The mention of a coffin sends a shiver down many a people’s spine. But as Edward Tumwine and Paul Kisembo found out, may be not, if it is the job through which you must earn a living?
A group of three well-dressed men are standing in front of a wooden excuse for a shop near Kubiiri roundabout on Bombo Road. It is a warm Saturday morning, but their laughing and chatting exceeds normal warmth.
They look so free and enjoying an ecstatic casual moment, at least reading from their faces and the hearty laughter they are enjoying together. They must be very happy people with nothing bothering them on this rarely satisfying planet, I say to myself.
As I near them, my arrival instantly sends them into a sudden silence. They look at each other like kids caught in the wrong. Suddenly, they all don sad faces and apparent confusion reigns in their midst. I look at them once again. None of them says a word as I approach! I’m confused.
I wonder whether I have entered a racket of wrong doers or interrupted people in a serious business conversation. Quickly I settle and ask to be excused. In unison, they seem relieved too and kindly ask whether I needed help. “Tukuyambe kii ssebo? (How can we help you sir)?” asks one of them, who I later learnt is Isah Musoke.
“Ssebo mu’firidwa? (Sir, have you lost some one)” quips in another before I could answer the first question. That is when I realized the cause of the sudden silence and ‘fake’ sadness on their faces when I arrived. They are running a shop for coffins.
I later tell them that I’m looking for information on “their kind of work”. Musoke leads me inside the shop as he explains to me how I had caught them unawares. When I ask him what he meant by “catching them unawares”, he pauses a bit, looks straight into my eyes and then says; ” we have a particular way we receive our clients” as he led me to a wooden stool to sit.
So, what is this particular way to welcome coffin buyers? I ask. “Our clients are most times very sad people. They come here to buy bags that will store away their loved ones forever,” says a philosophical Musoke with a faint voice. “You have to look mournful and politely take your client through different types of coffins and their prices. Even if the customer is smiling, you know deep inside he/she is hurting,” reasons Musoke.
It is then that I understand that what they did when they sighted me, is their customer care gimmick to create a feeling that they share your loss much as they depend on your loss to fend for their livelihoods. What a business!
Ivan Kyobe, the proprietor of Kubiiri Coffin Makers workshop says making and selling selling coffins is no easy business since they deal with grieving clients since clearly you will seldom buy a coffin smiling.
“At first I used to suffer emotional break down as some clients who came to buy coffins kept sobbing uncontrollably. I could wonder whether they see me as bad omen eating from their pain or some one offering a noble business like anybody else,” relives 42-year old Musoke, a resident of Makerere Kikoni as he stares in general direction.
Seven years of coffin business in lower Katanga near Wandegeya and opposite Mulago hospital has taken Musoke through different colors of trying emotional experiences.
“I remember one time a woman who looked so poor and emotionally drained asked me to sell her a coffin at half price. She did not even have enough transport money to carry the body of her child to Kayunga. I was contemplating to give it to her free of charge when my boss then said it was business and there was no way we could offer free coffins or slash prices,” remembers Musoke who now runs his own coffin shop. This incident affected Musoke so much that he considered quitting the job but was convinced to stay on by friends.
Musoke says he now sees his business as a noble one that should be appreciated by the public. But many coffin dealers wonder whether the public fully appreciates their work. While others like Musoke think so, others answer the question with cynicism and sneer.
“Batuyiita balogo, lwaki? (they call us witches, why)?” asks an angry looking Steven Muwemba of Tukola Kubawo Carpentry Workshop, as he hammers the last nail at the bottom of a 6.6ft coffin. Of all coffin dealers and makers we interviewed, it is Muwemba who had a big score to settle with unsatisfied members of the public.
“Did we start death? Look at me. I’m just 35 years. Death was there before I was born. Can someone convince me that this is not business,” counters Muwemba who operates near Nalukolongo, near Natete, a Kampala suburb. Like Muwemba, Mawanda Kimbugwe is incensed by what he calls ‘some people’s lack of understanding’. He says that in his eleven-year-old job, satisfying such people has caused him “headache”.
“People should appreciate us. Even car mechanics do not repair mechanically sound vehicles neither do doctors pray that people fall sick. It is not our wish that people die,” laments Kimbugwe who runs his business at Musigula zone, Rubaga in close company of his family of two children and wife.
Kimbugwe like many others operates a roadside coffin shop along Masaka road. He sells ready-made coffins. As we learnt, rarely do you find any dealers who make coffins on order.
Does this mean they operate almost on sure business, that customers will come? Musoke says it is because of the untimely nature of death. Kimbugwe says while no one plans or wants to buy a coffin, it is something all families must buy when they time comes -their loved one has died.
An intriguing part from this business is that it heavily relies on is High Death rates. The irony about the coffin business is the higher the number of deaths, the more income the business earns. “It’s clearly hard to live with but this is what it takes for ends to meet in this business.
How does one master such a business for which there is no specialized training? Eleven years in business Kimbugwe has mastered average measurement for all heights.
A probing question on the accuracy of his measurement prompts Kimbugwe to look at me with a keen observation. “Kati gwe ekipimo kyo futi mukaga ne kittundu,” (for instance your height is about 6.5ft), declares Kimbugwe as he keeps away the hands of his youngest son who was trying to push a piece of bread in his mouth.
He says that the prices of coffins are as different as their sizes, designs and the quality of timber the coffin is made of. From 2ft for one month olds to the 6.6ft for adults prices stretch from 50,000 to 200,000 shillings for ordinary designs while prices sky rocket to the tune of 3450,000 to 900,000 Uganda shillings for the affluent coffin designs commonly known as “madala“, some with panel glass or more caskets preferred by the more affluent. Caskets for infants are also classed in that arrangement however a negotiation with Mr Kyobe can lead you to a reasonable price. Different Coffin Designs on PhotoPeach Because marketing is a sublime tool for the survival of any business, coffin traders do not have to operate in obscurity anymore.
The high unemployment rates the youth are grappling with today has seen many young people seeking a living through this trade. Today there is an increasing number of companies offering Funeral Services.
Like in other businesses, competition is high among coffin traders, which explains why most coffin dealers will do any thing possible to operate by roadside and in the vicinity of hospitals.
For Specioza Nakanwagi who operates along Bombo road at Kavule, competition has come about because people no longer look at the business with abomination but also as a solution to the rampant unemployment.
Whatever the size, design or quality of coffins one deals in, the demand for coffins is ever increasing according to George William Bukenya of Ndeba. “Death is as abundant as is life,” says Bukenya who can never regret let alone give up his business.
Additional reporting by Zziwa Christopher