Zimbabwe

A Rare Female Mortician in Zimbabwe Copes With Myths, Does the Job ‘With Perfection’

Mortician Margret Nyakudya tags a body after transporting it from a local hospital to the mortuary at Doves Holding Private Ltd., a local funeral service company in Harare, Zimbabwe.

Gamuchirai Masiyiwa, GPJ Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe

In a “scary” profession that is stigmatized by false local beliefs, Margret Nyakudya serves as both an ambulance driver and a mortician. She feels fortunate to hold a job that she loves in a nation where unemployment is widespread.

HARARE, ZIMBABWE — It’s 8 a.m. when the phone rings in her basement office.

Clad in a man’s suit, she answers, listens, hangs up and then grabs the keys to the ambulance that she uses for body removal.

Ten minutes later, she arrives at a unit of the Parirenyatwa Group of Hospitals, where she and a colleague pull a stretcher from the ambulance and rush to the ward where the body is waiting.

As they push open the blue door, she sees what she came for – a motionless body covered with a sheet.

The body is lifted onto the stretcher, but before they can leave, relatives of the deceased are called in to identify their loved one. An atmosphere of sorrow fills the room. Tearfully, heads nod.

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Margret Nyakudya talks to a coworker, who has received a call about a body-removal assignment at a local hospital. She is one of the few female morticians in Zimbabwe.

Gamuchirai Masiyiwa, GPJ Zimbabwe

Then, the pair moves. Wheeling the body out to the ambulance, they head to the mortuary.

On arrival, she tags a toe and walks out.

Her first assignment of the day is done. She leaves the mortuary and heads back to her office, where she will await news of another death.

Margret Nyakudya, 48, is an anomaly in Zimbabwe. She is both an ambulance driver and a mortician at Doves Holding Private Ltd., a local funeral service provider. Historically, this is a job reserved for men. But Nyakudya says that when she was a child, she used to idolize Michael Galiao, a Zimbabwean undertaker who rose to prominence by preparing funerals for famous people and national heroes.

When she was a little girl, she told herself she too would be an undertaker someday.

It’s nearly 10 a.m. by the time she returns to her office. She treats herself to a fizzy glass of soda.

Nyakudya says she’s lucky, as a Zimbabwean, to have a job, and one that she loves. The country’s economy has been in chaos for years. Current estimates say anywhere from 4 to 95 percent of the population, depending on who is doing the tallying, is unemployed.

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Margret Nyakudya takes a body out of the ambulance before washing and embalming it for a funeral service.

Gamuchirai Masiyiwa, GPJ Zimbabwe

She started off as a driver at Moonlight Funeral Assurance and Services in 2013. She trained to be a mortician while working there.

Her day-to-day work includes retrieving bodies, preparing them for burial and directing funerals.

“The job is not different from someone who works in a shop; the only difference is in the type of things one deals with,” she says, in response to questions about why she left her job as a cashier in a supermarket to enter what many say is a “scary” field.

By 10:30, the phone is busy ringing, but her next job still hasn’t come. It’s a slow day for dying.

Nyakudya spends a lot of time coordinating logistics for funeral services.

“I also assist in receiving calls for bus or hearse bookings from other branches we work with,” she says. “I also manage out-of-town funerals on my own, and it includes setting up the coffin-lowering machine at the grave site, among other things.”

By 12:15, she heads back to the mortuary. A body has to be prepared.

When she arrives at the mortuary, another mortician shows her to the cold room. She pulls out the tray and lays the corpse on the stretcher, so that she can move the body to the next room, where the preparation is done.

“When a person is dead, there is nothing they can do to harm you,” she says as she lays out the chemicals and syringes to be used for embalming the body.

Nyakudya bathes the body while explaining that some preparations are more difficult than others.

“There are some cases that are difficult to handle – for instance, people who die through fatal accident or those who burn themselves,” she says, pausing to think about her earlier statement. “It’s scary sometimes, but you just have to be brave and do what has to be done.”

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Margret Nyakudya lays out the tools and chemicals she will use to prepare a body for a funeral. The process includes washing and embalming the body, and in some cases putting on makeup in accordance with the requests of the deceased’s family.

Gamuchirai Masiyiwa, GPJ Zimbabwe

Heater Murongi, Nyakudya’s supervisor and training officer at Doves Holding Private Ltd., says it’s unusual to find women in this line of work.

“We train them, because women are usually afraid, and we teach them that if a person dies, they also need someone to help them, and that there is nothing a dead person can do to harm them,” he says.

Murongi says training includes teaching people how to handle dead bodies and how to speak to bereaved families when they go for removals. One thing that’s harder to learn, he says, is accepting that in Zimbabwe many people believe that spirits follow their bodies, and that those who work with the dead are unusual.

“Some say we take drugs and are always drunk; others think we are witches,” he observes. “But we are actually just people who are compassionate.”

At 10 minutes after 1 p.m., Nyakudya is done and ready for lunch.

When she started working on bodies, Nyakudya says, she had trouble eating sausages. Something about the texture. But over time she’s become used to it.

“I have already forgotten what I was doing,” she says. “I can’t even recall the face of the person that I have just prepared.”

After lunch, there is another flurry of activity. One corpse has to be prepared. Another is ready to be collected. Another needs a ride to a chapel for a church service.

Just after 4 p.m., she’s ready to call it a day.

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Margret Nyakudya and Sylvester Ruhora set up a coffin in the chapel at Doves Holding Private Ltd. before a viewing and service.

Gamuchirai Masiyiwa, GPJ Zimbabwe

When she gets home, a toddler runs to her with joy. She has missed her mother.

Privilege Nyakudya, her eldest, says she used to worry about her mother’s job.

“When she started, I was a bit scared and thought that maybe the spirits of the bodies she handles will follow her home,” she says. “But I later accepted it, after realizing that it was just like any other normal job.”

Friends and neighbors also say it took some getting used to.

“I thought that in our culture it is rare for women to do that job,” says Seiko Masaka, one of Nyakudya’s neighbors. “Some say for one to handle a corpse, they have to take some drugs to help them manage.”

As she’s getting ready to change out of the man’s suit that is part of her required uniform, Nyakudya says she feels women are well-suited for this job – and, really, any job.

“When a woman devotes herself to do something, she does it wholeheartedly and with perfection,” she says.

 

Gamuchirai Masiyiwa, GPJ, translated some interviews from Shona to English.

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