Many cultures in Southern Africa place great importance in death and the rituals that revolve around it. The death of a member of the community challenges the life of the whole community. This is why funeral rites must be observed carefully. On the one hand, only properly performed rituals ensure the complete passage to the afterlife – i.e. the deceased will not haunt the community; on the other hand, people want their own funerals to be well planned to ensure remembrance within the community, and the chance to become a revered ancestor.
The social changes brought to local societies in the past century pushed people to come together and support each other in preparing proper funeral arrangements. Burial societies play an important role in helping their members meet the costs of burying family members. The novelty is that these societies are now helping to boost business opportunities for their members. Homadi Chibwano, 58, from St Mary’s in Chitungwiza, Zimbabwe, 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 says. “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. “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 says. 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.
The evolving of burial societies towards profit making, and the joyining of younger people, are important cultural shifts. They reveal a change of perspective. ON the one hand, these groups are now capable of incorporating new ideas, moving their focus from proper burial procedures to opportunities for life. On the other hand, the presence of younger people is a signal that they see in these societies an alternative to formal financing. The change of mentality is subtle, yet it is clear that the new generations have adopted a new understanding of cooperation and self-support these groups afford. More changes will come in the near future, and most probably they will mark a stronger departure from the original purpose of burial societies.