The Business of Death in Eastern Uganda

Uganda, the “pearl” of Africa, is a paradoxical mix of paradise and poverty, to put things simply. In the time it takes you to read this article, about five people will have died in this country of 39 million people. Uganda, like many places increasingly, is a place where you can pay US$600 for a three-hour gorilla trek in one of its esteemed national parks while traveling past villages where people live on less than US$600 per year. The village you pass, if representative of national statistics, might have an average life expectancy of 62 years with 17% of deaths caused by HIV/AIDS. Across Uganda, the death of a relative, a friend, or a neighbor would be a normal, if not daily, occurrence. It is in this context that Uganda’s coffin industry is booming.

After completion, these coffins for infants will be sold on the roadside in eastern Uganda

One of James Namadadi’s first assignments at Royal Funeral Services was driving a dead body from Mbale in eastern Uganda to Kampala, the sleepless capital 220 kilometers away — or anywhere from four to seven hours depending on inevitable traffic. James is an ebullient man of 37 wise years, the kind of guy who easily donates a tent, lowering machine, and transportation costs to a friend whose father died recently and didn’t have the money to pay for a funeral. It’s quite hard to imagine the somber side of James given his infectious laugh and personable demeanor.

James’ generosity is not uncommon in Uganda villages, where community success often is emphasized over individualism. James explains to me one of the aspects of the communal nature of village life here: “Even if someone can’t manage to afford a burial, we say as a community, ‘Let’s do this.’”

“Me, I can say the way I respect that person,” he continues in that distinctive Ugandan English, “is let me bury him in a decent way.”

Just past the Shell gas station on the outskirts of Mbale is a humble, outdoor shop where Musa Nakuyu is working. Musa is 20 years old, from the neighboring Manafwa District, and he is one of scores of people in the city of Mbale selling coffins on the roadside. Not only here in eastern Uganda, but throughout highly-populated areas of this country, coffin shops unassumingly exist adjacent to chapatti stands, primary schools, and small grocery stores and butcheries. They are often located, quite strategically, next to urban hospitals.

“Making the joints is the hardest part,” Musa says about the coffins, which take him anywhere from two days to one week to construct. The business where he is working sells coffins for about US$25 to US$550, although my acquaintance helping me translate is skeptical they sell ones that expensive (and those models happen to not be available in the shop today). This shop competes for customers from nearby villages with several other coffin shops in Mbale, a city of about 100,000 people.

Musa learned how to make coffins from a relative, and he has been working at this shop for the last five years. The shop doesn’t have a clear name, just two phone numbers painted on the outside and a small sign that says “Believe in your heart that God will do for you what you need.” This sunny Friday has not been a good day for business — they didn’t sell any coffins today and have only sold three in the last seven days. Usually Musa sells eight coffins a week.

Coffins for sale on the roadside in Mbale, Uganda

I ask Musa how people see him as a coffin maker, and he laughs, reassuring me he is seen as someone who just makes coffins and is important to daily life. In fact, based on 2012 WHO statistics, 943 Ugandans die every day on average. Still, Musa wants people to improve their perception of his trade and see making coffins as a normal job for survival and as a needed service to the area.

Musa’s favorite part of the work, he says, is designing and painting the coffins. When I ask him naively if he enjoys his job, he laughs again and says it is an opportunity to work, move forward, and reach his dream job — being a painter.

At Royal Funeral Services, caskets sell for about US$225 to US$1,100. When I ask James, still smiling, about the items for sale at shops such as the one where Musa works, he corrects me vivaciously, “Those aren’t caskets — those are boxes.” Still, James states that even the cheapest coffins can be too expensive for many people. Business is business, though, so if someone wants to use Royal’s services but purchase a coffin elsewhere, that’s fine.

While Musa sources all of his materials from a nearby industrial area in Mbale, caskets at Royal are made from a combination of cloth and nails from Mbale, formica laminate from Kampala, and handles and crosses from Kenya.

Unsurprisingly for Uganda, you can negotiate prices at funeral homes and coffin shops alike. When people come to Musa’s shop and want to buy a coffin, Musa first welcomes them and expresses his condolences. “After that,” he says, “I ask what type [of coffin] they want to buy, and then we bargain. I don’t smile. Five minutes negotiating is enough.”

Bosco Khaboma, who worked for 15 years at the roadside shop and is now the owner, says that once in awhile people will ask for a free coffin, since even US$25 can be difficult to afford for many, but it is only occasionally. Low profit margins and high demand don’t allow much room for donations.

James mentions that at Royal, you can pay a third of the funeral cost later, for example. Some funeral homes offer deals to customers too, where if they buy the biggest funeral package — with services such as a lowering machine, flowers, photos, booklets, and a condolence book) — they can get the coffin or a set of customized t-shirts for free.

Caskets for sale at Royal Funeral Services in Mbale, Uganda

Back at my office, two kilometers from Musa’s shop, it is not uncommon on a Monday morning to hear my coworkers trading accounts of the multiple burials they went to over the weekend. My friend Esther Nambafu tells me over lunch that her father goes to a burial every weekend, and my coworker tells me that over the four-day holiday weekend, he attended three burials.

James echoes how common deaths are here in Mbale: “Deaths occur every day. You never know the day you will die.” To put it another way, the probability of dying between the ages of 15 and 60 is 26% for Ugandan females and 33% for Ugandan males.

In 2012 HIV, which is the leading cause of death in Uganda, killed 61,400 people here. This was followed by lower respiratory diseases such as bronchitis and pneumonia (33,600 deaths), then deaths from malaria (19,900) and diarrheal diseases (18,500). About three percent of deaths were caused by road injuries (10,100) and two percent from meningitis (7,900).

As I leave Musa’s shop, the person helping me translate, Vicent Wamateke, tells me about the popular Ugandan musician Chameleone. One of his songs is called “Basiima Ogenze,” which in Luganda means we appreciate you when you’re gone. Vicent adds some context: “When you’re still living and fine, it’s hard for someone to give you money even though they might ask for it. But when you die, someone is ever willing to contribute condolences.”

I have always been impressed by how easily appreciations and extolments of people’s talents and idiosyncrasies come after death, not only in my native United States but also at the funerals I have attended in East Africa and Southern Africa. I have heard eulogies delivered with such conviction that they instantaneously incite chills.

But let’s not confine appreciating the strengths of our neighbors to a funeral. Let’s support and value those in need every day, not just in times of sickness or death. Despite the sickness and struggles that may surround you — wherever you live — challenge yourself to identify three things you are grateful for today, whether it is the aspiration to become a painter, the ability to not define yourself by your work, or the generosity of a neighbor.

And if you come from a culture where death or dying are taboo or uncommon, unlike most places in Uganda, I encourage you to start a conversation. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s “Conversation Resources” is a good place to start.

“For us in Africa, we are good at coping,” says James, who is still beaming despite all this talk about caskets and death. “Before, I was fearing death, but I became used,” he says, referring to his time working at Royal Funeral Services. “I don’t fear death now because in time, I know I’ll die.”

Megan Slavish is a Global Health Corps Fellow who lives in Mbale, Uganda. For more of her work, see here.