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Zimbabwean Woman Breaks Taboo -- as an Undertaker

With formal jobs difficult to find, some Zimbabwean women are venturing into male- dominated occupations. In Bulawayo, some women are excelling and surviving as undertakers. From Harare, Netsai Mlilo spoke to one woman undertaker and filed this report.

At 43 years of age, Ester Sithole is just another working woman. Each morning she makes her way to work like hundreds of other Bulawayo residents still lucky to have formal jobs. But its the nature of her job that makes Sithole a topic of discussion among her neighbours and bereaved families in Bulawayo.

Sithole is an undertaker with a Bulawayo funeral parlour.

A qualified carpenter, she explains she became an undertaker by chance. Sithole says she switched from making coffins to preparing corpses for burial after being asked to stand in for an undertaker who had fallen sick leaving the parlour short staffed. Sithole admits her first day as an undertaker was difficult

"I was afraid," she says. It was not easy but my bosses taught me that this was just like any other job. They made me realize that a corpse is not different from a human being. My first day in the mortuary was tough."

Besides getting used to handling dead bodies, Sithole says she had to work to overcome negative cultural beliefs about women undertakers. Most Zimbabweans believe it is taboo for women to handle corpses.

She says when her neighbours and friends got to learn of her occupation, they stopped talking to her out of fear. But, she says things have since changed for the better. She says her community now appreciate her skills because of frequent deaths in her Pumula neighbourhood Pumula. Sithole says she is often called upon to help when a neighbour dies at home.

Additionally, she says her male colleagues, bereaved families and young police officers who are often called in to attend to home deaths look up to her for help.

Sithole believes she has managed to overcome the stigma of being a woman undertaker by doing her job differently. She says her secret to success as an undertaker is listening and understanding the needs of bereaved families. She says each time she attends to a bereaved family, goes out of her way to ensure bereaved relatives receive a funeral service that meets their expectations.

As a result of her success, Sithole says she frequently gets women of all ages and backgrounds asking her how they too can become undertakers…

"It's a good job that requires dedicated women to be undertakers because, it's easy for bereaved individuals to talk to women because women understand grief better than men," she says. "As you know some male undertakers don't even try to talk to bereaved families during services."

Sithole appears to be doing well as a role model. So far, four other women in Bulawayo are working as undertakers.

Sithole says given the high death rate due to HIV and AIDS, it is important to have female undertakers that bereaved women and men can turn to for comfort. She says each time she conducts a funeral service she goes out of her way to comfort the bereaved. She explains this is because as a woman she finds it easy to empathize with grieving families. With time, she says she has realized that her job goes beyond being an undertaker…

"There is nothing exciting about this job because every minute you are dealing with a grieving person. A person in mourning is not exciting to work with. But you end up employing yourself as a counselor. Take for instance a bereaved wife, you are driving to the cemetery and she is wailing and you can lose control of the vehicle if you don't calm her down," she says.

She says she feels hurt when she sees some of her male colleagues remaining distant and uninterested when they conduct services. Although doubling up as a counselor is emotionally draining, Sithole says at the end of the day, she feels happy and richly rewarded when families she has helped come back to her to say thank you. She says she has received thank you gifts from some families and has even been invited to attend memorial services of some people she helped to bury.

As a result of respect she is enjoying in doing her job, Sithole says she encourages more women to be undertakers to help reduce the burden of grief that is haunting so many Zimbabweans.