“In this world, nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes.” Benjamin Franklin
Sometime in 1996, I took a road trip to Kampala driving northwest through Eldoret and crossing into the beautiful, lush countryside of Uganda via the Malaba border town. It was a relatively uneventful trip except the shock of driving past a small town that looked deserted save for a large cemetery to the side of the highway with several stark white crosses marking the graves of the former town occupants. I didn’t put much thought into it until several days after reaching Kampala and a discussion came up on the dinner table with our Ugandan hosts about the vagaries of AIDS on the population. One of the Ugandans then reminded us about that town, saying that the its population had been decimated by the disease and it remained a stark reminder to Ugandans about the clear and present danger of HIV. Now this was almost twenty years ago, when the social stigma associated with HIV and driven by ignorance and fear was at its highest and, in retrospect, was the likely cause for any surviving residents to move out and desert the town.
I haven’t driven to Kampala since then and I am curious to know what has changed over the last two decades, but I do know that I always remember that scene whenever I am on the Nyeri highway. If one looks at the smallholder farms that straddle both sides of the road past Makuyu and all the way to Karatina, there are always one or two gravestones set aside in the compounds marking the final resting place of loved relatives. In many cases, banana trees or maize surround the gravesides and I often wonder what will happen to the productive capacity of the land, once more people are buried on the small farms thereby shrinking the land available for food production. By the way, if you are the queasy type, I strongly suggest you stop reading this right now and turn the page forthwith.
But that is not even the looming danger. The proximity of these farms to the main highway means that in the event that the road is expanded into a dual carriageway, the movement of those graves is inevitable. Furthermore, since focus is now turning to counties as the engine of economic growth, a lot of the farming activity happening adjacent to large traffic arteries will face pressure for conversion into commercial use as rental housing and shopping centres. I have come to realize that the African native does not like to address the unpleasant issue of burial grounds. The same African native also does not want to think three generations ahead of him, which generations will have a weak, lukewarm or virtually non-existent affinity to his memory. Our loved ones bury us. They talk about us to their own loved ones with much affection tinged with happy memories of eventful interactions. If we are lucky, we might even have our own interactions with the loved ones of our loved ones or, simply put, our grandchildren. However, it is through the grace of the most high that we will live long enough to see our great grand children and by that time they will quite likely be relieved at our departure from our earthly domain. Assuming that we do not get to see our great grandchildren, whatever burial spot our remains will be will have no bearing on those who are living. If the ubiquitous “private developer” comes calling, our great grand children will sell. However, if they are clean of heart and clear of conscience, they may not sell but will curse us to eternal damnation for depriving them of the opportunity to unlock the value on a piece of productive land. Then their children will sell.
Quite simply, our burial traditions will inevitably clash with the growing size of the population and the inevitable expansion of urban centres. We need to address the sensitive and awkward issue of land use in Kenya. But we won’t. Why? Because the native African neither plans for his death nor plans for any generations past the ones he can see immediately in front of him. The patriarchs of three families I know got together and bought a piece of land for their burial and those of their wives. To ensure posterity, they gave that property to a church, which has built a place of worship for the public thereon. I would like to assume that the burial ground, which has now become a holy place, will eventually be populated by church ministers and remain well tended for tens if not hundreds of years – assuming that the Christian faith as we know it survives the foibles of time. That should be the logical thought process for those of us natives who do not want to be buried in a public cemetery but want to be in a place that has linkages to a place we call home.
Kenyans are very good at coming together to do things. The harambee spirit is as encoded in our collective DNA as is electing bad politicians in every election cycle. Contributing an acre as a village, as a clan or as a family or buying land as a group of friends to bury members and their spouses is one way to start changing the mindset and releasing future generations from the burdens of having to knock over our graves as they sell to private developer Singh. Either that, or we begin to have the very uncomfortable conversation about the quite obvious economic merits of cremation.