BULAWAYO, ZIMBABWE — Sithembiso Ntuli’s husband of 28 years died three years ago from injuries he sustained in a car accident.
At the time she held two funeral insurance policies.
One was through a local company, but it refused to cover the burial because she had missed a couple of payments.
The other was through an informal funeral insurance group known as a burial society, which she had joined four years earlier. She hadn’t made her monthly payment in a long time. But it considered her past contributions and still covered her.
“My burial society came to my rescue,” says Ntuli, 55, who has three children.
Burial societies have surged in popularity as corporate options have become increasingly unaffordable. And with the arrival of the coronavirus in Zimbabwe, the groups may become even more popular. As of June 27, the country had 561 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, but neighboring South Africa had nearly 125,000.
The high cost of corporate insurance is an example of how Zimbabwe’s economic turmoil and hyperinflation have pushed many everyday goods and services out of reach for ordinary people.
A long-held pillar of traditional African cultures, burial societies have become a renewed source of financial and social comfort when Zimbabweans lose a loved one, a time of great stress and expense.
“Self-organized community burial societies offer a more welcoming environment,” Ntuli says.
Burial societies are community-funded groups whose members pay a monthly subscription, or premium, in exchange for funeral insurance when a loved one perishes. In addition to insurance, members of the society help each other with donations when someone in the community dies. Some groups number in the hundreds.
Corporate funeral insurance has become extremely expensive even for formally employed workers who earn a monthly salary. That’s partly because local companies don’t offer group policies for families. They cover only individuals, even if they are related, driving up the costs for a family.
An insurer may charge as much as 5,500 Zimbabwean dollars (ZWL) ($220) a month to cover individuals in a family of five – nearly three times the wages and benefits of some highly paid civil servants. Some insurers do provide services that the societies can’t match. At least one offers a 75-seat bus to ferry mourners as far as rural areas, where most people prefer to be buried.
Some burial societies, meanwhile, charge 100 South African rand (ZAR) ($5.80) a month to cover a whole family.
Upon the death of a loved one, the burial society provides food, transport, a coffin and cash for additional expenses – services similar to those offered by corporate funeral parlors.
The societies exemplify how community groups have long provided what Zimbabweans call traditional social security. These groups buffer relatives and neighbors against death, sickness, hunger and other trials.
Burial societies specifically came about to protect people who could not afford to pay for funerals, and during colonial times they were particularly important for marginalized, low-paid workers. Because the communities themselves managed the societies’ funds, they became a source of cohesion and trust.
When Ntuli joined the burial society, she was paying 5 ZWL ($0.20) a month. However, due to currency fluctuations in Zimbabwe, she now pays 100 rand ($5.80) a month.
“This money covers every member of my family, including my extended family, which includes my in-laws,” she says, adding that that’s a total of nine people.
Ntuli’s husband, Qhawe Ntuli, survived for about two months after his accident in 2017. In fact, when he passed away, his wife was still paying medical bills. This made the burial society’s help with the funeral even more important.
An energetic woman, she told her family’s story as she scurried around her home, where she lives with two of her children. She survives by ordering clothes from South Africa, then reselling them at home.
Nduduzo Sibanda, treasurer of Togetherness Burial Society, an informal insurance group based in Nkulumane, a high-density suburb in Bulawayo, says he has seen membership grow. An entire family is considered one member. He says his society had 75 members two years ago; it now insures 175.
Sibanda directly manages a section of the society in the suburb. His section covers between 80 to 100 families. Some households include two or three families; others, only one.
Each household uses a notebook to track monthly payments as well as its members’ attendance at wakes. When someone dies, a household sends a notebook around to neighbors to inform them of the loss and seek contributions for the wake, including money, firewood and food.
Insurance companies have felt the competition from burial societies.
“Our membership has reduced over the last three or so years,” says Rodwell Gukwa, a spokesperson for a local funeral insurance company. “We do not really blame the customers. We are also forced to regularly increase our subscriptions due to inflation.”
In 2019, the government banned the use of non-Zimbabwean currencies and declared the bond note as the official currency, a move that contributed to hyperinflation. By last June, inflation had skyrocketed to 175%.
“The economic situation has caused some confusion in most sectors,” says Felix Chari, an economics lecturer at Bindura University of Science Education. “Social systems such as burial societies assist to fill in the gap.”
Fortune Moyo, GPJ, translated some interviews from Ndebele.