AS A Covid-19 surge overwhelmed Uganda earlier this year, Livingstone Musaala, who had to quit his teaching job after schools closed, turned to coffin-making to pay the bills and help others.
But few welcomed his initiative at first. Family members criticised him for capitalising on a pandemic-fuelled boom in his densely-populated hometown of Bugobi, 140km east of Kampala.
“Of all the business ideas you start selling coffins as if you wish people death?” Musaala recounted a relative asking him.
But he realised that he could make and sell coffins for a lot less than the high prices charged by other carpenters after demand surged because of Covid-19 deaths.
“It was a tough decision but people now appreciate it,” Musaala said.
Bugobi residents were no longer compelled to travel long distances to find affordable coffins.
“At the height of the pandemic, we did brisk business, we sold between four to 10 coffins daily,” he said, earning between 150 000 to 450 000 shillings (R620 to R1846) a coffin.
His success prompted about 30 teachers to join him, many of whom were left frustrated and penniless by the ongoing school shutdown.
Although coffins have proven to be their biggest seller, the teachers have also taken on other joinery jobs. Some had already been trained in carpentry, but most have simply learned on the job. Today, many say they have no intention to return to school, even if classes resume — something that spells even worse news for Uganda’s rickety education system.
About 15 million students have been out of school since the government sent them home in March last year, and activists fear a surge in teen pregnancies and child labour.
With no income to speak of, some schools have shut down for good, rebranding themselves as hotels or restaurants. Others have defaulted on loans as interest piles up, putting their future in doubt and adding to the uncertainty faced by teachers.
“If I was given an option between teaching and carpentry, I would take the latter because it is ready cash,” Godfrey Mutyaba said.
“I liked teaching but due to poor pay, I won’t go back.”
On average, teachers working at private schools in Bugobi earn from $100 (R1 477) to $250 (R3 692) a month.
Despite strong sales, the newly-minted coffin makers have struggled to raise capital to buy equipment such as electric saws, and are now confronting a new problem as the pandemic begins to ease after death rates soared in June and July.
Nevertheless, even as coffin sales fall, Musaala has no plans to return to his old job and is turning his attention to making furniture instead.
“Covid-19 has taught me there is life beyond teaching.”