions to keep pace with a more stable currency than Zimbabwe’ own dollar.

Since the beginning of May, when exchange rate controls were lifted, the national currency has plummeted from an official rate of tens of thousands to the US dollar to hundreds of million. Until then, almost everyone used the black market anyway, on which the Zimbabwean dollar was already hugely devalued.

“We do not know what to do,” said Japhet Khumalo, who chairs a Bulawayo burial society and works as foreman in one of the few firms that remain in business in a city once known as the country’s industrial hub.

“There were suggestions that we peg our monthly [burial society] subscriptions to the South African rand to cushion us from the ever-rising funeral costs, but members resisted it because not many have access to that kind of money.”

Planning for the future has become a headache in a country where mortality rates have been exacerbated by HIV/AIDS and anti-retroviral drugs are hard to come by. The World Health Organisation estimates that one in four Zimbabwean adults is living with HIV. Life expectancy for men has dropped to 37 while that for women is down to 34, whereas before the pandemic, Zimbabweans could expect to live to 60.

For many families, a lifeline for surviving Zimbabwe’s continuing economic implosion comes from relatives who send money home from abroad.

However, the spreading xenophobic attacks of the past fortnight in neighbouring South Africa, where an estimated three million Zimbabweans live and work, could threaten this income flow.

Nearly 50 people from other parts of Africa, including Zimbabwe, have been killed, hundreds injured and 25,000 displaced from their homes in South Africa. Even Zimbabweans who have lived in townships for years have had to flee to safety at police stations.

The violence has deterred some people from leaving in search of work in South Africa.

Fireman Pilate Gampu complains about his pitifully low wages, but would not think of moving south at the moment. “I will stay here. For me death is not an option,” he said.

The cross border traders who usually make regular trips to Johannesburg to buy wares for resale back in Bulawayo have also been put off.

“I can’t risk going down south now,” said a woman who runs a stall in one of the city’s many flea markets.

But economic hardship in Zimbabwe may also encourage those already in the diaspora to try to stick it out.

“I spoke to people this week holed up in some church in Johannesburg, and they say they are better off being hunted down in South Africa than failing to feed their families back in Zimbabwe,” said Effie Ncube, executive director of the Matebeleland Centre for Empowerment, Democracy and Human Rights.

The steady impoverishment of Zimbabweans is making it impossible for Ndlovu and other burial society members to make provision for the future.

“We will be eaten by vultures when we die,” said the white-haired Ndlovu. “It is difficult to plan for things we took for granted in the past. If we cannot plan for [death], it means we cannot plan for anything.”

Yamikani Mwando is the pseudonym of a reporter in Bulawayo.

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