“I am ready to meet my maker, but whether my maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter” Winston Churchill 1874-1965
Dying is a serious business. With Nairobi’s current population of about 4 million, our one public cemetery in Langata was officially declared full in 1996. Folks, we are talking about twenty-one odd years ago. If you’ve attended a burial in Langata, you can easily see why. Graves have been created at every single corner, squeezed up against the fence or randomly placed on former pathways. As you make your way towards the burial site, it’s fairly common to find that your walking on top of unmarked, old graves and the crunching of leaves beneath your gingerly placed feet often leaves you pondering whether the soundis coming from old bones that are yielding to your unwelcome trespass.
It doesn’t help when some media reports about the cemetery are published laced with the cultural bias of the writers. Take this quote out of an article about Langata Cemetery in The Star Newspaper on March 6th 2017: “Traditionally, most Kenyans transport their dead back to their village, the so- called ancestral home, to perform ritual and religious burial rights. However, broken families, poverty and expenses have forced Nairobi dwellers to bury their dead in cemeteries.” The graveassumption –pun fully intended- that the writer makes is that it is primarily negative circumstances that force the African native to be buried in the purported ignominy of a public cemetery.
I’m a native myself, and I know the obsession we have with land. I also know the obsession we have with disturbing the spirits of those gone before us. Thus burying ourselves in our ancestral homes means that we tie up that land for the singular and uneconomic use of the family for the foreseeable future. Here’s the challenge: we will not be here in the future to determine if that land will be maintained by our future generations of young whippersnappers who have absolutely no memories of us except what we may have posted on Facebook or Whatsapp that may or may not exist by then. Given the demand for residential and commercial buildingsthat devolution is now creating in urban centres within previous rural counties, our ancestral homes could very well be in the next densely populated Ongata Rongai-equivalent of those urban centres and our great great grandchildren will have no qualms selling the plots to the first private developer that sashays into town with hard cash. Which is why the Business Daily article on December 28th 2017, whose headline “Mailu gives nod to Shs 800m cemetery for rich Kenyans”caught my undying attention (as you can see I’m going to town with these puns). The article described a proposed private cemetery where an individual who, quite frankly speaking, is an organized and methodical person that wants to save his family from debating about how many matatus need to be hired to transport mourners to far flung areas of this beautiful country can buy a plot for about Shs 130,000 and rest in peace for at least 50 years. In the interim, ongoing negotiations by the dearly departed with their Ultimate Creator as to whether they can gain entry into the Kingdom of Glory should render thoughts of what happens to their physical body fairly obsolete. This organized individual is considered by the article as “fabulously rich”.
On September 30th2014, this very newspaper reported that the Nairobi County Assembly was mulling over proposals to increase the cost of a Langata Cemetery burial by up to 50%. Demand and supply folks; those prices are going to continue to rise as long as supply of land remains finite. It goes without saying that more private cemeteries will begin to emerge, as the Kenyan cultural ethic of private solutions to public problems flows into the business of burial grounds. One doesn’t have to be fabulously rich to see that the concept of the “ancestral home” will diminish at a rate converse to the growth of county municipal areas.
Future generations will dilute our native obsession with burials at our rural homes, and become comfortable with public cemetery interments especially if zoning regulations transcend into county urban planning. It is also worth considering promotingcremation as a Nairobi county driven option for the rapidly depleting resource of public burial grounds. Let me stop here, before this piece is burnt to a crisp by the cremation haters!