Burial societies unite a shattered country

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The Independent Online

In a divided country where political and racial differences have been exploited by a regime intent on staying in power, there is one thing that almost all Zimbabweans have in common: the burial society.

A kind of morbid Christmas club, these savings associations bring people together to meet the costs of burying their sons, daughters, sisters and brothers at a rate that is accelerating beyond comprehension.

A decent burial and a patient, ceremonial funeral - sometimes lasting for days - are integral parts of society in Zimbabwe and other African countries. Grieving relatives are obliged to meet the entertainment costs of the extended family, often running to hundreds of people for the duration of mourning. Failure to join a burial society means a pauper's funeral and the stigma that accompanies that.

On a typical Sunday morning, people in their best clothes will gather in the shade of a jacaranda tree, or in a vacant beer hall. They will bring their monthly subscriptions - no one wants to tempt fate by getting behind on payments - redeemable only when there is a bereavement in the family. But the economic unravelling of the country means meeting the costs of a dignified end has become impossible for most individuals and even most burial societies.

Zimbabwe now has the lowest life expectancy in the world: 37 for men and 34 for women. But these figures are based on data collected two years ago and researchers at the World Health Organisation admit the real figure could be as low as 30 by now. Zimbabwe has found itself at the nexus of an Aids pandemic, a food crisis and an economic meltdown that is killing an estimated 3,500 people every week.

Shenghi, a 26-year-old from the slums of Bulawayo, is typical: she has been forced to join two societies. What used to be a biannual event has now become a deluge, with death stalking every family. "In the past three months, we've had to bury 14 of the 50 people in our society," she says. She herself has lost four relatives in the past six months.

These societies are evolving into platforms for protest. The draconian laws drafted by Robert Mugabe's regime to eliminate all public space for dissent means that, for many Zimbabweans, the burial societies and related church groups are the only public gathering they can attend.

Hundreds draw together for the night vigil and the day of the funeral, and the police dare not break up such gatherings. People afraid to speak out elsewhere can voice their anger and despair freely. Pamphlets detailing alleged abuses by Mr Mugabe are often distributed and people share information in a society where newspapers and television outlets are under total government control.

This is why the regime has stolen the body of a murdered activist, Gift Tandare, to prevent a mass gathering for his funeral.