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Covid-19 impacts community bereavement schemes

By Andile Tshuma

The Covid-19 pandemic and the accompanying regulations have brought untold suffering to communities, eroded incomes, leaving many families with no source of livelihood.

While families have had to deal with the loss of loved ones who succumbed to the virus, they have also had to deal with funeral expenses, more tragic if the deceased was the provider.  

The other tragedy is that most families in Bulawayo’s high-density suburbs cannot afford funeral insurance, while some do not trust mobile phone-based funeral insurance schemes.

The greater part of communities rely on localised ward-based bereavement schemes often run by residents associations.

Methuseli Mpofu from Bulawayo’s Tshabalala suburb and a member of the Tshabalala residents association told CITE that the pandemic has dented the effectiveness of community based funeral assistance schemes.

“I’m from the Emantshalini zone in Tshabalala, we divided our suburb into 10 villages or zones and the funeral contributions for the past years, way more than a decade, have helped us to bury community members with dignity. However, with the lockdown and lost incomes, it has been difficult for some community members to raise money, while the dollar is losing value, we cannot increase subscriptions because people will not afford,” he said.

“Bear in mind that Tshabalala is an old suburb, so most of the contributing community members are pensioners receiving meagre payouts from their former employers. So the whole situation now makes it very tough for a community to partake in burying a loved one,” added Mpofu.

Silethiwe Nkomazana from Nkulumane suburb said securing transport for mourners was a new headache for bereaved families after the ban of private kombis in the city, yet transport associations used to offer free transport at funerals.

“Another problem brought by Covid-19 is securing transport for mourners. This was never a problem when transport associations such as Tshova Mubaiwa gave us free transport for mourners to and from the resting place. However, right now the family has to find resources to pay the transport provider and the money is in forex. This really burdens the family,” said Nkomazana.

Some residents said the pandemic had brought more suffering as local businesses were no longer providing support as they used to before the pandemic.

Esther Ngwabi, a cashier at a supermarket in Sizinda suburb said the pandemic had also impacted local business people who often contributed groceries to the community initiative.

“In Tshabalala and Sizinda, local business people who run supermarkets would give free basic groceries to bereaved families to help feed mourners, but now they are also struggling and are unable to render the same service. We hope for things to get back to normal soon, as this has also affected our pay,” said Ngwabi.

Tshabalala resident’s association chairperson Gilbert Ndlovu said the Covid-19 pandemic brought new challenges to the community initiatives.

“As Tshabalala, we have had these community bereavement schemes for years and we divided Tshabalala into 10 villages/ zones for administration purposes. However, with the lockdown, as well as curfews it has been quite a challenge to coordinate the schemes. We have a system. Every household has a book, where funeral contributions are recorded every time there is a funeral in their zone. This has been quite effective as this revolving system has helped community members with funeral costs.  Every time there is a funeral, books are taken to the bereaved family and they sign on each booklet upon receipt of funds,” said Ndlovu.

He said fewer people attending funerals meant fewer funds going to bereaved families as some people would not go the extra mile to ensure that they found a way for their funds to get to the bereaved.

“As of now, we have fewer people going to the funerals, as per Covid-19 regulations, so we now have focal persons who collect books and funds from their immediate neighbourhoods and then take them to the bereaved family. However, the scheme is no longer as vibrant because many people lost incomes because of the pandemic, people are demotivated, some are slacking, many are struggling to put food on the table so you can imagine the implications for the scheme. As a result, it is no longer as effective as it used to be,” said Ndlovu.

Uzibuthe is a burial stokvel that has been used by many communities in Bulawayo that dates back to the pre-independence era. Some communities make monetary contributions, while some add grocery items to the money. Many people working in industries had some form of burial clubs similar to the neighbourhood stokvels or uzibuthe, where they would contribute stipulated amounts of money in the event that a workmate died or lost an immediate family member.

These were very popular in black communities particularly before the advent and popularity of funeral insurance schemes in the country.

However, to date, most funeral schemes offer the best services to formally employed people where they make deductions from salaries on a monthly basis, for funeral cover.

This leaves most self-employed people or those in the informal economy to continue relying on traditional community-based clubs.

Some people formed formal burial society clubs, which were popular and often met on weekends, with members being identified by their uniforms. However, most of these burial societies are slowly dying out, as some lost savings owing to the dollarisation of 2008, as well as the conversion to the Zimbabwean dollar in 2017- 2019.

Despite the challenges, stokvels and community clubs have served as self-help initiatives that have been designed to respond to the problems of poverty and income insecurity in communities. They are a form of informal social security which have aided families to bury loved ones with dignity.

Bulawayo United Residents Association (BURA) director Winos Dube called for Bulawayo residents to unite and continue assisting each other despite the prevailing economic challenges that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

“With many people being retrenched and companies closing, many industry employees quit burial societies as they could no longer afford them and started relying on uzibuthe, the community-based scheme. However, the economic crisis is also having a toll on Uzibuthe. Due to the fall of the Zimbabwean dollar, and stagnant incomes, contributions made towards uzibuthe are no longer as helpful.”

“In 2018, every household contributed $1USD, however, most schemes now contribute about $20 RTGS, or 5 rand, meaning that the proceeds no longer go a very long way in assisting with burial expenses. Incomes have been eroded and people cannot afford to pay more. Many people are also unable to work because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has made it worse. However, despite all this that is happening, this calls for us to unite as Bulawayo more than ever before and assist in our communities because the help is needed. It is not all about money. If you do not have money but have mealie-meal, take it there, if you can offer your car, for the funeral, that is much needed, let us remember that Uzibuthe is not about the money, but is meant to unite us as one family in Bulawayo,” said Dube.

Contemporary Zimbabwe is characterised by extreme poverty, particularly in the townships, accompanied by high levels of inequality and unemployment. This forces the poorer households to rely on self-help community-based initiatives as part of their survival strategies. Besides the funeral clubs, women have popularised money clubs as well as grocery clubs, which help them save money and buy household groceries in bulk for families.

These rotating savings and credit associations help communities at their greatest need.

Burial clubs provide material and non-material support to members and their families in the event of death. In many Zimbabwean communities, they emerged following the migration of black workers to urban centres.

The prohibitive costs of funerals, particularly transporting the body to rural areas as per African tradition or custom, forced black workers to form burial clubs, where members make fixed contributions to cover funeral expenses. The specific benefits are defined in the constitution of the relevant club and usually include the purchase of a coffin and transporting the body.

Uzibuthe, the community-based scheme often came in to supplement the burial society contributions, with funds that were often meant to buy food for mourners at the funeral wake, as well as to assist with other funeral expenses such as fuel and car hire for the repatriation of a body.

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