Burials in Uganda — Merchant amidst death

Rebecca Nansubuga comfortably sits on the top of a wooden coffin and slightly swings her legs. Her hair is thinly braided and she is wearing a green blouse and black skirt. It’s a sunny but mild midmorning, cars are passing by. Next to Rebecca there is an almost empty bottle of water and her eyes are checking the surrounding. Rebecca is waiting for customers because she is selling coffins.

She started out in a trade dominated by men. “Being a woman doesn’t give you advantage here” Rebecca says. The competition in the coffin business is very tough, not only amongst women.

Nansubuga lifting a coffin.

“By the time, you get out of your car, we have already spotted you and I gauge by looking at a customer.” With a heightened voice, Rebecca explains, “Then we begin discouraging off our competition. Words are my marketing strategy, sometimes you have to falsely accuse your competitors in order to win the attention of a customer, we sometimes scream phrases like ‘Secure your cell phone customer’ or often falsely our competitors (in the eyes of a grieving customer) with questions like ‘Why are you happy when somebody is grieving?’”

Nansubuga vanishing one of her coffins adding value to it in order to stay competitive in the market since she purchases nearly finished coffins from the carpenter.

Rebecca started selling coffins after she quit her food business in 2004, and with some money from her carpenter husband. Her workshop at Kyagwe Timber sales, is located just about ten minutes away from a hospital mortuary at Mulago, one of Uganda’s largest.

4. Coffins on display along Kubiri Bombo road side opposite Haruna tower (location of Rebecca’s shop).

“Go, bring me food” Rebecca yells, explaining how she sometimes has to “act boss” towards her competitors in an attempt to downplay them in the eyes of a potential customer.

In her kind of business, customers arrive in groups, sometimes with tears in the corner of their eyes. Whichever vendor persuades convincingly, wins over the often-grieving customer; coffins vendors like her often swarm approaching clients. Some vendors approach with crosses, others with toddler coffins, the aim remains single — to sell. “But I have never prayed for anyone to die”, Rebecca adds.

5. Coffin vendors crowding bereaved man shouting out different prizes and pointing to their coffins as a form of convincing the customer.

So just like other businesses, Rebecca also offers extra services that come with the trade “I can sing at your funeral as long as you pay me, I sing all tones except base, call me when you lose somebody, I will sing.” Rebecca’s trade also comes with accessories like cushions, ribbons, sheets and crosses. She also offers other services for her customers like traditional corpse washing and wrapping.

A golden cross on this coffin is an example of some of the extra accessories that Rebecca puts on her coffins to stand out from the rest.

But her business with the death is not an easy job. From her home in Bwaise, where she commutes to work daily, to sell coffins, Rebecca finds herself in a tension between pain and gain, in a workplace that juggles the absurdity of grieving customers and her effort to bring bread home. “We look at them like customers because this is a shop”, she explains how she can cope with her struggles.

A bereaved family carrying a coffin to Mulago mortuary from Rebecca’s Shop since its a few footsteps from where her shop is located.

As to why she chose this trade among all other business options, Rebecca replies with a smile: “People are still dying. At least 190 out of every 200 people die.”

As to whether she would quit her coffin business trade if she got another opportunity? At the beginning Rebecca was afraid of coffins but she got used to it and a lot of benefits from selling coffins. “I have sent my four children to school, I have built houses, I have my pigs in Busabala (her home village).” So she doubts she would return to her old food-vending job.

Eddie Ssemakula is a freelance writer, blogger based in Kampala Uganda.

Originally published at journafrica.de on February 19, 2016.