Tanzanian port city grapples with dwindling burial space

Grieving families pay hefty fees for plots in congested cemeteries

Kizito Makoye   | 20.10.2021
Tanzanian port city grapples with dwindling burial space An open tomb at Kinondoni Cemetery in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania's largest city


Rapid population growth in the Tanzanian port city of Dar es Salaam has triggered a scarcity of burial space, forcing grieving families to pay hefty fees to bury their loved ones in cramped cemeteries.

Rapid urbanism coupled with higher population density has contributed to new challenges for humanity in cities across Africa as land uses in urban areas change rapidly.

As one of Africa’s fastest-growing cities, Dar es Salaam is rapidly urbanizing, creating wealth for its 6 million inhabitants and reducing poverty but also causing logistical nightmares for city dwellers when their family members die.

As Dar es Salaam’s population keeps rising, the remaining urban cemeteries are rapidly filled up, creating problems for poor residents, who are often forced to shoulder a heavy burden to lay their departed loved ones to rest.

With dozens of public cemeteries in the bustling metropolis either full or nearing capacity, observers say poor residents shoulder heavy travel and logistical arrangements for burial.

In the face of the growing challenges, the city’s authorities are struggling to figure out new options as the space for laying the dead to rest is becoming ever scarcer.

Investigations conducted by Anadolu Agency in Dar es Salaam revealed that in congested graveyards such as the Kinondoni or Temeke cemeteries, burial activities continue unabated at these sites deemed filled up.

The investigations show that unscrupulous caretakers and gravediggers are charging bereaved families hefty fees for tombs at these sites.

“I wouldn’t say this graveyard is full, where we can still find some space to dig tombs,” said a gravedigger at Temeke cemetery who identified himself as Jackob Kisenza.

However, Kisenza said it is not uncommon for him to stumble upon human remains as he methodically digs into the soil.

“The dead don’t seem to rest in peace any more. We seem to awaken them with our hoes,” he said.

The investigation found that unscrupulous gravediggers often look for old or unmarked graves to sell space to families who need fresh tombs.

- Jostling for space

Wading through a maze of marked graves at Sinza cemetery in Dar es Salaam, one Friday morning, a group of mourners approached a caretaker of the graveyard, looking for a space to bury their loved ones.

The wide-eyed man in his late fifties hurriedly led them through a narrow path to the edge of the cemetery, where wastewater was perpetually flowing in a stream infested with discarded plastic bottles.

“When people ask me for a space, I can easily identify a few spots where no human bones can be uncovered,” said Augustino Saganda, who mobilized his friends to dig a tomb for the cost of 80,000 Tanzanian shillings (US$35).

A spot check showed that the much-preferred Kindondoni cemetery is out of burial space except for VIP families that had reserved space.

“Most people prefer to bury their dead in city cemeteries to avoid travel and other logistical costs,” said Saganda

Daudi Nchimbi, whose father died in September, could not afford an expensive funeral. However, due to the shortage of space at the Sinza cemetery, his family ended up incurring huge transport costs to Kondo cemetery about 11 kilometers (6.8 miles) away.

“Poor people find it hard to meet burial costs, especially when mourners have to travel to a distant place for burial,” he said.

Nchimbi, who lives with his family in Kijitonyama, is increasingly worried about the dwindling burial space and the problems his family might face when he dies.

“One thing certain in life is that we will all die. However, when someone dies, finding a place of burial is a struggle in Dar [es Salaam],” he said.

In an attempt to address the problem of dwindling burial space, authorities in Dar es Salaam are still working to identify alternative sites away from the city.

Sipora Liana, director of the Dar es Salaam City Council, said in order to cope with the growing challenges, the government has identified alternative burial sites in the city’s periphery.

“We don’t want to see people desperately digging tombs in congested graveyards,” she told Anadolu Agency.

According to her, many people avoid burying their dead in designated cemeteries on the outskirts of Dar es Salaam because of the associated transport and logistical costs.

Despite the bewildering shortage of burial sites, some city cemeteries are no longer considered “sacred places” since they attract criminal activities including prostitution, which go on under the cover of darkness, local residents said.

According to the residents, some people also take advantage of the eerie silence and darkness of the graveyard to perform witchcraft rituals.

“I often see the smashing of cocoanut shells or the putting of the head of a slaughtered goat on a grave,” both part of local magic rituals, said Scolastica Hendi, a resident of Dar es Salaam.

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