Thriving on Death

To pass through any market or street in any Zambian town reveals an unusual industry that is thriving when many others in the country are collapsing.

Joseph Bupe conducts business from a roadside shack at a street corner in the capital, Lusaka. He employs three youths and says business is growing.

"Business is good and in the next few years, it is going to be even better," he says as he attends to his next clients.

Bupe sells coffins, and his is just one of the several businesses that have sprung up around the country to serve the ever-growing number of deaths as AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria claim more lives every day.

It is estimated that malaria claims about 37 percent of Zambian deaths, while the rest are TB/AIDS-related. And according to Family Health International, only 10 percent of the predicted AIDS-related deaths have yet occurred -- the vast majority of people with AIDS in the country are still living with the disease, with new infections every day. Family Health International estimates that Zambia will face more than 200 AIDS-related deaths each day in 2004. Annually, 40,000 new TB cases are reported. In this country, where 80 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, death rates from TB are very high as well.

Bleak as the situation is, many Zambians have taken the initiative to profit from the so-called "death industry." Businesses involving coffins, tombstones and funerals are growing by the day, employing whole families in some cases.

Plagued by widespread unemployment, many youths have taught themselves the art of making low-cost but impressive headstones and caskets that they sell at street corners, markets and hospitals. Today, many youths are enrolling for carpentry lessons at local colleges for the sole purpose of specializing in making coffins. It is a big industry.

"We are seeing more deaths today than ever before. That means more business," Bupe says.

This is ironic, given that traditionally in Zambian culture death is a somber subject, spoken of only in whispers. To even think of people treating it as a potential business venture was previously taboo.

But times have changed, says Richard Tembo, who sells tombstones at a market in Kitwe, Zambia's second largest city after Lusaka.

"We used to treat death as something unusual. But look around. There is death everywhere," Tembo says.

Indeed there is death at every other fifth house in the country. That means more business, and the result is more fly-by-night tombstone and coffin makers.

Despite the fact that businesses like Tembo's and Bupe's are unregistered (and therefore, technically, illegal), the financially troubled local councils in Zambia are not in a hurry to close them down. Instead, they are also trying to benefit from the death industry by imposing fines on all the illegal operators -- and many are going one step further, attempting to enact laws that will allow them to impose tax on every coffin sold.

"It is a good idea and would help the council raise money, considering the council's current situation," says Kitwe City Council spokesperson Dorothy Sampa.

"It is a good idea and an area that management is trying to pursue," says Lusaka City Council spokesperson Peter Kashiwa.

Sampa and Kashiwa, who represent the two largest councils in the country, agree that the death industry is a potentially enriching one, for the government as well as individual entrepreneurs. In the absence of codified tax rules on coffins and tombstones, however, all they can do now is fine the illegal operators for doing business without licenses.

"The council is losing money all right, but we cannot impose levies on them because they are illegal," says Sampa. "However, we do pass their stands and fine them for operating without licenses. We pass their stands as often as three times a day and fine them every time, but they do not want to stop trading because the business is lucrative."

Small business owners disagree, pointing out that if their businesses really were illegal, the councils could shut them down. What the councils call a fine, the coffin-makers say, is a tax. (In truth, given Zambian law, the fines assessed on the industry are actually more than the levies that could be imposed, meaning that it's in the government's interest to keep the businesses nominally illegal, yet open)

Says Ronald Kalunga, who sells coffins from his backyard in Kitwe's Buchi Township: "The council should stop pretending that we are illegal. We pay them every day and if we were illegal they would have closed our shops long ago."

Sampa counters that the councils don't want to shut the businesses down, hoping instead that the operators will legalize their businesses. She adds that the death industry has had a paradoxical effect: empowering citizens, enabling them to take better care of their families, send their children to school, and so on. And, of course, to maintain a steady cash flow into the council's coffers.

These arguments aside, all stakeholders agree that the death industry serves a need that must be met. Even mourning families say the fly-by-night operators provide a useful service in their time and grief. On the street, a good, well-decorated coffin fetches between $150 and $200, while the same would cost twice as much at a registered funeral parlor.

The sad fact is there is enough business for everyone. Bupe, for instance, says he sells at least 90 coffins in a good month, and predicts that sales will increase throughout 2004.

It may be the only business that finds itself in good health. With the HIV infection rate at 27% in urban areas and 13% in rural areas, the illegal coffin industry will continue to grow -- while economic uncertainties and a shrinking labor force spell doom for conventional businesses.

Mabvuto Zulu is a freelance journalist based in Zambia. He writes on social, health and economic issues affecting the African continent.

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