Forgotten Souls, Forsaken Graves

Author: Munira Ali Omar-Program Officer, Land & Urban Development

In recent years, numerous infrastructure projects have been initiated across the country, often sparking conflicts due to competing and conflicting interests. Take, for example, a cemetery without a perimeter wall used as a dumping ground or as a shelter by the homeless, sparking debates about respect for the dead. Similarly, concerns were raised regarding the use of cemetery as a pathway. Encroachment by vendors seeking profit amidst sorrow also raised concerns on infringement on others people’s rights. Equally, the government’s approach to development, through initiatives like constructing public toilets within a cemetery was seen as populist rather disregard for the dignity of the deceased and an intrusion into their final resting place. This is the story of Kongowea Public cemetery located within the bounds of Nyali Sub-County. A story that epitomizes the clash of different interests amongst diverse stakeholders.

Kongowea residents’ objection to the construction of toilets in a cemetery was predicated on the fact that the development was against the normal use of the land as a burial site. This was validated by a survey report conducted by Haki Yetu on 19th January 2023 which confirmed that the cemetery is in use as a trading site and a dumpsite. Additionally, the report noted that it will have two toilet facilities as additional structures within the existing graves and not as land set apart to be used for public burial.

Involving the Catholic Justice and Peace Department (CJPD), Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya (CIPK), Human Protection Justice Organization (HPJO) and the Kongowea Parish, the first step was to raise awareness. Through grassroots campaigns and public gatherings, we highlighted the plight of the Kongowea public cemetery inspiring a response from the community. Demos were organized by Haki Yetu, petitions were signed, letters were penned, pleas filled the airwaves and meetings were held with government officials all urging for the preservation and safeguarding of the cemetery.

Defending final resting places: Residents of Kongowea express dissent by demonstrating against the construction of public toilets within a cemetery in September 2022
Speaking Through Pain: A grandfather who laid his grandchildren to rest, adds his voice to the outcry for preserving the sanctity of the public cemetery and the memories they hold in the September 2022 Demonstration
Munira Ali of Haki Yetu addressing the media during the demonstration
Signage erected in 2022 by Mombasa County Government announcing the construction of public toilets within the cemetery
Fr. Benedict of Kongowea Parish addressing the media
Overflowing garbage in the Cemetery (December 2022)
A visit to the cemetery in December 2023 reaffirmed the aggressive encroachment by traders

Intervention by the County Government

On 9th April 2024, the Deputy Governor of Mombasa, also holding the position of Minister for Environment, Solid Waste Management and Energy went to the site and directly addressed the traders (kiosk owners and traders drying fish and roasting groundnuts on top of the tombs) to empathize with families who have loved ones buried in the site and to willingly vacate the area to facilitate restoration efforts. He also cautioned failure to comply could lead in forceful eviction and true to his warning and to emphasize the seriousness of the matter, he decisively proceeded to remove the traders from the location thus firmly asserting the need for compliance.

Building Boundaries, Building Progress

After years of persistent advocacy involving a series of meetings among Haki Yetu, the community, religious leaders, the County Government of Mombasa and other pertinent stakeholders, a significant milestone has been realized: The County Government of Mombasa has committed to finalize the construction of the wall, initiated in 2023 to address encroachment and illegal waste disposal.

Visible progress (April 2024)
Site visit: Haki Yetu and team reviewing the progress in April 2024 (Phase 2 of the wall construction began in April 2024)
Scrutinizing the details: Munira Ali of Haki Yetu and the team interrogating the contractor to verify contractual agreements in April 2024

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