Deep in the shadow of Harare's office high-rises, Luck Street is mostly islands of pavement in a river of mud and potholes. Despite its name, this side street in Zimbabwe’s capital is where the city's least fortunate residents make their most-lasting purchases.
With an economy in free fall and more than 3,000 people dying of AIDS every week, coffin-making has become one of the country's few reliable sources of income. In outlying townships, vendors line up caskets for sale next to tables of fruits and vegetables on the dusty roadside. But if you're on a budget--and almost everyone here is--Luck Street is where you go for a bargain.
At Sunshine Funeral Home, a shady room behind a motorcycle repair shop, John Chipfuwamiti shows off his company's entire line of caskets, from a pressed-wood model that sells for about $15 to polished hardwood with brass handles, $130. He is every bit the salesman in his crisply ironed clothes, proudly pointed out that even the cheapest models have hand-sewn lining.
"Last year, there were more people dying than in previous years, " he says, explaining why he left his last job to take up coffin sales. "It was good business. People are dying."
One thing that AIDS hasn’t changed is the important place that funeral rites hold as part of the life cycle. Traditionalists say that the soul can take as long as a year to leave the body and join the ancestors in the spirit world, says Gordon Chavunduka, who heads the Zimbabwe National Traditional Healer's Association. Chavunduka tells me that if people are not buried properly and given the complete funeral rites by a medium, their souls will haunt their living relatives. "After death, a number of rituals must be performed in order to assist the spirit," he says.
One of the nation's top experts on traditional culture and religion, Chavunduka is a very modern man. His office is just across from Sunshine Funeral in a contemporary building, and he sits at an enormous desk that evokes his past professions--a sociology professor and onetime head of Zimbabwe's National AIDS Council--more than his role as traditional healer. As funerals become an increasingly common part of life, he says, all Zimbabweans might have to find ways of blending their customs and modern realities. For about every 30 cents a mile, the enterprising owners of Sunshine Funeral will send corpses back to their hometowns for burial, because people prefer to be buried where they grew up. But skyrocketing inflation and chronic fuel shortage have made that very difficult for many urban dwellers, who are forced to buy a plot in cramped city cemeteries.
With more people leaving towns and villages every day in search of work in the capital, Harare has had trouble finding enough land for new homes, much less graves. Two years ago, city officials launched a campaign to encourage cremation. But that practice remains unpopular, particularly among black Africans, according to Eladinous Zimbwa, Harare's director of cemeteries, who says that eight of the city's ten cemeteries are full. Though most Zimbabweans are still reluctant to list AIDS as a cause of death, "The number of deaths has always being going up," Zimbwa says. "This is what we have noticed, and we think it is because of AIDS."
So the city is clearing up 5 square miles of land to expand one of its cemeteries on the outskirts, where most of the graves will be dusty plots in the bare earth. Unless the family is able to pay an extra fee, the city does not maintain the gravesite. The effect is something like Arlington National Cemetery without the grass or trees-acres of land covered with grave plots.
The new space should give Harare enough room to keep burying its dead for the next few years, Zimbwa says. But with 5 square miles expected to fill quickly, Chipfuwamiti won't have to worry about Sunshine Funeral closing its doors anytime soon.