Accessibility links

Breaking News

Zimbabwean Banker Cashes in With Tombstone Art

FILE - Tafadzwa Machokoto whose business Nyumba Yanga makes polished black granite tombstones sold with novel portrait art work poses for a photograph at his workstation in Rugare township Harare, Zimbabwe April 21, 2023.

HARARE — Pick a portrait of yourself, have the picture hand-carved on a gravestone of your own design — and pay for the monument before you die. That is how former Zimbabwean banker Tafadzwa Machokoto found an unusual formula for making a hugely successful business.

Four years ago, the 35-year-old holder of a computer science degree quit a job with a leading bank, joining the army of Zimbabweans trekking to neighboring South Africa in search of a better life.

A year later, after a not-so-rosy stint, he returned to live in Rugare, a rundown district of the capital Harare where the big business is making tombstones.

Competition in the funeral sector is ferocious, and Machokoto — pardon the pun — quickly learned that he had to think outside the box.

His idea: have artisans delicately chisel portraits of the dead on tombstones.

"We need to remember our loved ones not only by their name but also by their face," said Machokoto, flanked by a mason carving a portrait into black granite at a roadside yard.

He and business partner Brian Haruperi offer people options for designing their own tombstone, choosing a portrait they want, crafting the epitaph and paying for the service before they pass on.

Engraved portraits of the dead are a common sight in graveyards in Europe and elsewhere, though they are usually etched by laser.

For a similar idea to work in Zimbabwe, the pair had to pitch hand-crafted labor and overcome entrenched traditions and taboos.

Funeral styles in this southern African nation are often conservative, and it is typically the responsibility of the bereaved — not the deceased — to choose the monument.

But, Machokoto said, many people are swayed by the portrait — and the idea of saving their loved-ones part of the funeral costs ahead of time.

Clients make a down payment of 50%, and pay 10% of the balance every subsequent month.

"A lot of people are in awe when they see" the portrait, Machokoto said.

FILE - Tafadzwa Machokoto poses for a photograph at his workstation in Rugare township Harare, Zimbabwe April 21, 2023.
FILE - Tafadzwa Machokoto poses for a photograph at his workstation in Rugare township Harare, Zimbabwe April 21, 2023.

The business employs 12 full-time stoneworkers and several part timers, and attracts clients from across southern Africa and as far afield as Britain.

The artists they use are school dropouts — in a township ravaged by unemployment and drugs — that are trained to carve and inscribe.

"I didn't learn art formally," said 19-year-old Denzel Karombe as he chiseled out a portrait from a black-and-white photograph.

Thriving business

Machokoto's business is called Nyumba Yanga — "My House" in the Malawian Chewa language, a nod to the Malawian railway workers who initially began the township.

It sells 20 to 30 tombstones a month at an average price of $350 — a fortune in a country where the average monthly salary is around $230.

The most expensive tombstone he and Haruperi have sold is a $5,000 "custom-made, dome-shaped, 3-meter (10-foot)-long structure" ordered by a Zimbabwean diplomat for his late mother.

One client is Jessica Magilazi, a 43-year-old Zimbabwean based in South Africa where she is a domestic worker. She lost her mother when she was still an infant.

Her family had no picture of the mother except for the photo she had used in her passport.

They settled for that for the tombstone.

"When I look at the portrait it's like I am seeing my mother in real life," said Magilazi, who had travelled from Gqeberha (formerly Port Elizabeth) for the unveiling of the tombstone at her mother's grave in Highfield township.

"Those who will come after us will have an idea of how she looked," she said.