brought back many memories when I mentioned to Gene that I was
sending this to you. Sometimes it seems like yesterday that
arrived in Swaziland—and at other times it seems like somebody
else’s story that we half-listened to at some boozy party.
was busy getting in and out of scrapes with the flora and fauna of
Swaziland, my husband was hard at work at the National Joinery in
Mbabane, the capital city. After many difficulties getting
machinery, materials, and manpower, Gene had got something going
which might be recognised as a woodworking shop-- "as long as
you don 't look too closely", he said. He had the
responsibility for everything, from refurbishing the physical plant
to begging money for machinery from aid organizations, to installing
and maintaining the machines, to getting a supply of wood for
training projects. Eventually everything was shipshape, and Gene
brought in the first six apprentices.
had only had a few weeks’ training when the Clerk of Works
stopped by one day just before closing time. "We've got a
problem,” he told Gene. “One of the labourers has died
and the family has no money for a coffin. You and your men will have
to build one."
never made a coffin, but he had several uncles in the funeral
business. He’d seen a number of coffins over the years, and
decided there couldn't be that much to it, not if he stuck to a
simple early American design, the classic “shouldered”
coffin. He assembled the apprentices at the drawing board and made a
sketch, with dimensions, to show them what to do.
do you know what this is?" he asked.
stepped closer, did a double take, and quickly stepped back.
"Th-th-that's lipokisi, Sir," he stammered, eyes
rolling like a character in a 1940’s politically incorrect
thought this was a put-on, but soon learned that, to a man, all six
apprentices wanted nothing to do with death and coffins. He asked
Zwanee how he thought lipokisi, ‘the box’, should
be built, but Zwanee said he didn't want to think about it at all. He
immediately launched into a heart-rending story of a sick mother
who needed him to come home early. Even with the offer of paid
overtime, none of the six wanted to stay to help build the coffin.
finally pulled rank and said "You will all stay.
part of your training as woodworkers. What are you going to do if
you are back in your village, in your own workshop, and someone comes
wanting a coffin?"
muttered something that might have been "Tell them to go away",
but wouldn't repeat it when pressed.
little joy in the joinery that night but they all stayed. All six of
the men kept as far from the assembly site as possible, ostensibly
searching for tools and timber and paint. It was 5:15 in winter, the
sun was going down, and the electricity had been shut off at the main
switch. The darker the joinery got, the faster everyone worked.
a quick cheap coffin was constructed of pine and masonite.
One of the
friends of the deceased came by to see how things were going and
said, "I do not think he will fit. He is very long, and this
box, it is not very long."
the apprentices were a bit upset at this news. Gene handed David a
tape and said "Go measure the body."
wanted to do this like he wanted to meet Dracula. It was only when
the friend of the newly dead man offered to come along that he agreed
to do the job. He returned quickly with the news that the departed
had been five feet eleven inches tall--which meant the coffin was two
or three inches too short.
we will have to fix this coffin, as there isn't time to make
another." Gene said, briefly considering the alternative
solution and discarding it. "Maduna, rip the end off and we'll
add in a section."
Maduna nor anyone else wanted to touch the tape that had touched the
body, and Gene had to get a new one out of the storeroom before work
could proceed. He decided it would be a waste of time to try to
convince the six men that death was not contagious.
power off, all the work had to be done by hand. Gene found some
fancy skirting board material and with the aid of a mitre box,
fashioned it into a coffin extender. Some quarter-round molding
tacked to the edge of the lid gave the coffin a less severe look and
helped keep the extra bit of lid in place. The bottom was
repositioned, and the entire box sprayed with quick-drying black
paint. (Fortunately the air compressor ran on petrol and could still
be used.) By the light of a Coleman lantern, some brass drawer
handles were found and screwed onto the sides of the coffin.
was delivered in the Public Works Department truck in time for that
evening's wake. The bereaved family thought the coffin was the
flashest thing they'd ever seen, and were loud in their praises of
Gene and his men.
realization hit home that they were local heroes for building
lipokisi, the apprentices felt like pretty big men.
day they were strutting about the PWD yard announcing to anyone who
would listen that "We were the ones who built 'The Box'. “
To hear them tell it you'd have thought it was their idea in the
he was tempted to tell them that because they'd done such a good job,
in future all employees' coffins would be built by the joinery
only thing that held me back was the thought of twelve feet dancing
up and down my spine in the rush for the door," he said.
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