Zimbabweans denied dignified funerals

So many Zimbabweans are dying that burial at Harare’s cemeteries is becoming a priv

ilege of the rich.

HARARE – Luis Mutero’s last days of life and his subsequent death portray the scale of collapse of basic services that historically had supported the common people.

Luis, 38, was one among millions of unemployed Zimbabwean youths. For much of his life, he was what is commonly referred to in Zimbabwe as a “small-time dealer”, the means by which millions of formally unemployed Zimbabweans eke out a bare living by selling essential commodities on a small scale.

But Luis fell ill. He could no longer trade and he became homeless. He was forced to hop from one relative to the next seeking shelter. As his health got worse, he was admitted to Harare Central Hospital, the main state hospital in the capital city catering for the teeming poor. In Harare Central, Luis became a victim all over again. He was discharged after three weeks because the hospital was experiencing a critical shortage of essential drugs, including those necessary to treat his ailments, and vital equipment was breaking down because of a lack of money to import spare parts.

However, Luis was hit with fees of more than Z$3 million [about US$29] for his hospital stay. That was the beginning of his nightmare. The hospital refused to discharge him until the bill had been paid.

Luis did not have the money. Nor did his widowed and unemployed mother, who was told her son would not receive water, food or clean bedding until the fee was paid. For two weeks Luis lay in his bed in pain without food or water. He could only eat when or if his mother could raise the bus fare to travel from Mabvuku, on the eastern outskirts of Harare, to the hospital on the western boundary of the city.

She was already struggling to put food on the table for her other six children, and so Luis lay neglected on his hospital bed for days and nights until he gave his last gasps.

But the hospital’s mortuary refused to release his body until the bill had been settled. Three days after Luis died, the family managed to raise the money and only then could they start organising his burial. But now, to their horror, they discovered that registered funeral parlours were charging between Z$30 and 50 million for the cheapest grave space and other funeral costs. Illegal operators charge about half this amount.

So many Zimbabweans are now dying – many from AIDS-related infections and an increasing number from hunger-related causes – that burial at Harare’s cemeteries is becoming a privilege of the rich. A grave space at the low-income Granville cemetery costs from Z$5.5 to 8.5 million during weekdays and Z$10 to 15 million at weekends. This is in a country where the lowest paid people earn less than Z$5 million a month and the majority earn barely three times more, and where a large number of family breadwinners have died from HIV/AIDS, leaving families headed by the elderly or by children.

Luis was eventually buried in a coffin that looked as though it might fall apart if not handled carefully. Only a few relatives accompanied the body because they could not afford to hire a bus to ferry mourners. There were none of the usual flowers and wreaths at the funeral in Mbare, one of Harare’s poorest suburbs. Mourners could not afford them. They also went hungry, because Luis’s immediate relatives did not have enough money to feed them.

“People are slowly losing their right to dignity in life, and what angers me the most is that the government is also taking away that right of a dignified burial. People are being hit twice, in life and at death,” said the mourning uncle Phillip Mutero.

With more than 200 people dying each day nationwide from HIV/AIDS, it is inevitable that more and more families will resort to non-customary burials. In an attempt to alleviate the crisis, Harare City Council has launched a public relations campaign to show that cremation is both quicker and cheaper than burial. – IWPR

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