Dar: A city with ancient graveyards, yet still in use

21Feb 2016
Bilham Kimati
Guardian On Sunday
Dar: A city with ancient graveyards, yet still in use

SHORTAGE of land to bury the dead in the city of Dar es Salaam is real.


Ironically, although death is a universal fact of life, yet little attention is given to it by the city fathers in the way of allocating new burial sites on one hand, and strict protection of old cemeteries to prevent encroachment, on the other.

In many parts of the city, for example, construction of residential houses and other structures on or very close to cemetery land is common. In some areas people encroach with abandon on parcels of land reserved for the dead while city authorities turn a blind eye. Cemeteries in Dar es Salaam are no longer ‘sacred’ places, with tales doing the rounds that twilight women often turn them into temporary lodges in serving their customers.

With no new graveyards being made available for use to match the city’s population increase, dead bodies often have to be interred on top of other bodies already laid to rest some few months or years before.

While this harrowing but necessary malpractice may be done with relative ease by undertakers in cemeteries where the dead are not buried in caskets, it is very tricky in Christian graveyards because caskets take long years to rot.

Some of the famous burial sites in Dar es Salaam are Kinondoni Cemetery, Mwananyamala kwa Kopa, Mburahati, Magomeni, Kisutu, Upanga, Sinza kwa Remi, Hananasif and Chang’ombe Wailesi. But with affluence spreading across the social strata, some graveyards have assumed special social status, with Kinondoni Cemetery and Kisutu being the places of choice to rest ‘respected’ or ‘honorable’ departed Dar es Salaamites.

A Guardian on Sunday survey has revealed that all these burial sites are basically full despite the fact that they are very much in use. This is possible partly to safeguard the interests of those engaged in the burial industry, such as grave diggers, for example. Some of the interviewed grave diggers were adamant that there was always enough space at the graveyards!

Africans pay very special respect to their dead, and so, according to their traditions, the dead have their rights, including a decent burial. Human dignity does not end after death. But not so to the daring young men who make brisk business in digging graves. They confessed that digging up human remains to create space for a fresh body was “a common occurrence in Dar es Salaam.”

“We always ensure that close relatives do not stay close to the place where we dig the grave. Some of them may become apprehensive and afraid upon sighting human remains. Some even refuse to pay us well. That’s why we always look for sites with old graves. In any case, most bodies will have totally decomposed to create enough space for another,” Simon Yahaya (31), alias Van Dame, explained.

After completion of primary education at Mzimuni in 2000, he wished to become a medical doctor, but his father was involved in a tragic road accident and died. He had no one to cover for his education. Life was tough and finally he resorted to grave digging.

“Fancy coffins take a lot of space and a long time to rot. Besides, those relatives who decorate whole graves with tiles take more precious space. Construction of such a tomb may cost between Sh 700,000 and Sh2 million. What we care about is money. We are not bothered about individual requirements or feelings,” Van Dame added.

The person in charge of clearing and security of cemeteries in Kinondoni district, Hamza Kauzeni (68) said Kinondoni Cemetery was established in 1938 when the population of Dar es Salaam was hardly more than 100,000 people.

He said affluent families will not agree to bury their departed dear ones any where else except at that cemetery.

“Well-off families want their loved ones buried here. They don’t want to hear anything about lack of space. As a result some arrangements are made to accommodate their requests. The boys (grave diggers) will always find some space.

“As you can see here, even the narrow pathways between graves are covered and mourners have to sit on tombs during burial of their relative,” Kauzeni explained.

Asked about the possibility of introducing cremation of bodies in Dar es Salaam to address the challenge of space, he appeared shocked and quickly responded:

“Stop it. The idea is an abomination. The practice will bring bad luck to the land. Asians who burn their dead know how to please their gods. Our society has accommodated a lot of foreign cultures but not setting fire to our loved ones,” he said, visibly shaken by the proposal.

Town planners in Dar es Salaam admit the shortage of land to bury the dead, insisting that the challenge was compounded by an array of factors.

The professionals are quite aware of the disparity between the rising urbanization and fast-growing population, which put a big strain on land use planning.

John Mbembela, a senior town planner in Ilala Municipal Council, rolled out well detailed maps from his cabinet shelves indicating that for every planned area, sites for cemeteries had been catered for.

One of the maps for Pugu Mwakanga, on the outskirts of the city, dates back to 2004. Streets are well planned and land use planning is perfect. But the reality on the ground is quite different. Unsystematic construction of residential houses characterizes the neighbourhood and the area earmarked as a graveyard is now inhabited. Why is this so?

“According to the law, the entire land is under the custody of the president of the United Republic of Tanzania. However, land is still in the hands of individual people and its ownership arrangement is recognized by customary law,” Mbembela explained.

“Town planners prepare maps showing clearly where all the basic facilities for the community should be. But these people need to be compensated. It is not easy to tell the owner of a parcel of land to wait for an unspecified period of time for compensation for land allocated, for instance, for a cemetery,” he said, adding:

“As a result arbitrary house construction continues unabated. Timely allocation of funds by the government is absolutely necessary for sensible implementation of urban planning projects,” Mbembela pleaded.

He said long-terms plans included using cemeteries established in rural areas. Burial sites established under this arrangement include Tegeta and Mtoni Kijichi.

“However, people refrain from utilizing them, citing long distances from their areas of residence. However, there are those who opt to transport the deceased to their home villages up-country,” he said.

Prof Denice Magori of Open University of Tanzania (OUT) suggested that the establishment of satellite cities should be given priority to lessen congestion in Dar es Salam. He referred to the Nigerian capital of Abuja that came up to diversify activities in Lagos.

“Long-term planning and financial backing should be in place for proper implementation. It is easy to blame town planners or land officers for not doing enough without examining the challenge comprehensively,” he observed.

Clarifying on strict adherence to town (city) planning, Prof Magori gave the example of New York City in the US, where Rural Cemetery Movement started in 1838, with Greenwood cemetery in Brooklyn and where the State Rural Cemeteries Act was passed in 1847, putting an end to the establishment of new cemeteries in Manhattan after 1850. Cemetery owners were thereafter encouraged to build in Brooklyn and Queens.

So, Dar es Salaam residents will have to be patient before the city fathers get the sense to put money in the establishment of new resting places for the dead.