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Culture clash

Grave diggers burden bereaved families

by Raphael Mweninguwe


Grave diggers in some villages in northern Malawi are imposing unexpected burdens on bereaved families. If families are late in paying the low fees that grave diggers normally receive, some younger workers unilaterally demand large sums as penalties for late payment.

Villagers in the north, especially around the Karonga district, complain that some young grave diggers, who are new to the occupation, are flouting the traditions associated with this work and are disrespecting village elders in the process.

Traditionally, by decision of local village chiefs, bereaved families have paid the equivalent of about $ 0.14 per month to grave diggers, a small fee intended to enable grave diggers to buy food during the time they are working. In addition to digging graves, the grave diggers also keep the grave sites in good order.

Until recently, the people doing this work were elderly villagers. “But a decision was made that the work will be done by youths, most of whom are unemployed,” says Alfred Gondwe, a 64-year old retired civil servant. In addition to helping to reduce youth unemployment, the change was intended to lighten the burdens of elderly people doing this work. “It was done as a matter of respect to the elderly,” Gondwe says.

However, some of the younger newcomers to the profession are taking matters into their own hands when families are late with payments. “These days the youths are fining the bereaved families huge sums of money just because they are not contributing,” Gondwe says. “The purpose of families making a small contribution was not to make a profit but just to help them buy food.”

He says that by unilaterally imposing fines on bereaved families, the young grave diggers are undermining the authority of village chiefs. “Our young men think that they have hit gold by charging bereaved families over $ 27 or even up to $ 138 as fines. They are even refusing to dig the grave if the family fails to pay,” says Anderson Mwalwanda, whose family was faced with demands for fines after the death of a relative who was staying nearby.

The young grave diggers contend that failure to pay their fee means they cannot carry out their work. They also argue that their fees should cover more than just food purchases during their work.

In August this year some young grave diggers disrupted a funeral to make their case. Village leaders tried to reason with them, but to no avail. “These young people have become so powerful that even the chiefs fear them,” says 43-year old Moreen Kalambo. She adds that the youths should no longer hold those jobs, and that they spend most of their earnings on beer.

Jones Mfune, a local church official, says while he agrees with the arrangement the village elders had instituted, he cannot accept “our youths disrupting church services during funerals.”

“In the Bible Jesus said ‘give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar,’” he notes. “But if bereaved families are failing to pay, there could be a reason. The village leaders must sit down with our youths to find out a solution after burial.”

Mfune adds that it is unfortunate when young grave diggers, whom he says are the villagers’ own children, “do not respect the elderly and the departed souls. Our cultural traditions must be respected at all cost.”

Raphael Mweninguwe is a freelance journalist based in Malawi