29 Jan 2011

Mourners for hire
Saturday, 29 January 2011 08:17

By Polycarp Machira
The Citizen Reporter
Dar es Salaam. Would you cry at the funeral of somebody you don’t even know, a person you never met during his or her lifetime? How would anybody work himself into a sombre mood at the funeral of a total stranger and break into sobs, shedding lots of tears?Well, faced with economic hardships and lack of jobs, some young people in Dar es Salaam are doing something that would never have been imagined only a few years ago. In fact, the traditionalists would have been shamed to death in the face of such a scenario.

But the young people are going to extremes to earn some money, and in some cases doing what to many would consider rather weird, such as offering to cry at funerals for a fee.

And this is not a scene from a stage play about death and funerals. It is the real thing – a new profession, mourning for hire, is taking root in Dar es Salaam.

While death has always been a source of income for funeral homes in the urban centres, coffin makers, transporters, grave diggers, and providers of other services, including catering, to give the dead a grand send-off, the idea of “professional mourners” is a brand new one.

But the rather morbid business of professional mourners is gaining popularity, with many families hiring strangers to cry at their relatives’ funerals.

The Umoja wa Waombolezaji Misibani (UWAMI), a group of ‘professional mourners’ in Dar es Salaam is already gaining ground by offering what is increasingly becoming a major part of funerals in the city. They charge Sh150,000 for a day’s service, which ends when the person is buried.

The business is fast catching on as the greater society opens up to adopt the traditional rites of communities or things that happen in other countries.

Some traditions demand the holding of grand funerals, where loud crying by close relatives, acquaintances, friends or associates, is meant to demonstrate deep love for the deceased.

The gift of acting (crying) among the UWAMI group members has been nurtured by their daily activities of making and selling coffins in the Manzese suburb of the city.

Comprising six members, the group was established in October last year to provide “crying services” at funerals for a fee.
Speaking to The Citizen of Saturday, UWAMI chairperson Frank Anthony said the members had been inspired by the search for a livelihood amid hardships due to lack of steady jobs to find an alternative source of income.

He said the idea was born, when, as they sold coffins, they would ask some of their customers to consider hiring some “readymade” mourners, as well.

A customer, who told them that he had heard on radio that such groups were already operating in Kenya, got them to turn their idea into reality.

They started out as a group of three, but as more city residents heard about the service and demand increased, more members joined.

In less than six months, the group has provided mourners for hire at three funerals, but is looking forward to a business boom as more people get to know about the service.

“We hope to provide well organised funeral crying services based on the needs of our customers from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds,” said Mr Anthony.

But the chairman conceded that the group would have to work hard to cope with the different requests for their services.
He said that at some funerals, relatives asked them not to cry, but to “joyously sing along with the family members”. He quipped: “It is serious business…crying.”

To prepare for a job, they need information on the age, sex and occupation of the dead person. They should also know about where he or she used to work, relations with the neighbours, workmates and family members.

The group must find out what exactly the family expects them to do. “In some communities, they do not cry all the time, but just sit waiting for relatives who come in crying, and they join in.”

UWAMI members cry along with funeral music.
The professional mourners are served with ugali and meat and provided with alcoholic drinks to stimulate their crying.
For a session, a crate of beer, konyagi and banana, a local alcoholic drink, are sufficient.

Group member Faida Yassin said that judging from the income earned in the short time they have been offering the services, the future is promising.

Mr Yassin, a father of three children, said he was able to pay school fees for his son in secondary school with his earnings.

“This service will really change our lives if the society responds positively,” he said.

However, he conceded that it had not been easy at the beginning, as they learned how to cry for pay.
A lecturer in psychology at the University of Dar es Salaam, Prof Issa Omari, said the phenomenon was part of society’s development, and should be viewed positively.

“It is not a new thing, as it started in Kenya almost a decade ago. It is just a money making enterprise for jobless youth,” he said. “There is nothing strange in a money-dominated society about allowing people to buy anything they want.”

But Dar es Salaam residents have received the news of the “professional mourners” with mixed reactions.

Some of those interviewed said the emergence of such groups “simply shows the levels of frustration in the society due to lack of job openings”.

Mr Stephen Maina, a 70-year-old resident of Mabibo, said it “is not part of Tanzanian culture”.

He added: “Crying in a funeral is an act that close relatives or friends of the deceased can do. Having some hired people crying is shameful and unethical.”

He said that in some traditions, having a stranger crying at a funeral was seen as an act that could result in a bad omen in the bereaved family.

“In Germany, France, China and England, where I’ve lived, the practice is quite different. They hire people to perform at funerals but not to cry.”

He added: “I think even those who hire mourners must have some problems.”
Mr Rashid Juma, a businessman at Kariakoo Market, said: “Tanzanians should not just copy anything, including services that add no value to our norms.”

The vice-chairman of the Christian Council of Tanzania, Bishop Peter Kitala, dismissed UWAMI’s services as ungodly, adding that crying at a funeral was a way of sharing the grief of the bereaved and should not be for financial gain.

“I urge the public to shun the services of the professional mourners. I find it really sorrowful that Tanzanians can go to that level of pretending just to get money,” he said.

The clergyman said it was sinful to pretend to be in a certain state for personal gain.

SOURCE: The Citizen


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