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Grave matters: A city with almost no burial plots left

By Josphat Thiong’o | March 1st 2021
A section of Lang'ata Cemetery in Nairobi. [David Njaaga, Standard]

Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city, is facing a grave problem. It has run out of space for both the living and the dead.

Previous attempts by senior politicians and government officers to address the problem have killed careers and dispatched some to an early grave. 

This problem is not unique to Nairobi. Well aware that the journey to dignifying the dead can prove quite costly but necessary, countries globally are grappling with the complexities of disposing bodies as pressure on burial space intensifies.

In Hong Kong, it has become more expensive to house the dead than the living. According to The Guardian, the cost of burying a loved one is 3 million Hong Kong Dollars (Sh42.4 million) with vacancies in the already crowded cemeteries rarely becoming available.

Nairobi County is reeling from a similar predicament where the dead keep piling and the graves keep “shrinking”. Whereas Nairobi’s situation isn’t as dire, improper planning and unabated land grabbing could worsen the situation in the next few years.

Lang’ata cemetery, which covers a total of 100 acres, was declared full more than 20 years ago. 

The latest effort is by the Nairobi Metropolitan Services (NMS), which has now set aside Sh150 million in the current financial year for the purchase of land in Mugumoini ward, Lang’ata Sub-county, to act as the county’s official burial ground.

NMS Director General Mohammed Badi, while responding to queries raised by the National Assembly’s Health Committee in November last year, said the undertaking would also lead to the purchase, installation and commissioning of a crematorium at Lang’ata Cemetery.

“A request to the Land directorate to begin the process of acquiring the land and a discussion with the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) has been initiated. A base budget of Sh150 million has been budgeted for this financial year for the acquisition of the land,” said Badi.

Talks with the KFS have also been initiated. But the long and strenuous search for cemetery land did not begin with the Major General Badi-led institution. It was mooted in 2009 by the now-defunct Nairobi City Council under the leadership of then Clerk John Gakuo.

In one of the most memorable and highly publicised moves, the Gakuo-led administration, with aid from the former Local Government permanent secretary Sammy Kirui, paid Sh283 million for 48.5 acres in Mavoko, Machakos County, to act as Nairobi’s official alternative burial grounds.

This, however, led to the heamorrhaging of millions of shillings by City Hall, given the land had been valued at Sh24 million. The land was also found unsuitable as a burial site as it was too rocky, thus throwing City Hall back to the drawing board.

Fast forward to 2018, Kirui and Gakuo were jailed for three years after the courts found them guilty of abuse of office and breach of procurement laws.

In his judgement, Chief Magistrate Douglas Ogot directed the two to pay an additional fine of Sh1 million each for their ‘dubious’ roles in the purchase of the rocky land in Mavoko.

He ruled that they were persons of authority and ought to have stopped the illegal payment of Sh283.2 million to Naen Rech Ltd, but they didn’t.

Kirui was, however, later acquitted after Justice John Onyiego found and held that the PS played no vital role in the procurement process.

Gakuo passed away while serving his prison sentence, although he had filed an appeal which was yet to be determined when he died.

Then came the former Governor Evans Kidero-led administration whose efforts to find an alternate home for the dead bore no fruits.

In the 2016/17 financial year, City Hall was dealt another blow in their quest for the acquisition of 50 acres of forest land under the Kenya Forest Service to act as new cemetery land after the Forests authority rejected a request to swap the filled-up Lang’ata cemetery with the forest land.

Deputy Chief Conservator of Forests Charity Munyasya at the time revealed that the land that was being eyed by the city government was actually 67 acres and not 50 as they had indicated. She said according to the Kenya Forest Act, in order for forest land to be converted to a cemetery or change user, the process had to be approved by Parliament, which had not happened.

“For anyone to convert forest land for any other purpose, it has to go through Parliament and the other relevant stakeholders involved,” she said.

She added that they would reject the plan to swap land because it was not practical to plant trees in the cemetery, and it went against “our cultures and beliefs”.

In the same year, the county had also expressed interest in acquiring a 120-acre burial land in Kitengela, Kajiado County. It set aside a staggering Sh221 million. This, however, turned out to be too costly a venture and the plan was aborted mid-way.

The journey to acquire the elusive alternative burial grounds did not end there as City Hall, in the 2018/2019 financial year, set aside Sh200 million for the purchase of another 200 acres to serve as a public cemetery, but this was never actualised.

The plan was captured in the county’s fiscal strategy paper for 2018, which brought to the fore the fact that families continue to bury their loved ones in shallow graves as Lang’ata cemetery was filled up, thus failing to meet the recommended six feet depth.

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