Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The cost of dying in Zimbabwe

Are things improving in Zimbabwe? Next month is the expiry of the GPA and it is going to be interesting to see what unfolds in the political landscape.
I am sure Zimbabwe remains a confused issue for many living outside Zimbabwe, with the President and Prime Minister constantly contradicting themselves. As someone who scans headlines daily and lives in the thick of the maelstrom, I too am confused!
But the same conversation is on everyone’s minds here: how long will it be until we see real change? Right now things are marginally better, but all in this country is relative to how it was just a short while ago.
Up until February a visit to the local hospital was a waste of time, because there were few doctors, a scattering of nurses, almost no drugs, a limited supply of cleaning materials, and patients had to bring their own food. Medicins Sans Frontier and other humanitarian organisations are doing an amazing job trying to patch up our medical services, but we still have a long, long way to go.
The pothole fixers are a new breed of work force in Zimbabwe. These unofficial gangs bring in barrowloads of sand to plug the potholes pockmarking our roads, and rely on donations from the public for their livelihoods. On the one hand they are providing an essential service and people appreciate their efforts, but they can also be a menace on the road.
Last week there was a tragedy on one of the very same bumpy main roads in the city. One pothole fixer was knocked down by a motorist when he jumped out from the verge to put out his hand for a donation. The motorist just did not see him on time as he had leapt out from the passenger side of the vehicle.
The ‘potholer’ was obviously badly injured and the motorist immediately phoned the hospital for an ambulance. An hour later neither the police nor the ambulance had arrived so, throwing conventional caution that dictates one does not move an accident victim, they loaded the injured man into the back of the car and sped off to the nearest government hospital. It took another hour for a doctor to arrive to attend to them, and at that time the victim was still conscious.
Half an hour later the doctor and nurse on duty walked out from behind the curtain - the young man was dead. Could he have been saved with a more efficient emergency service?
We will never know the answer to that.
Now the motorist, who is not terribly affluent (he is a civil servant) is facing a horrible dilemma: he has been told if he takes responsibility for the funeral charges for the deceased, it will be seen as an admission of guilt by the police. But his human conscience dictates he has to help as up until now the family of the deceased has not been found. The poor man was obviously another victim of the regime, destined to leave his rural home in a desperate attempt to eke out a living in a country with 94% unemployment.
The motorist went to investigate funeral charges and was aghast at the costs. The cheapest coffin costs R1,850. The mortuary, dressing of the deceased, and burial fees amount to a further R5,000. This equates to no less than five months of an average civil servant’s salary.
In the low density areas it has become commonplace to see scotch-carts carrying the dead to their burials. I was at a funeral not long ago and saw three elderly women digging a grave themselves as they could not afford the cost of a gravedigger. People are making coffins themselves, in their backyards, breaking up any furniture they can to put their loved ones to rest.
Another bizarre image is for those who can afford fancy coffins. At the same funeral I describe above, I witnessed the mourners mixing cement which they poured into the grave. They did this to prevent grave robbers from digging up the dead, tossing the body, and re-selling the coffin!
Food prices have dropped dramatically in Zimbabwe, but the cost of dying remains sky high!

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