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We rarely do six feet at Langata cemetery, grave digger admits

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Originally Published: November 24, 2013

“Are you afraid of death,” Mr Kennedy Mwangi asks.

The combination of an unlit cigarette and a restless tongue transform his slightly parted lips into a subdued playground, as the stick of tobacco moves from left to right, the macabre nature of his question lost in these subtle motions.

Every day, for the past seven years, he has been reporting to work like many other hardworking Kenyans.

In a world glorified with computer applications, smartphones and a plethora of gizmos, his tools of trade remain rudimentary, but highly efficient in his line of work.

A rusty pickaxe covered with soil and blunted from the occasional collision between rock and metal remains his preferred choice. Its wooden handle is smooth from overuse. The metallic head wobbles a bit. It is rough, almost like unprocessed ore.

“Without these I am nothing,” he says, as he folds the hems of his navy blue trouser. His white shirt rests on a low branch of a nearby tree. He takes off his Safari Boots. The stitching along the sole of the left shoe reveals it has made several visits to the cobbler.

He places the shoes to one side, wears a pair of tattered beige running shoes that look like they were once white.

Disappearing

Next to him is a jembe delicately balanced on a wooden cross just a foot off the ground. Under it is an unmarked grave identifiable by a coarse cement slab, the current occupier known only to his close relatives. The only thing discernible from the cross is the number ‘9’, nothing else.

Another slab lies roughly three feet from the first one. This one has no cross, but is slowly disappearing under a thick carpet of grass, weeds and soil.

Mwangi stands between the two slabs legs apart, leans to his right and takes the pickaxe. He then lifts it above his head with both hands but pauses before striking the ground.

A ledger at the cemetery shows the facility was first opened in 1958. Robert Lockead was the first to be buried there. His cause of death remains unknown, but he died at the age of 74.

Tens of thousands have followed him there, but not all of them are recorded. However, an incoherent record book is not the only problem at Langata Cemetery. As if on autopilot, Mwangi gently places the axe on his left shoulder, takes the cigarette from his lips and puts it behind his right ear, holds the pickaxe once again with both hands and brings it down tenderly but forcefully.

Less than three inches of the pickaxe penetrate the sun-drenched ground.

“Kuna mtu anapumzika hapa, (someone is resting here),” he says. “Tusonge (let’s move).”

Mwangi, with years of experience as a grave digger, is at home with death. Sadly though, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the dead to find a home in Nairobi’s largest cemetery.

In 2012, a representative to a civic post in a Nairobi area died. At the time of burial, a ‘favourable’ spot could not be found for him. “We had to burry him next to the fence. There was no space, it has been full since 1996,” says Alex Ouda, the Langata MCA, who moved a Motion to have the cemetery officially shut down.

The current occupiers of the 150-acre cemetery lie rib by rib. Walkways remain invisible. Footpaths often lead to headstones. No space to even mourn a departed loved one without desecrating another.

Reburials

When you enter the main entrance of the cemetery, the management office lies to your left. The structure, built 65 years ago, sits on arguably the only ‘big’ empty space in the whole cemetery.

It sits on roughly one eighth of an acre. It is here that on most days, those who can afford it, hold their requiem masses under a white tent.

However, the space is limited, and most of the mourners are forced to sit on chairs and pavement on the other side of the dusty road.  Those walking in cut through the sadness and somberness of the mourners with each step they take.

On a hot Tuesday afternoon, Milcah Atieno sits on one of the few remaining concrete benches that dot the cemetery. It is smack between old graves. She lost her sister two days prior to the interview with The Standard on Sunday. The family has decided this will be her sister’s final resting place.

“I wish we could bury them together,” she says, her voice steady, almost too steady for someone who has lost a sister and a niece.

“She was still-born. We chose to let the hospital dispose the baby’s body. We could only afford one plot. We chose her,” she says and just like death, their decision, though final, was guided by unavoidable circumstances.

Her brother-in-law died two years ago. He too rests at Langata.

“He is somewhere here. I will have to get directions from the office to know the exact location. The place has changed since we were here last,” she says.

Where once were paths, now stand graves, some fresh, others not. Some are noticeable from their impeccable grooming, others from the simple bump in the ground like a pimple on uneven skin. By the time we went to press, man and wife occupied different 6 feet by two feet plots on different ends of the same graveyard.

That is what Sh6,000 buys the family. A temporary plot, which is a dignified way of saying one day you might come back to find the grave of your loved one replaced by that of another.

In fact, it is prohibited to revisit a temporary grave. A more permanent abode will set you back Sh60,000.

Ouda says since its opening decades ago, the cemetery is now going through a third round of reburials.

“First, the graves were 10 feet deep. After all the land was used, people were buried in 6 feet deep graves. We are now digging graves that are 3 feet deep and we have exhausted all the available space,” he says.

Congestion

The depth of the grave is no longer standard. “Sometimes we go three feet deep, other times two feet. Very rarely do we do six feet,” Mwangi says after finding another “empty” plot. He has been commissioned by a family to find a spot for them.

He says business isn’t bad.

“We can burry as many as 25 people in a day. Sometimes more,” he says. “We cannot complain.” The cemetery management officially recognises about 15 grave diggers.

But with each opportunity that presents itself to Mwangi and company, the ground sinks further with the burden of the weight of the dead.

Personally, Achieng’ wouldn’t want to be buried in Langata. She says she doesn’t want a stranger’s body to be placed on top of her remains.

“I may be dead but that would be very awkward,” she says. She and her husband have been fortunate enough to buy a one-and-a half acre piece of land in Nyanza. That is where they will be buried. Her sister’s grave has been dug. The walk towards it is a delicate journey. A hop here, a step there and a jump to get to her destination.

The solitude that Robert Lokead first found at Langata no longer exists. Instead, it has become a place with no peace.

A certain kind of congestion hangs over it, a congestion that transforms the burying of a loved one into an intrusive affair, an affair akin to disturbing the peace of the dead.

As one goes out of the cemetery a party making its way in almost always meets him. Death does not wait for availability of space.

“Death happens,” says Achieng’. “The only good thing is that when you go, you really don’t care whether your grave is six feet deep, or half a foot deep.”

At the end of the day, Mwangi takes his tools to a metal box near the office and locks them in. “Huku hata maua wanaiba (here even flowers are stolen,” he says. “Ukiwacha kitu hapa hupati. Na sio mashetani, ni watu tu.” (If you leave anything you cannot find it. And its not spirits but human beings).

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