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Digging graves for a living: The unsung heroes in the midst of grief and sorrow

By Raymond Jaravaza

For two years during their courtship, Timothy Sifelani never disclosed to his then girlfriend Nomalanga what he did for a living.

People erect a tombstone at Lady Stanley Cemetery yesterday
People erect a tombstone at Lady Stanley Cemetery yesterday

He says at the back of his mind, he was convinced she would leave him once she discovered that he was a grave digger.

She only knew that he worked for the Bulawayo City Council, but he never went as far as telling her exactly what it is that he did for a living.

For the young man, although proud of his job, there was always a stigma associated with working in a cemetery and the fewer the people who knew his occupation, the better for Sifelani.

Coming from rural Lupane in the early 1990s and landing a job at the Bulawayo City Council (BCC) was a dream come true even if the job was to dig graves at the now decommissioned Luveve Cemetery.

“I came to Bulawayo when companies were retrenching workers or closing down completely so getting a job at BCC was a dream come true. The city council was one of the best paying organisations at that time so what more could a young man from Lupane ask for?

“I was assigned to join a team that dug graves at Luveve Cemetery and to be honest, I was unsettled at first. How would I tell my family back home in Lupane that I dug graves for a living?

Would my parents understand that I prepared graves for strangers on a daily basis?” Sifelani told Saturday Leisure.

It’s been a couple of years since he retired in 2012 after two decades of service at BCC, but he remembers his first few months working as a grave digger as if it was yesterday.

The early 90s were a dark time for workers in heavily industrialised Bulawayo as the Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (ESAP) was sending employees home in their thousands.
Companies closed in their numbers. Breadwinners found themselves without jobs and pay cheques.

“I was grateful to have a job when other workers were being sent home every day. There is a stigma associated with people who work in cemeteries or around dead bodies and it doesn’t matter how long one has been a grave digger, but that stigma never goes away.

“A year or so into my job, I met my wife Nomalamga and in the two years that we dated, I never told her what I did for a living. Looking back, I think I was just being a coward for thinking that she would leave me if she knew that I was a grave digger,” said Sifelani.

The couple has been married since 1995 and are blessed with four kids and a grandchild.

Sifelani says working in a cemetery has its own way of making one appreciate being alive.

Seeing grief-stricken strangers bury their loved ones comes with the job but the HIV/Aids pandemic that ravaged communities especially in the 90s tops the most difficult times in the adult life of the grave digger.

“We worked in groups of four or five digging an average of three graves a day, but that number shot up when the HIV/Aids pandemic hit. People were dying like fleas; more graves were booked every day and for the first time in my life, I saw burial space at Luveve Cemetery disappearing rapidly.

“Our shifts became longer for us to dig more graves and of course we were paid overtime, but seeing the number of people that were buried at Luveve Cemetery on a daily basis made us value the gift of life,” he narrates.

Grave diggers are employed under the BCC Health Services Department.

At one time, faced with dwindling burial space, the Bulawayo City Council proposed double burials in one grave.

Residents were left fuming at the proposal with some going as far as calling it taboo in the African culture to bury strangers in one grave.

The city fathers brought back the double burial in one grave proposal.

It wasn’t long before another proposal for mandatory cremation for people aged 25 was tabled.

At the time, it was reported that West Park Cemetery was left with burial space for 200 graves as Bulawayo again grappled with a shortage of burial space in the city.

So much has changed since Sifelani retired eight years ago and today’s grave diggers are now faced with a myriad of challenges from low income to the threat of machinery taking over their jobs.

BCC has ordered that all graves be dug by backhoes (digging machinery) in light of the Covid-19 pandemic and in trying to stop the spread of the virus.

Grave diggers are only available to fill the graves when a burial is done and not the family of the deceased as was the norm before the coronavirus pandemic hit the country.

“They (grave diggers) will soon lose their jobs. Machinery is taking over their jobs and the city council might soon be forced to lay off some of these guys,” a city council employee based at the Tower Block told Saturday Leisure.

Just last week, city council workers, among them, grave diggers, threated to down tools in protest over low salaries. The lowest paid city council worker is said to take home $1 900.

“I feel sorry for the new generation of grave diggers, their salaries are just too low. We made a respectable living from digging graves, but things have changed now,” said Sifelani.

In 2014, Bulawayo councillors were dismayed to learn of corrupt tendencies by council grave diggers demanding US$25 from residents to refill collapsed graves.

The councillors made it crystal clear to residents that it was the duty of grave diggers to refill collapsed graves at no cost.

The corrupt tendencies by grave diggers were exposed when a councillor Lillian Mlilo said she fell victim to the scam when the council employees demanded money for them to refill the collapsed grave of her late husband at West Park Cemetery. The Chronicle.