Features

Working with the dead

BANDA, 54, has been working as a mortuary attendant for eight years.

KELVIN MBEWE, Lusaka
AT THE entrance of the University Teaching Hospital (UTH) mortuary scores of relatives gather to collect bodies of their loved ones for burial. Coffins and hearses are lined up, ready to carry the morbid cargo away.The atmosphere is depressing. Nothing is more sobering than death, nothing has more finality for mortal man.
Inside the mortuary, the atmosphere is very cold with the smell of death.
There is a long underground hallway from the wards to the mortuary. The passage is about 100 metres with florescent tubes that light up the entire route.
The hallway is only used by medical personnel wheeling the bodies to the mortuary for storage and preparation for burial or cremation.
For the uninitiated, this is a strange place, yet for one man, this is a normal working environment he reports to every day.
Daniel Banda works as a mortuary attendant at the country’s largest and busiest morgue.
The 54-year-old has been working as a mortuary attendant for eight years.
He and 29 others at UTH have given themselves to help those that are afraid of touching dead bodies.
In his career, Mr Banda has prepared thousands of bodies.
On a busy day, he says he handles up to 20 bodies.
“Sometimes when it’s less busy, I can handle two but there is never a time that there is no death. What we do is to wash dead bodies when we are asked to by relatives of the deceased who are afraid of touching dead bodies. People shiver and fail to touch dead bodies,” he said.
He said some people become really scared of handling dead bodies.
“But for us, we have become hard -hearted because this is the life we chose,” he says.
Mr Banda also rebuts some myths and misconceptions surrounding his work.
When asked about the most common one that mortuary attendants have a big hummer which they use to kill people who come back to life, Mr Banda laughs in response.
“None of us has a hammer to kill patients that come back to life,” he says. “When a person dies, they die. If it happens that one wakes up by the grace of God, we call a doctor and explain the situation and it is up to the doctor to ascertain the truth of the matter.”
During his career, Mr Banda has only witnessed one “resurrection”.
“It happened when I was working from the Brought In Dead (BID) section which is at the police here at UTH. A man that was brought in dead suddenly woke up while we were waiting for the doctor to certify his death,” he said.
The man was admitted to the ward where he stayed for two weeks and then died again.
Another myth that surrounds the job of a mortuary attendant is that no one can work with the dead without using charms.
But Mr Banda says he does not believe in charms as he is a Christian.
“Most people in my neighbourhood and other places call me a wizard and do not want to associate with me but I don’t worry about such comments because I’m a believer who worships at Reformed Church of Zambia,” he says.
There is a hint of pride as Mr Banda explains his work.
“We have two places where we store dead bodies. We have the A storage where we store patients that die from the hospital and the B storage where we store bodies that are brought in dead,” he says.
After a hard day’s work, Mr Banda goes straight home to his two wives and children and has no hang-ups.
“I don’t smoke or drink, God is always with me,” he says.
Mr Banda says he decided to work as a mortuary attendant because of the problems that he was going through at that time.
Before he became a mortuary attendant, Mr Banda worked for a borehole drilling company, but the company folded up and he had nowhere to get money to feed his family after he was laid off.
His only fear is that he is exposed to many diseases, and many times he has to deal with frustrated and angry relatives who sometimes make unnecessary demands.
Back at the entrance, the crowds are still surging. Another body, draped like a mummy, is wheeled in from the wards.
A police pick-up rushes towards the mortuary, lights flashing, horn beeping. In the back lies the body of a woman. Her body is the first BID today.
A morbid curiosity draws a crowd towards the pick-up.
For Mr Banda, the arrival of the police vehicle is a call to duty. After entering the victim’s details in his book, he will wheel the body to the large cold room for storage until relatives come to claim.

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