THE COFFIN-MAKING PROJECT OF CATHOLIC AIDS ACTION
For the past several years Lucy Steinitz-Kiekebush and her family have been in Windhoek, Namibia [north of South Africa]. Lucy has been industriously and creatively working with the Catholic Church on AIDS relief and prevention.
Previously Lucy lived in Columbia, Maryland and was Director of Jewish Family Services in Baltimore.
WHY WE CHOSE TO GET INVOLVED
The aim of the Coffin Project was to undertake an experiment, whereby coffins would be designed and produced from a mixture of paper and glue (paper mache) - to be made and sold as an income-generating activity for clients of the Bernhard Nordkamp AIDS Information & Support Centre in Windhoek (a branch of Catholic AIDS Action). The project was funded in 1999-2000 with a small start-up grant by the Catholic Medical Mission Board in New York City, following an on-site visit by Terry Kirch.
Nothing like this has ever been done before in Namibia or elsewhere, to the best of our knowledge. Coffins are required by law in Namibia to stave off marauding animals from the cemeteries at night. But these coffins form a big part of the total funeral expense, which usually comes two or three times the average monthly income for a family. This is especially devastating for families who have already been without a wage-earner for many months, and who now have several orphans to support.
We hoped that our paper mache coffins could be produced at 1/3 of the cost of a timber coffin. As with the existing income-generating projects at the Centre, once the cost of the materials have been deducted, the calculation of the income is that 2/3rds go to the makers and 1/3 to the Centre. All participants involved are themselves infected or directly affected by HIV/AIDS (e.g. as caretakers of the ill or orphans).
In this way, we hoped that this project would provide a much-needed service to the community at a reasonable price, in addition to benefiting several families from the money earned. Finally, we were attracted to the environmental message inherent in paper mache coffins, given that we live in an extremely arid country with very few trees. Ultimately, we wanted to produce 200 coffins per year (approximately four per week) at this Centre.
THE BEGINNING PHASES
Following some weeks of experimentation, and a helpful donation from the American Embassy of finely shredded paper, we came up with a successful recipe for the pulp (paper clue mix) which lines the inside of the wooden coffin mold. (Before that, we had to collect paper and shred it all ourselves - a tedious and unenviable task, if there ever was one!)
The wooden mold is firstly lined with ventilated plastic to ensure that the paper coffin may be easily removed from the mold and that the coffin would also have a smooth surface. (Note as a curious footnote: This finely shredded paper from the American Embassy turns out to be confidential documents which they are obliged to shred into very fine bits - each about the size of hole-punches. What better way to ultimately dispose of these shreds, we all agreed, than to turn them into coffins and bury them?)
During the winter months the pulp took several weeks to dry; however this was not necessarily a bad thing as it is important that the pulp when drying does not warp, and time is the only remedy. On the other hand, this means that production-time per-coffin must be extended considerably; probably the same will happen in summer when it rains. More molds will also have to be made, with the result that more space will be needed if there is to be a real turnover of coffins.
After drying, the sides of the mold are unscrewed, and the coffin is left again to dry and harden. If there are any alterations to be made to either the size, texture or strength of the paper coffin they are done at this stage.
When completely dry the coffin maybe painted in the desired color, with PVA paint, first by hand and it is then spray-painted. The paper coffin is then fitted with silver coffin handles, nameplate, etc. The strength of the coffin is then tested again. (To prove its ability to carry a dead body, we convinced the very large-sized Director of the Berndard Nordkamp Centre to step inside and be lifted - and thankfully, the coffin held.)
OUR PROGRESS AND PLANS TO DATE:
So far we have fully completed and sold one coffin. It was sold for N$200 (US $23.50), about one third of a low-cost wooden coffin. The supplies cost to make it were N$100, which left N$30 to go to the Centre and N$70 to the worker.
Due to the nature of the work, many clients are not interested in participating in the coffin project. Currently there is only one person along with the supervisor working on the coffins, and so this does slow the process down considerably. Over time, however, this may change - judging by the experience of wooden-coffin projects, which we know to exist in several AIDS-projects in Zimbabwe and Zambia.
Some clients have also expressed discomfort with having the coffins surround them in the workshop, so we would like to move at least part of the project to another place. At the very least, we decided, the storage of drying and completed coffins should go elsewhere. Our plan now is to put up a pre-fabricated Tool Shed for about US$1500 (N$11,000) for this purpose. Although this particular expense was not initially anticipated, we have sufficient leftover money from the original donation to make this possible.
The Tool Shed will be placed along side the back entrance to the kitchen, at the rear of Centre. Then, while we will likely not achieve the original dream of 200 coffins per year (at least not right away), we should be able to produce them on a more regular basis. Ultimately, once we have a routine going and community acceptance is achieved, we expect be able to expand the project further.
Deirdre Kenny and Lucy Y. Steinitz
Catholic AIDS Action - Namibia
THE KIEKEBUSCH-STEINITZ FAMILY
(Lucy, Bernd, Elsita, & Sergio)
PO Box 86266, Windhoek, NAMIBIA
phone & fax: (++264-61)-250-267