In low-income suburbs like Chitungwiza, a dormitory town about 30km south of the Zimbabwean capital Harare, burial societies have long played an important role in helping their members meet the costs of burying family members, but increasingly they are helping to boost livelihood opportunities for the living.
Homadi Chibwano, 58, from St Mary’s in Chitungwiza, has chaired the Gule Burial Society for the last 10 years and is proud of having helped transform it from a savings scheme into a profit-making venture that employs three people.
About 15 residents of Malawian origin, mostly men, formed Gule in 1994 with the aim of preserving their burial traditions. The society experienced financial problems over the years and nearly collapsed during the economic crisis that afflicted Zimbabwe from 2000, but it now has 105 members, each of whom pays a US$5 monthly subscription.
Two years ago, Chibwano convinced the society’s members that a business venture was needed to improve their finances and ability to contribute whenever a death occurred. They decided to launch a brick moulding business that now generates an average profit of US$400 a month.
“Burial societies should no longer be about death only, but must help us live a good life as well,” Chibwano told IRIN. “Our main business remains assisting each of our members when they or their family members die, but we also need to improve our livelihoods while we are still alive.”
The society is now in the process of setting up a small grocery shop in the home of one of its members.
“Our bank account is growing steadily. Members can apply for a loan whenever they have pressing financial needs and our committee sits down to assess the applications,” said Chibwano.
“When we are big enough, we will consider sharing the profits on a regular basis,” he added.
Traditionally, burial societies in Zimbabwe and elsewhere in the region have functioned as a means of informal insurance for low-income earners who rarely quality for life assurance policies and would otherwise struggle to afford the high cost of a funeral which can be as much as $2,700 in Harare.
|Burial societies should no longer be about death only, but must help us live a good life as well|
“The majority of the people who belong to burial societies are poor and unemployed. They don’t qualify for life assurance policies because they are not in formal employment,” said John Robertson, an economic consultant, who notes that burial societies as evolving in response to changing times.
“They retain their identity as social grassroots groupings guided by the need to provide decent burial to their members, but they are increasingly realizing that their role will be easier if they extend it to generate income to cater for their social needs,” said Robertson.
He added that burial societies’ commercial ventures would remain small and informal unless members received training and support to improve their management skills.
Nzira Yedu (Our Way) Social Club, another burial society in Chitungwiza, started a tombstone-making project eight months ago that employs two people as stone carvers but is yet to generate a profit. However, the society has managed to accrue enough savings from its 85 members’ monthly $10 subscriptions to extend loans for medical expenses.
“Hospital fees are beyond the reach of many. Even when a person is involved in an accident, we assist with loans,” said Raina Mhembere, Nzira Yedu’s treasurer.
She added that many of the society’s members were living with HIV/AIDS and regularly approached her for loans to cover the costs of treatment for opportunistic infections.
Burial societies have traditionally been dominated by older people, mostly men, but this is also changing. In Mufakose, a populous suburb about 10km southwest of the capital, young professionals are increasingly signing up.
Sylvester Chidziva, 20, a messenger with a law firm, was inspired to join Afterlife Burial Society after his father, a long-time member who had fallen on hard times, got a loan from the society so that Chidziva could do his A-level examinations three years ago.
“A number of my friends who have decided to join our parents in the societies also benefited from their loans,” he told IRIN.
Chidziva and his contemporaries are part of the drive behind using burial societies’ capital to start income-generating schemes. He hopes to help Afterlife start a funeral parlour in the future.