HARARE, ZIMBABWE — Sad faces etched with deep sorrow fill a 13-seater bus.
Behind the bus, a trailer carries the coffin of a young man who took his last breath in South Africa.
As the bus and trailer pull into Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, relatives gather around.
An elderly woman touches the trailer in disbelief — her nephew is gone; she looks up and asks God why he had to take a young soul in such a way.
Samson Zisengwe, 24, was run over by a train in Durban on his way home from work several weeks ago.
The family is grief-stricken, but they were united in their desire to bring his body home, so he could be laid to rest in Zimbabwe.
“We traveled from Durban to Zimbabwe because most of our relatives are in Zimbabwe, and in our culture one has to be buried in their place of birth, where his family is,” says Phillip Zisengwe, the deceased’s uncle.
Gamuchirai Masiyiwa, GPJ Zimbabwe
With as many as four million Zimbabweans living abroad, according to the International Organization for Migration, body repatriation is big business these days. Costs can tally well into the thousands for body transportation services, with additional options, like offering a small bus to bring relatives back to Zimbabwe with the body.
It cost the family 23,000 South African rands ($1,696) to bring the body from Durban to Zimbabwe, where Zisengwe’s nephew will be laid to rest, he says.
“As a family, we managed to raise 15,000 rands ($1,106),” he says. For the rest, they received assistance from fellow church members in South Africa.
Despite the costs, many Zimbabweans say it’s a priority to bring loved ones home when they die in foreign lands. Members of Shona culture, a large tribe here, practice something known as kurova guva, which welcomes to the spirit back to be with its kin in Zimbabwe.
But the country’s ongoing financial crisis and cash shortage have made body repatriation more difficult for local families.
There has been an upsurge of repatriation since 2009, says Nicholas Nyasha Matsika, general manager-operations at Doves Holdings Private Limited, a Zimbabwean funeral service company that offers repatriation assistance. In the last two years, in particular, he says numbers are sky rocketing, as more Zimbabweans leave the country in search of jobs. Some estimates put Zimbabwe’s unemployment rate as high as 95 percent.
Approximately 30 bodies are repatriated every month from South Africa, Matsika says. On average, they relocate seven bodies from both England and the United States each month.
Losing a loved one abroad is emotionally traumatic and a logistics nightmare, says Gladys Jani, whose aunt died in South Africa in June.
“My aunt collapsed when she was at a church service. When we received the message here in Zimbabwe, no one believed that it was true,” she says.
Though Jani’s aunt had funeral insurance in Zimbabwe, the policy did not cover expenses associated with repatriation. Jani hired a South Africa-based funeral company to carry the body up to the border, where they met the Zimbabwean funeral insurance company she had a policy with. The whole process took three days.
The South African company charted 15,700 rands ($1,157) to bring the body and a few relatives to the border, she says, adding that they received assistance from church members and friends of her aunt.
Repatriating the body was a way to give closure to the family, she says.
“It’s easy for the family to visit the grave and put flowers whenever they feel like, instead of not knowing where your relative was buried in a foreign land,” she says.
Funeral policies are becoming more common, Matsika says. Doves, the funeral parlor where he works, offers services to both policy and non-policy holders, though non-policy holders are required to pay cash for the services up front. Cost, he says, can vary widely.
“The costs of our services are measured by distance, type of coffin and the hearse one chooses,” he says.
Rates range from 15,000 rands ($1,106) by road and 35,000 rands ($2,581) by air for someone coming from South Africa, and as much as $7,000 for repatriation from England and the U.S.
“In our culture, people would want to point where they buried their relative,” Matsika says.
Some small businesses have emerged to ease demand.
Godfrey Sagotora, founding director of Pamusha Funeral Services based in South Africa, in a written email to Global Press Journal, says he opened the business in 2014 after noticing an upsurge of deaths of foreigners.
Sagotora’s company repatriates bodies into Zimbabwe weekly, he says.
“In a month, we repatriate an average of 14 bodies to Southern African countries which include Zimbabwe, Malawi, Tanzania and Zambia,” he says.
The costs of repatriation vary with distance but their prices range from 12,000 rands ($885) to 22,000 rands ($1,622).
“The African belief within us is still very strong when it comes to offering last respect to the deceased,” he says. “We believe the last respect can only be offered at home with all relatives. For one to be buried in a foreign land in foreign graveyards and traditions, it still remains a taboo within our culture.”
Traditional healers confirm the uptick in services.
“The process of bringing human bodies back to Zimbabwe is done to bring back the spirit of the dead person back to his or her roots and ensure that it rests in the right place,” says Prince Sibanda, a traditional healer. “According to our tradition, a person who dies should have a grave that is close to his or her family; this is the reason why people repatriate their relatives.”
In some cases, if someone not buried in their place of origin, their spirit might come back as bad omen and cause problems within the family, Sibanda says.
To avoid cultural and spiritual problems, families go to great lengths to repatriate their loved ones. In Zimbabwe’s cash-strapped economy, many are turning to online fundraising sites.
Nigel Mugamu, who runs a crowdfunding platform called Tswanda, says they created the platform in 2015 to crowdfund for issues around bereavement.
“We have not had campaigns for people raising money for repatriation yet, but we have had people raising money to help bereaved people who are in need,” he says.
Mugamu however has a different view on repatriation.
“The desire may be there to bring our loved ones back home but there is need to be practical and do a cost benefit analysis; the money used to bring the body can be used to help pay for fees for children left by the deceased,” he says.
Some people just accept that if they die in the U.K., they get buried there due to the costs involved, Mugamu says.
Other popular sites, like GoFundMe are used to raise money. For example, a recent campaign for Valentine Sewera, a Zimbabwean who died in Cyprus, raised $1,255 for repatriation costs.
Gamuchirai Masiyiwa, GPJ, translated some interviews from Shona.