The surge of AIDS-related deaths in Malawi, a country in the epicenter of the African AIDS epidemic, has contributed to a thriving coffin business. "Normally, we make 20 coffins per day ... but when my father started the business [in 1967] it was only around one or two," said Wilfred Chanache of Chanache Coffin Workshop and Joinery. Government estimates show that about 1 million of Malawi's 11 million people are affected by HIV. Since 1985, around 640,000 people are thought to have died from the disease. According to the most recent UN estimates, 15 percent of Malawians ages 15-49 were infected with HIV by the end of 2001.
The pandemic's toll is so great that the Chanache family had to build its own morgue -- which can hold up to 52 bodies at one time -- because the government morgue was unable to respond to the increase in AIDS-related deaths. Chanache morgue embalmer Davis Kotokwa said that most of the AIDS dead were ages 15-35. Most of the hardwood for their coffins comes from Mozambique, said Chanache. As a result, the Malawi AIDS pandemic might be contributing to deforestation in Mozambique.
In the commercial capital of Blantyre, signs advertising for coffins are ubiquitous. "We build about three a week," said Vincent Chauluka, who just got into the coffin business last year. "People are dying in large numbers because of HIV/AIDS. There has been a boom in this industry," Chauluka said.
In early May, the government launched a $196 million program to distribute free antiretroviral drugs at 50 sites throughout Malawi. Hospitals run by the Malawi army and police -- both sectors seriously affected by the epidemic -- are among the program sites.