Making Gravestones for the Poor

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By Surihe Gaomas GOBABIS At first glance, it looks like a picturesque cemetery, but come a little closer and you’ll realise that it is not a cemetery, but a place where colourful cement gravestones are crafted. Right in the hub of Skoonheid, a farm area in the Gobabis district, the hobby work of Uncle Hendrik van Wyk, has turned out to be a valuable contribution to poor communities which cannot afford to bury their loved ones with the posh-looking and contemporary gravestones found in urban areas today. Built from steel cross-like structures covered in cement, they look pleasing to the eye. Painted with colourful oil paints and bedecked with soothing words for the bereaved families, Uncle van Wyk’s business that has been in operation since 1990 is dearly appreciated. “I recently bought one when my relative died last year and it was affordable for me and my family,” said one woman looking at the gravestones. Because most of the people who live at Skoonheid are poor, especially the San, cheaper gravestones for loved ones are therefore a welcome initiative. While a bigger gravestone structure costs N$850 and a middle-sized one N$750, a small one for a child comes to N$550. Looking at his pieces of work, Van Wyk said that he gives his clients an option to pay off the items in instalments over a period of six months or even longer, since most of them find it hard to accumulate cash at one given time. “People come from as far as Gobabis to order these stones and it’s easy to carry because it can be dismantled into three blocks to make it easier to load onto the bakkie,” he said, adding that for now, the business of crafting them has somehow stopped due to the heavy rains in the Omaheke region. Most of the gravestones standing at his plot were orders placed by families who had promised to pay off their dues. Holding on to one for a late taxi-driver Willie Nau-Gawaseb, the crafter of the business said that making these structures could be cumbersome. “One stone can take up to a month to complete, so it takes a lot of time. First you have to make the cement blocks, write on it when it is still wet, then wait for it to dry before painting them,” said the elderly man, looking proud of his hard work over the past 15 years. It’s now six o’clock in the evening and the soft drizzling rain has somehow transformed into bigger raindrops, prompting the gravestone crafter to scamper for shelter to his nearby farmhouse. Besides his hobby turning into a viable business over the years, Uncle van Wyk is also a fully-fledged farmer herding cattle, goats and horses on the rather small two-hectare plot. Although the three-week long good rains in the region is good news for most of the crop farmers, for those breeding livestock, it can be a headache. “When it rains too much the horses become sick because the poisonous plants that grow during this time of year are eaten by the animals causing them to become very sick and even die,” said Van Wyk. What’s makes matters worse is that goats kept in small kraals also pick up diseases resulting in further losses. However, while the news about the small stock may not be that favourable, Uncle Van Wyk can still depend on his business – crafting the much-needed gravestones at the farm in order to make a living. He says with a smile: “The gravestone business is looking bright.”

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