Parties, jokes and coffins: A good death in Kinshasa

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Dixon Makela at his coffin workshopImage source, Maud Jullien / BBC
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The Congolese taste for lavish funerals keeps Dixon Makela in business

Dixon Makela makes coffins. Fancy ones with thick black paint and white carved decorations on top, affordable ones made of Kambala, the cheapest wood you can find in Kinshasa.

It is hard to hear him talk over the banging and chopping noises that fill up the yard of his small workshop.

"The coffins we sell the most are these ones," he says, pointing at a simple wooden box. "A basic model, a cheap one. It costs $400."

That is still quite a sum in a country where people earn less than a dollar a day, and Dixon says he sells a lot of them - around 100 to 120 coffins each month.

He earns a living that many in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) would consider decent. He makes at least $500 (£310) a month - about five times more than a civil servant.

"Mortality is high here, and people are willing to spend more on coffins than they are on furniture," he explains. "In fact, they are willing to spend more on funerals than on almost anything else.

"When a person dies, people spend hundreds on drinks, food and everything needed for a nice ceremony. But when a person falls sick, there is no one to pay for the medical bills to save their life in the first place."

Image source, BBC / Maud Jullien
Image caption,
The sound of carpentry fills Dixon's workshop

His coffin workshop is one of many on Avenue Wangata, where stalls selling none other than funeral goods line up as far as the eye can see. Cement crosses, crowns of flowers, coffins and hearses are among the must-have funeral items on offer here.

Danny Kavota, who sells crowns of plastic flowers on the avenue, says his mother's funeral cost $5,000 (£3,100).

"The whole family chipped in and the ceremony went well," he says. He contributed $1,200 (£752) - all of his savings. "I sacrificed a lot - now I have almost no money left," he says.

Any excuse to party

Camp Munganga is a neighbourhood of Kinshasa that looks like a busy village. It is just a 15-minute car ride from the city centre but here there are no paved roads, no water, no electricity.

Celine Byazanga lives with her three daughters in a small cement house made up of two rooms. When her husband died six months ago, they had to sell everything they owned, including their land and their house, to pay for his funeral ceremony.

"We used to live in very good conditions," says Celine, "but now look, I have nothing, and the roof is full of holes."

Everyone seems to have their own idea about what is behind this need to spend on death.

A translator at a large Protestant church near the Congo river, Mok Lingomba, told me the trend was imported from Nigeria and developed with the evangelical movements that tell their followers they will be rewarded in the afterlife if they spend hundreds on religion.

Image source, BBC / Maud Jullien
Image caption,
Hearses can be rented to transport the dead on their final journey

Others say it is simply because in this capital, any excuse to party is a good one.

But many of the people I spoke to who had spent more than they could afford on a funeral seemed to be mainly motivated by the desire to outshine, or at least impress, their peers.

"No one wants guests at the ceremony to say there wasn't enough food and the coffin was cheap," says Celine. "We want people to leave and say: 'That was a very well organised ceremony.'"

Gallows humour

A typical service in the DR Congo's capital starts at the hospital's morgue. In Kinshasa's Ngaliema clinic, over a hundred smartly dressed people queued up to pay homage to Thierry.

The crowd was made up mainly of women, whose cries and moans blended into a single deep wail. "Oh, Thierry," cried a young lady in a purple dress as she collapsed and implored the heavens.

Outside the morgue, a grey minivan covered in photos of Thierry was waiting. As it left the hospital, it was joined by over 20 other cars full of guests. We drove in a line through the city, our warning lights on, while the hearse made a loud siren noise.

A cameraman hired specifically for the event did not miss a second of it, standing in the car's front seat, his body sticking halfway out of the window. It costs at least $500 (£310) a day to rent a room out at the Assanef centre, which specialises in hosting funeral ceremonies.

Image source, BBC / Maud Julien
Image caption,
Even the poor of Kinshasa have been known to spend beyond their means on funerals

Thierry was exposed there for two days. His rich wooden coffin was placed in the middle of the room, under an arbour covered in golden cloth.

Religious pop music blasted from speakers as the guests walked up from their brown plastic seats to the coffin at the centre of the room, in groups of five or six.

Outside, two comedians entertained guests from another ceremony. The joke was about how important it is for people to make sure they are photographed during their lives- because if they are not, what will be left of them when they die?

Macabre humour, but no one in the audience seemed shocked.

"For me, what I do is to help people who have cried a lot find some relief," explains Junior, one of the comedians. "After the body is taken away, I start my show, and in the process, I make some money."

He says they are usually invited to ceremonies by the organisers, but that they also sometimes crash funerals.

The Congolese are largely devout Christians, but in Kinshasa, many of the taboos around death seem to have disappeared.

Pastor Antoine Kilolo, who preaches in a tiny parish in Camp Muganga, frowns when he talks about the way "young people" organise funerals these days.

He is over 60 years old. "When we were growing up, we weren't allowed to go near the dead at all, we were afraid of funerals."

"Today, kids get drunk and smoke weed at funerals. I feel this greatly dishonours us. It's not about honouring the person who died anymore."