A good African funeral is now a highly professional business in Uganda...

Thursday June 15 2017

With cheap Chinese smartphones available,

With cheap Chinese smartphones available, burials are an occasion for everyone to take selfies. ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NYANGA | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

By Joachim Buwembo

For many years, Ugandans had refused to let anybody profit from death.

Even after colonial/Western influence set in, they continued for decades to bury their dead in natural materials like barkcloth contributed by the community; the grave was dug by neighbours while food and beer for the mourners was supplied by friends of the family.

With time, we started yielding to modernity and allowed coffin makers to make a bit of a profit from death. It was only as recently as the 1990s that professional undertakers began operating in the country.

But it was not easy to get premises, for nobody however needy was ready to sell them land; funeral business was supposed to be done in the hospital mortuary and the family burial grounds.

Eventually, the economy overrode culture. Funerals in Uganda have become commercial extravaganzas where everyone wants a piece of the action.

And while the swanky funeral companies are doing good business, ordinary people are also cashing in whenever a person dies. They monitor radio and TV announcements to gauge the economic status of the deceased’s family because with widespread mobile telephony, media death announcements are no longer necessary.

Entrepreneurial spirit

At the burial ground, long before the cortege arrives from the city, the vendors of food and refreshments have set up shop. Water, beers, sodas are a must. A highway restaurant staple called gonja, which is a type of banana that turns very sweet on roasting. Roast meat called mchomo is also now a must-offer at burial grounds. 

Besides physical food, food for the soul is on sale, including entertainment and its opposite. The opposite of entertainment? A good African funeral must feature lots of wailing. A new profession of mourners is coming up.

These can be covertly embedded in the funeral company’s fee, and they provide the sound track as dictated by tradition.

Do you want women crying their hearts out and rolling on the ground threatening to throw themselves in the grave due to their broken hearts? Or silently sobbing ladies and gentlemen who look convincingly grief-stricken? All the above can be arranged at an appropriate fee.

And where crowds gather, security is also a necessity. Bouncers are now in high demand for funerals, especially of the rich. They keep crowds from getting too near to the dignitaries and tycoons in attendance.

You don’t want a chap selling roast groundnuts shoving them under the nose of a celebrity from town who could end up shunning the relatives of the deceased after that.

The bouncers also keep unwanted mourners like estranged partners of the deceased at bay.

But some innocents do turn up for funerals of people they don’t know just out of curiosity and to get a glimpse how the rich live.

There have been some celebrity deaths in the past couple of months and when the bodies are taken to the village for burial, the villagers turn up in big numbers to see some of the people they see on TV in real life.

And the cars! With cheap Chinese smartphones available, burials are an occasion for everyone to take selfies with limos they only see in pictures.

Joachim Buwembo is a social and political commentator based in Kampala. E-mail: [email protected]