Dr Masimba Mavaza
IT was on a Sunday afternoon when friends gathered at Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airport in Harare.
Itai Munetsi was about to board a plane to the United Kingdom. He had told everyone he would be back in six months.
Itai was a successful banker with one of the banks in Zimbabwe. An old friend had invited him to the UK to work for just a few months.
He was assured that in six months, he would be rich. How could he doubt that when many Zimbabweans in the Diaspora were building houses and sending money and cars to their families back home?
The UK had been sold as a paradise, a land of opportunities. On this Sunday, Itai was giving his back to his motherland. He exchanged hugs with friends and relatives. Two lines of tears streamed down his cheeks.
While he was in the world of wonder, the plane took off, lifting Itai into the clouds. He looked down from his seat and he saw the beautiful Zimbabwean landscape. The green swamps of Hatfield. It was an emotional goodbye to the motherland.
Itai was seized with the idea of getting rich fast. This was the idea which was sold to many Zimbabweans who had left for the UK.
Most were made to believe they would work for six months or less, buy a commuter omnibus and head back home. Some were blinded by the zeal to buy a house or two so any job in the UK would do.
Nobody had plans to permanently stay in the UK, let alone die there. The plan on anybody’s mind was to get as much money as possible and fly back home.
A rosy picture, one not so accurate, was painted by early migrants to the UK who gave a wrong impression that money grew on trees in London.
This misconception destroyed any money-making initiatives by relatives left behind Zimbabwe some of whom boasted that they had their “donkeys” in the UK.
If one got broke, money was a phone call away. The spirit of making money with no production was slowly destroying Zimbabwe.
Families lived extravagant lives financed by relatives in the UK.
Some people became regulars at money transfer outlets such as Western Union and Moneygram, collecting funds from the UK. Their job was to wake up, go to the bank, collect money, and abuse it. They would soon collect more and such was the new normal in Zimbabwe.
On arriving in the UK, one’s mind is pre-occupied with making money and dreams of prosperity.
People never really plan for death as an eventuality and when they die, their burial arrangements are made by friends.
However, there is a lot of pressure from home to repatriate the body of a person who dies in the Diaspora.
As a result, the first generation of migrants are almost always repatriated to Zimbabwe for burial. In the beginning, there was a spirit of unity where every Zimbabwean would contribute towards repatriation.
The fact that relatives at home cannot financially contribute to anything means the task is left to those who are abroad, regardless of relations, to oversee the repatriation. Our cultural beliefs make it hard to opt for burial in the UK. In recent years, the death rate of Zimbabweans in the UK has increased. We now have almost 10 deaths a week, excluding Covid-19 victims and this figure translates to about 40 bodies a month.
We now have more funerals than birthday parties in the UK because the number of deaths has increased and the burden of repatriation has become overwhelming.
The demand for repatriation is so high among the Zimbabwean community in Britain and according to Zimbabwean Embassy officials, at least 95 percent of first generation migrants are buried in Zimbabwe.
Repatriation is now brisk business. C.J. Railey, a company which specialises in repatriations, says it is now processing between 10 to 15 bodies a week. A system is now in place to cover repatriation costs and the death of one is a cost for another.
For many Zimbabwean communities in the UK, there is often no official financial support and many families struggle to meet the costs.
The repatriation exercise is very stressful for people organising it in the UK and those waiting for the body back home in Zimbabwe.
People at home want to dictate the time and place the body must be repatriated home, but they are not usually part of the fundraising process.
This is when death makes Diasporans a begging lot.
Messages with account numbers fly around begging for help. In cases like this, many in the Diaspora have to keep their loved ones’ bodies in morgues for several months, until there is enough money.
The emotional stress, financial costs and family pressures are so high one wonders whether it is worth the trouble.
Our culture demands one to be buried with his or her forebearers and it is hard to fight against a family’s wish. People always give in owing to emotional stress.
In November 2019 Suzan Matinyadze of Bristol, UK, died of cancer. Relatives in Zimbabwe exerted pressure on the husband to repatriate the body.
They became very vocal in their demands and threatened to unleash evil spirits if he dared bury their daughter in the UK.
None of the relatives however, contributed towards repatriation. Not even a penny. The only contribution they made was stress and more stress.
The poor husband had to send a text message around England begging for help. Fortunately, many were ready to help and the body was finally repatriated.
John Takaendesa (not real name) died in a car accident in Manchester. He had told his family that if he died, he wanted to be buried in Zimbabwe. The family had to take the begging bowl around UK for donations to repatriate the body.
It is the culture implanted in us that we be buried with our forefathers. Even Joseph in the Bible demanded that his bones be buried in his land of birth.
The question then arises; Is Zimbabwe a graveyard or a dwelling country? Most of those who died in the UK did not have time to develop their rural homes. Many funerals were conducted in tents because the deceased forgot to develop their home.
Home is always best and Zimbabweans have made a point to be buried nowhere but home.