ZIMBABWE: Burial societies a barometer of economic growth
Burial societies making a comeback
Bulawayo, 19 August 2009 (IRIN) - On the last Sunday of every month, Zwodwa Mpika, 52, puts on her blue dress and matching brimless cap, the uniform of the burial society she belongs to, and sets off for the meeting.
She has rarely missed a gathering since her husband died in 2006, and her regular attendance has earned her the position of secretary of the Zibuthe Burial Society, located in Sizinda, a suburb of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second city.
"I don't want this association to collapse, which could easily happen if I do not attend and pay my dues, because without it my late husband's funeral would have been little more than that of a pauper [burial]," she told IRIN.
Burial societies, to which most low-income families in urban centres belong as an alternative to buying conventional funeral insurance, are beginning to show signs of revival after tottering on the brink of collapse in the country's decade-long recession.
"A conventional funeral assurance policy does not bring mourners to your funeral to mitigate grief and provide a resounding send-off," Zibuthe Burial Society chairman Ntandazo Banda told IRIN.
Zimbabwe's economic malaise has witnessed hyperinflation, shortages of basics foodstuffs that saw nearly 7 million people requiring food assistance in the first quarter of 2009, and an unemployment rate of more than 90 percent.
Burial societies charge monthly subscriptions of as little as US$5 per family and pay the funeral costs of their members, whether they were born in the city or are rural migrants; some even pay if the member comes from a neighbouring country like Zambia or Malawi. Local Zimbabwean traditions dictate that whenever possible the dead should be buried in their ancestral burial grounds at their rural home.
Most burial societies in Bulawayo draw their membership from working-class Zimbabweans, unlike Zibuthe, whose membership consists of a small community of pensioners and a sprinkling of young families of Malawian origin.
"We are trying hard to breathe life into our society but people have little or no disposable income," Banda said. "We aim to preserve our unique burial traditions as Malawians, hence the small membership, but that does not bar other nationalities from joining us."
HIV/AIDS and hyperinflation
Before Zimbabwe's steep economic decline set in, most members could easily afford the monthly subscription of Z$20, but the society's problems really began when the official annual inflation rate began spiralling towards 230 million percent. "We had to battle to keep the society afloat," Banda said.
|Members are slowly coming forward to update their subscriptions, and that is a good sign
The Kusile Burial Society in the neighbouring Bulawayo suburb of Tshabalala also experienced dwindling contributions and the society of 250 members almost collapsed, but "Members are slowly coming forward to update their subscriptions, and that is a good sign," Admiral Ncube, treasurer of Kusile Burial Society, told IRIN.
Members defaulted on their dues because of financial hardships. "We barely had 30 fully subscribed members on our register at the end of last year , with the rest unable to pay. Now, less than five are in arrears," he said.
The attempts by the government to reign in rampant inflation also came at a cost. "Our other major setback [apart from HIV/AIDS] was the central bank's decision to set an arbitrary exchange rate that almost wiped out the society's savings," Ncube said. In January 2009 Zimbabwe's central bank set a rate of Z$3 trillion to US$1.
Hyperinflation was cured when the government ditched the local Zimbabwean dollar in favour of foreign currencies, which has seen the US dollar, South African rand and Botswana pula officially come into local use.
"We also lost a lot of our members, who died of HIV/AIDS-related diseases, but that does not put us off from fulfilling our obligation to a member, despite the pressure it exerts on our savings," Ncube said.
|At the end of each year, municipal beer-gardens and council parks around the city used to host lively parties, thrown by different burial societies for their members ... I foresee those times returning
About 15 percent of sexually active Zimbabweans between the ages of 15 and 49 are HIV positive, but burial societies, in contrast to the more conventional forms of insurance, do not require prospective members to undergo a medical examination.
Back to the good times
Ncube attributed the revival of burial societies to the rapidly increasing burial fees charged by the city's cemeteries, and the high cost of transporting a body to rural areas.
Pumulani Meko, chairman of the Kusile Burial Society, put it down to the greater financial stability being enjoyed since the adoption of multiple currencies, and was generally more optimistic.
"At the end of each year, municipal beer-gardens and council parks around the city used to host lively parties, thrown by different burial societies for their members to coincide with the annual shutdown by many firms and factories," Meko told IRIN. "I foresee those times returning."