Nairobi’s Langata cemetery has been full for several years, but bodies continue to arrive every day for burial. Sometimes it is not even possible to bury them the requisite six feet under, but families - especially the poor - have limited options.
In 2010, scandal unfolded in Nairobi as residents learned that the city council is alleged to have paid about $3.6 million for roughly 48.56 hectares of land to use as an alternate cemetery location. Located on the outskirts of the city, the land was worth about 10 percent of this amount and did not have a title deed.
Senior government officers, including the mayor, were implicated in overvaluing the land and several officials were suspended from their positions. The land at the center of this controversy was deemed too rocky to be suitable for a cemetery, but no alternate location was procured, so residents continue to bury their loved ones in the already full Langata cemetery.
Michael Mutugi is a supervisor at Langata, where he instructs the bereaved where they can bury their loved ones and helps to dig the graves. He has been working here for 30 years. He claims the cemetery has been full since 2008.
He said anytime people come to the cemetery with new bodies they want to bury, "[T]hey go around, they look where there is space, they just dig and bury, they are given that space." That is how they are surviving right now, Mutugi said.
Many Nairobians would prefer to bury their loved ones in their home villages up-country, but the high costs of transport and other funeral expenses are simply out-of-reach.
Langata cemetery is divided between a “permanent” and “temporary” section. Plots in the permanent section range from about $147 for a baby to $300 for an adult and can be “cemented in” to thwart grave robbers. But this amount is also too high for many people to afford.
So a large number of Nairobi’s poor choose to bury their family members in a temporary grave, which can cost up to $82. Graves here are flattened every five years, maybe less, to make room for more bodies. No records are kept in the temporary section and families are not allowed to visit after the burial.
It is what Mutugi called the “bury and go” option that so many Nairobi residents are forced to choose, because of economic constraints.
And, because most people know the cemetery is full, Mutugi said relatives often get upset when they think their loved one is being buried on top of someone else.
He said a major challenge is "[S]ometimes there is space that is so stony, sometimes we dig and it has stones, and people who have come to bury their loved ones, they refuse that space because they feel like it is another grave." He said it can be a problem and he does not have an alternative.
Brian Kirui said this situation occurred when he accompanied his friend to Langata to bury his seven year-old daughter in 2009.
“We went there and they had paid, organized for someone to dig the grave but when we went there to assess, before we brought the body, we discovered the grave was too shallow," said Kirui. "It was too shallow, so we said, ‘Hey, the grave is not supposed to be like this, it should go deeper.’ And those guys said, ‘now, the things we found here, we can not go farther.’ So at the end of the day, maybe they found a body or anything. But now that’s something, the few people who have gone there, you just keep it secret because now you do not want to add stress to the family again like this.”
Kirui said that most people just deal with the circumstances of Langata cemetery, because of a lack of viable alternatives. "But now we do not have a choice," he said. "You will complain to who? So, you just go there, do whatever has taken you there and that is it.”
Tens of thousands of bodies have been buried in Langata cemetery since it first opened in 1958.
As Nairobi’s population continues to increase from an estimated three million people today, it will only put more strain on the already-bulging cemetery.