NAIROBI, Kenya — The ground beneath the tall high grass of Langata Cemetery is corrugated like a field of upside down speed bumps. As the dead decompose they dissolve into just bones and the topsoil sinks gradually down to replace the bodies below.
Here and there are craters in the red soil caused by the hoofs of grazing cattle that crash through the weak earth towards the cavities below.
At the packed cemetery, death is a booming industry but Kenyans have learned that mortuary and burial fees are not the only way officials make money from the dead. An audit report tabled before parliament reveals that bigwigs at City Hall and their accomplices stole money intended to establish a new resting place for Nairobi’s dead.
On a recent Saturday there were 14 burials at Langata before lunch.
Some were flash affairs with scores of SUVs parked close to a tent hired for the occasion, a loudspeaker blaring out distorted eulogies to the dead’s earthly achievements before a large crowd of black-clad mourners.
Others were marked only by a small gathering of the bereaved next to a minibus taxi, hired for the morning, the casket lashed to the roof with ropes. The ceremonies were all were over quickly, making way for the next in line.
There were at least another four fresh seven-foot long holes waiting for their coffins; there was one half that size in the child’s section of the cemetery.
Tens of thousands have been buried in Langata's 117 acres since September 1958 when the first body was interred, Robert Lockhead who died aged 74. His is the first name in a frayed ledger in a library
noting each burial over the last half-century.
But the ledgers don’t hold all the information. The graves spread across the apparently empty fields at Langata are countless, or rather uncounted. The headstone-less graves are in the “temporary” section and no records are kept of who is buried where.
That’s what you get for $60: “These graves are for the poor people,” said a cemetery worker.
To secure one of the dwindling number of available plots in the “permanent” section — where you can have a headstone — the cost is $300, or $500 if you want to book it before your demise.
In May 2005 Nairobi’s City Council approved the purchase of new land for an additional cemetery.
“Langata cemetery was fast getting close to exhaustion and hence the critical need to search for an alternative site,” wrote Anthony Gatumbu, Kenya’s auditor general in a recent report.
The land was to be easy to access and have enough topsoil to make sure a body could go six feet under but instead officials bought 120 acres of grass, rock and black cotton soil along a rough road close to a slaughterhouse on the far outskirts of the city.
The officials agreed to pay $30,000 per acre signing over more than $3.5 million, 10 times the market rate, according to the auditor general’s calculations. A little over a third went to the seller, the rest went missing.
Councillors relied on a forged valuation from a fictional official at a defunct government department to set the inflated price.
“It is clear that due diligence was not exercised by the City Council in considering, accepting and approving the price,” wrote the auditor general.
Investigations are ongoing but a leaked preliminary report from the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission gives a hint of who might be responsible, as does President Mwai Kibaki’s suspension of more than a dozen officials.
Public calls for the resignation of Mayor Godfrey Majiwa — named in the leaked report — have grown ever louder. Earlier this year protestors carried a coffin through the streets and called for the
mayor to be sacked.
This is far from the biggest scandal in Kenya’s corruption-scarred history but it is surely one of the most sordid threatening to leave the people of Nairobi with nowhere to bury their dead.
The fact that Nairobi’s graveyards are oversubscribed points to a number of different dynamics at play in this modern, growing city.
Those early tattered ledgers were dominated by the names of British and other foreigners but over the years increasing numbers of Kenyans have chosen Langata for their final resting place.
“Firstly, there are financial constraints. It is much, much cheaper to be buried here than upcountry,” explained the cemetery worker who did not want to be named because of the ongoing land scandal.
He pointed out that Nairobi’s population of 3 million is rapidly expanding so there is little enough land for the living, let alone the dead.
“Second it is a question of civilization, of changing culture. People are living in Nairobi, Nairobi is home, so it is where they should be buried. If you are from the Luhya tribe and your wife is Kikuyu there will be arguments in the family when you die so why not be buried here, in neutral ground?” he asked.
My guide around Langata Cemetery reckoned that at the current rate of dying the graves here will be full within a year. Already new graves are dug in between old ones.
“From one grave to another is four feet, now that spare space that is left, it must be used,” explained my guide. “What can we do? Have you ever heard of soil refusing something?”