LILONGWE, Malawi -- Choice, often elusive in life here, is all too abundant in death.
A person who dies in this sleepy southern African capital can go off to his rest in a handmade casket from the SAP Coffin Workshop ("Makers of the Last Home"), the Wodala Casket and Coffin Shop ("Now open 24 hrs"), the Tayamba company, the Kalimba company or any of a dozen other purveyors.
One after another, they line a dusty quarter-mile stretch of road like a funeral train for Malawians dying of the toxic brew of poverty and infectious disease, especially AIDS.
The street sign reads Lubani Road, but people here know it better as Coffin Road.
Where carpenters once mostly turned out chairs, sofas and things for the living, they now focus on the dead. As in all of southern Africa, death is a growth sector here: In the early 1970s, life expectancy at birth stood at 41. It has since fallen below 38, United Nations figures show, and the major cause is HIV/AIDS.
Estimates put the infection rate for HIV at 14.4 percent nationwide but 23 percent in urban areas -- accounting for the deaths of 80,000 Malawians a year.
Charity and business
"I feel sorry on the deaths," said Julio Dafter, 23, proprietor of the bustling Mac Coffin Workshop, a mud-brick hut with a tin roof and a pleasing pine smell. "Sometimes, if someone doesn't have any money, I will give them a box" free of charge.
"Of course," he said, his face glistening with sweat, "it's a business."
People in Malawi have never lived long lives. A farming country of 12 million wedged between Tanzania, Mozambique and Zambia, it is one of the poorest places in the world. Food scarcity is routine, and good health care is rare.
Now, Malawi has an estimated 1 million adults and children infected with HIV, the World Bank says, about the same number as all of the United States.
The infection rate has stabilized, the United Nations reports, and the government is devoting more resources to monitoring and treatment, but the dying will continue.
So Coffin Road is assured of prospering.
Two doors down from Mac Coffins, Julius Chinangwa has seen Chinangwa Coffin grow from one employee to seven. AIDS is the main reason, though the stigma of the disease keeps family members of the dead from ever uttering the word while buying coffins.
Even so, he said, "we know this is a major problem."
The reason for the stigma follows a brutal logic. If someone is sick with tuberculosis or malaria, Chinangwa says, it is assumed to be bad luck. Not so with AIDS, which he says is taken to be a sign of sexual misbehavior.
"People ask, is it a lack of self-control?" he said. "Maybe it means this one is unfaithful."
The coffin sellers do not ask. They do not need to know. They just keep on making coffins.
It is a job still done here by hand, not modern machines. First, workers cut pine planks with handsaws. Then they plane away the roughness, leaving the ground coated in curled pine slivers.
Finally, they hammer the pieces into the telltale shape.
For high-end models, there are gold-colored handles as well as a layer of sparkly Formica glued to the wood. The asking price for the top-of-the-line model exceeds $1,000, a fortune in a country where most people earn under $2 a day. The market for the luxury models is largely deceased public servants; the government subsidizes the price of their coffins.
Simple pine boxes are advertised at $50 or less. They are meant for the poor who still have the means to buy a readymade coffin. Cheapest of all are the coffins built to hold a child.
Price is always negotiable, as Malawi's health minister, Dr. Hetherwick Ntaba, discovered one recent morning. Ntaba drove his government-issued SUV to Coffin Road because his cousin had died the night before from a burst blood vessel.
A casket first listed for $1,500 was offered to the minister for $900. One listed at $100 was suddenly marked down to $50. Ntaba browsed at Mac Coffin and Chinangwa ("China," for short) and kept looking. It is a seller's market, but a buyer's market, too.
Ntaba paused in his personal mission to reflect on the country's experience with AIDS. On the bright side, he said, the infection rate has stopped rising, and more people with AIDS might soon receive drug treatments that could prolong their lives.
"But," Ntaba sighed, "we're losing a lot of people."
Hoping for a truck
The more business-minded operators are considering new marketing tools. Chinangwa, who says he is 23 but looks a decade older, wants to buy a truck to deliver coffins; customers now must arrange their own transport. Actually, Chinangwa wants a foreign aid agency to buy him the truck.
Up the hill, past the shops still selling sofas and cabinets, the Mchesi Coffin Shop and Welding Shop is one of two Coffin Road stores that now advertise 24-hour service.
Annette Sambakunsi, an employee at Mchesi, said the innovation has helped compensate for Mchesi's poor location. Most of the other coffin shops stand near the bottom of the hill, meaning anyone coming straight from the nearby hospital mortuary would see those first.
The gimmick has generated a little extra business.
"People who call me in the middle of the night just want to take the body and off they go," she said. "They don't want to wait for the sun to come up."