By Joshua Benton
PARADISE COMPOUND, LUSAKA, ZAMBIA – It took a moment for Mwiche Simukoko’s family to realize she was dead.
“There was no big sign,” says her aunt, Terry Nkoma, sitting in the dirt outside the family’s mud-brick house, where Mwiche’s wet tuberculosis cough had echoed a few hours earlier. “She just stopped talking. She had been saying, ‘Mommy, mommy.’ Then the noise was not there.”
When the United Nations issued its annual global AIDS report last week, it focused on big numbers. Thirty-eight million infected. Forty-five million new infections expected this decade. Three million deaths last year.
But in Paradise Compound, a ramshackle clutch of huts that is one of the Zambian capital’s poorest neighborhoods, the focus is on smaller sums, like $70. That’s about how much it cost Mwiche’s family to bury the 23-year-old with the long hair and the bad reputation – the seventh of 10 siblings to die of the TB that is often a marker for AIDS.
In Zambia, where the average person earns about $300 a year, families often choose between burying their dead or buying food. Sometimes it seems coffin making is the country’s only growth industry.
The cost of Mwiche’s burial would be even higher if it weren’t for James Njanji, a Lusaka taxi driver who hopes to lead a small revolution in the way Zambians are buried. “People should not have to suffer after they are already dead,” he says. “They should find their place in the ground.”
Mwiche was not a universally beloved member of her family. Zambia is a traditional, conservative place, and Mwiche was a wild child.
“The girl was always going with friends to have beer,” Terry says. “She was always drinking and talking. When people are together, sometimes they do bad things. That was happening.”
She says Mwiche was sick with tuberculosis for six years. She went to a local clinic to be tested for HIV, and the doctors confirmed her suspicion. It didn’t seem to bother her.
“She said, ‘I know it’s a disease. It came, and there is nothing I can do,'” Terry says.
The three who remain? “I can’t say they’re healthy,” Terry says. “They have been keeping with these other people who died. So we can’t say they are safe.”
Terry holds the one photo the family has of Mwiche. In it, she’s with two friends in a bar. She wears a long, modest dress and shoes caked with dried mud. She’s not smiling.
But families must bury even those whose lives fall short of expectations. In Lusaka, the first step is transporting the body to the city morgue. In Paradise Compound, that means hiring a small pickup truck. The lowest price Mwiche’s family could find was 90,000 kwacha, or about $18.
The family didn’t have $18. So they sold their sofa. “Now you sit on the floor,” Terry says, gesturing at the tin-roofed family house.
A few years ago, James Njanji got angry about how much it was costing Zambians to bury their dead. “I see all these companies making all this money from death,” he says. “The dead people’s money ends up in the coffin maker’s pockets.”
James is a lumbering, bearish man, with a deep voice and a wide smile. As a taxi driver, he has a source of income, even if it’s not enough to support the 12 children in his home – seven of his own and five orphans he’s taken in.
The Lusaka Funeral Association was his idea. It’s a sort of neighborhood burial insurance: People in the compound can join by paying 10,000 kwacha (about $2) and half that again monthly as dues. In exchange, if a relative of a member dies, the association will pay for part of the cost of burial.
The association keeps costs low by building its own coffins. A retired carpenter, Mutale Mulenga, volunteers his time and skills.
When James learns that Mwiche has died – aunt Terry is an association member – he alerts Mutale. James drives his taxi to a local lumber shop, where he buys two sheets of 10-millimeter particle board for the coffin. (“For a big person, you need two sheets. For a child, you only need one.”) It costs about $14.
Wordlessly, Mutale marks the sheets, cuts and nails, and planes down rough edges. The compound’s children gather around in the dirt and sawdust around him, curious who has died today.
Now James has to figure out a way to get the coffin from the morgue to the cemetery. His taxi is too small. He drives to a stick-frame tire shop with a roof made from old corn sacks. It’s manned by two bored teen boys playing with the spokes of a wire tire rim.
He bargains with the truck owner, and they agree on a price: 105,000 kwacha, or about $21 – almost a month’s earnings for an average Zambian.
“It’s becoming very expensive to die,” he says.
The next morning, the rented Toyota truck drives Mwiche’s family and the coffin to the morgue. The women go inside and clean and dress Mwiche’s body. After an hour, the family loads the now-full coffin onto the truck bed and head off to Chunga cemetery, south of town. The landscape looks like the highland plains of New Mexico, all scrubby hills and dust.
The Toyota turns onto a parched dirt road, then a packed grass path. The cemetery is crowded this morning: At least 20 families are burying someone.
Standing around Mwiche’s grave are a dozen teenage boys, some with cups of homemade whiskey. These boys make their living by showing up at Chunga every morning and offering to dig graves. They accept cash or alcohol as payment. For Mwiche’s grave, they want alcohol. Instead, they get 10,000 kwacha ($2) to split among themselves.
The coffin is opened for one final viewing. The boys have no hammer, so they use stones to pound the nails back in. Two lower the coffin into the fresh grave; four others start shoveling dirt. The ground is hard and rocky; it has been months since the last rain, and there’s not enough dirt to make a full burial mound.
The crowd is silent; the mourners next door have stopped their singing. The only sounds are the hollow thumps of the first clumps of dirt on the pressed-wood lid.
This simple burial has cost about $70, more than anyone in the family will earn this year. Without the funeral association, it could have taken weeks for Mwiche’s family to raise the money for burial.
Most families in Zambia can’t afford a gravestone. So the government provides a small metal marker. The markers don’t have names, only a single letter and a five-digit number.
James asks the family where Mwiche’s marker is. He discovers there is none: The family forgot to pick one up at the morgue.
If they’d like, they could go get one later. But James doubts they’ll bother.
“Some people want to remember a grave,” he says. “Some people, they just want to bury the dead and be done.”
The next day, the sky opened up, and it rained.
Joshua Benton, a staff writer of The Dallas Morning News, spent six weeks in Zambia last fall on a Pew Fellowship in International Journalism. More stories and photos from his trip are posted on his blog at www.zambiastories.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.