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Kenya: Nairobi runs out of space to bury its dead

Langata Cemetery is nearly full, but corruption prevents purchase of new land.

Kenyan mourners
Nairobi's Langata Cemetery is running out of space to bury the capital city's dead. Here a Kenyan mourner cries during a burial for people killed in a tanker fire, on February 9, 2009 in Molo, about 196 km west of the capital Nairobi. (Stringer/AFP/Getty Images)

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.