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OUR CITY CEMETERIES – A PHENOMENAL NEGLECT, OR LAWLESSNESS?

“THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX!!”

August 12, 2016 By: Winstanley R. Bankole Johnson

One of my many “Whatsapp” banters to an old female acquaintance and seasoned medical practitioner cautioning her to avoid eating imported bananas from Nigeria because they are alleged to have been contaminated with the HIV/AIDS virus was furiously dismissed thus: “Fool!! HIV/AIDS virus cannot be transmitted via contaminated fruits!!!”I agreed, but calmly replied: “But why can’t you try to “think outside the box” that even if it isn’t the HIV/AIDS virus, a possibility exist for other contaminated imports like tinned and frozen foods or even drugs to flood our markets with nearly the same deadly potency?” She has been numb since.

Her reaction was typical of the average Sierra Leonean. They rarely “think outside the box”, hence our apparent social stagnation in many areas demanding proactive risk management initiatives, such as other countries have long mastered and surpassed. We are afraid to think aloud, lest we offend the powers-that-be, little knowing that in fact even though they may not appear publicly warmed up to it, many do appreciate contrary shades of opinions (and I can testify to that) from which they have deduced many commonsensical conclusions beneficial to our nation.

Pillages

Recent media reports point to a regular vandalising pattern of over 500 graves in various municipal cemeteries from January of this year alone. But many in their stereotyped mindset, and being unable to “think outside the box” have attributed those pillages to a “desecration”, whilst I who can “think outside the box” – and have once governed this city – see it as the continuation of deliberate and concerted attempts by hoodlums to perpetuate their illegal access to prime lands within Freetown through a consistent display of lawlessness engendered by a clash of cultural values (as we shall see later), but this time specifically upon the final resting places of our dear departed.

No thanks to the “war years”, the entire Western Urban Area is now “built up”, with virtually nowhere left for residential, let alone recreational developments. Nooks, crannies, ravines, gorges and wide drainages have not been spared either by the illegal encroachers and squatters. Slums, stretching beyond Old Wharf in Wellington in the dead East, through Kissy, Kanikay, Moa wharf, Mabella, Suzan’s Bay, Kroo Bay, King Tom, Oloshoro, Dorkortee, Aberdeen, Crab Togn, right unto Goderich in the dead West – not to mention the mountain villages  – have now overtaken (and engulfed) our entire Western Urban landscape. Basically in real demographic terms, the urban slum poor have now virtually encompassed the minority urban rich – and they are still foraging for more space. Fearful ehn?? Hmmmm!!!

Seductive

Emboldened by their illegal and unfettered acquisitions of such prime locations offering seductive oceanic and mountainous vistas with direct accesses to unpolluted breezes, their onslaught is now directed to our city cemeteries, the only available land spaces over which no one has titles, and hence their vulnerability to the pillagers pretending to be “friends of the dead” or enemies that are only after their ornaments and jewelries. Nothing can be farther from the truth. They want the lands, and they must get it at all cost,even if by sustained attacks of vandalism on everything civilization holds sacred in our cemeteries, in the hope that over time, through fear-mongering tactics and banking on impunity, they will ultimately and illegally sequester huge swathes of those lands to erect homes. “Think outside the box!!”

Community

In this convoluted scheme of things, serving police and military personnel relying on the security their guns and uniforms afford, are usually the very first to encroach on the fringes of our cemeteries and land fill sites “bomehs” – especially those nearing their retirement years. Check the statistics.

If the Environmental Officer Mr. Sulaiman Parker had been “thinking outside the box” too, he would have appreciated why the Freetown City Council (FCC) will never be able to elicit effective Police support to either patrol our cemeteries overnight or to clear squatters off there and from our garbage land fill sites. After all you cannot entrust cats with fish can you?

Quickly following and taking furtive cover in the trail of the errant security personnel are the rest of mankind. In no time the erection of Churches and Mosques, Schools, “sacred bushes”, the elections of “Chiefs” and “Section Heads” – sometimes with the tacit support of mainstream politicians (Members of Parliament) – soon materialize, and the nucleus of a “community” becomes a foregone conclusion. That was exactly how the depletion of a substantial landmass of the Ascension Town cemetery commenced and also how the Gray Bush “community” evolved.

Hoodlums

But pillaging of grave sites started even before Year 2000 with the Indian Crematorium at Kissy Road. Squatters not only encroached upon that site, but they were even attacking and stoning the Indians each time the go there to cremate a body, complaining to government that the fumes and stench from incinerating flesh was “poisoning” the atmosphere. The Crematorium had since been moved away to “Mile 6” – beyond Newton – leaving the hoodlums in control and in full ownership of its proximity to erect illegal but permanent structures thereon– with the very FCC now legitimizing their actions by collecting City Rates from them.

After the Kissy Road cemetery, the pillagers first moved to Race Course, extensively “tunneling” (under-mining) it to create shanty dwellings that have on occasions collapsed, caving in upon its occupants during heavy downpours with huge fatalities, before extending their land grabbing antics to the King Tom and Ascension Town, Regent Village, Wellington, Murray Town, Aberdeen, Lumley, Adonkia and the Kossoh Youth Farm road cemeteries, under the noses of both the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Office of National Security (ONS).

Blame

You see there is this tendency for people to blame successive municipal administrations for the phenomenal neglect of our city cemeteries. But nothing could be farther from the truth, considering the prevailing culture of lawlessness and the occasional political pressure exerted on Councils, especially when disputes between them and communities with a proximity to cemeteries arise, and the outcomes of which most times constrain the ill-equipped and grossly under-funded municipal administrations to just dejectedly relax.

As things stand, even a cursory survey can reveal that nearly all our city cemeteries have shrunk exponentially in sizes over time, further constraining the digging up of new grave sites. Instances even abound of recently interred corpses being dug up and re-interred with “fresher” ones, especially in places like Wellington and the outlying villages, when sections of cemeteries that have been partitioned for burials according to the religious persuasions become full.

Freeholds

Truth be told, our cemeteries like many of other social service delivery infrastructure (hospitals, schools and markets, water etc) were not proactively expanded or had new ones created to meet growing population demands. That was the driving force behind meetings in the first week of my assuming office as Mayor of Freetown with both Dr. Bobson Sesay and Dr. Kadi Sesay. They promptly allocated the Yams Farm and a vacant swathe of land at the Kissy Ferry Junction to the FCC for uses as a new cemetery and markets respectively. But within that same month, the government reneged and prioritised Yams Farm instead for the relocation of home owners whose properties were to be demolished along the proposed Hill Side Bye Pass Road. Regarding the Ferry Junction site, the group of Councilors entrusted with the responsibility of demarcating the market stalls for the poor traders simply partitioned and sold portions off as freeholds to the highest bidders, without even accounting for the proceeds to Council, hence erection of the permanent structures adorning it since.

Democracy

My next challenge to sanitise our cemeteries by convincing the entire Council of a need to begin levying “economic” burial fees at Le100,000 (One hundred thousand Leones)per corpse then, and an “Annualised City Grave Site Rates” of the same amount, (just as City Rates are paid for properties owned and as obtains in cemeteries other African and European countries)for the upkeep of family graves and to cover other maintenance costs was also rebuffed.  Though that proposal was initially accepted unanimously by a “Whole Council Resolution”, it had to be rescinded within three months by a majority vote of repeal, because the burial fees were deemed prohibitive “for their own people”, and that it wasn’t their culture to maintain(and visit) gravesites after burials. A fresh proposal to retain only the revised burial fees was also roundly defeated by a majority vote.  That is democracy for you.

So to date, “Burial Fees” at the Freetown City Council still stand at a paltry Le10,000 (Ten thousand Leones) and Le15,000 (Fifteen thousand Leones) per corpse (courtesy the Environmental Officer in a recent Premier Newspaper report) – hardly adequate to pay for the services required to effectively maintain our cemeteries spick and span, not to talk of warding off encroachers and pillagers – be they friends or enemies of the dead.

Sanity

Recent attempts by the FCC to re-introduce the “Annualized City Grave Sites Rates” with which some of us complied and even paid the Le30,000 (Thirty thousand Leones) demanded and duly receipted for have neither yielded dividends nor followed through. Complaints abound of strangers being wrongly buried into Family Graves spaces, for which the Council had already collected fees to protect and preserve.

Contrast that with the perennial level of sanity prevailing at the King Tom World Wars Memorial Gravesite for British and Australian casualties since over half a century ago, and upkeep for which is regularly being funded by the British High Commission.  So it logically follows that the more money the Council is prepared to allocate to maintenance of our city cemeteries, the more respectable and pristine those locations will be.

Inadequate

By all indications, our existing city cemetery sites are inadequate for arapidly imploding urban population, not to talk of those in the surrounding villages. There have even been reports of attempts to access (and utilise)  the highly dangerous Ebola victim’s grave sites at King Tomfor normal burials. That should not be allowed to happen, which makes it imperative for government to accelerate efforts both to protect existing grave sites from pillagers and land grabbers, and also to begin working assiduously towards demarcating new and alternative grave yards (on the city outskirts preferably) to compliment present needs.

Yes everyone has a right to an abode, and so do the dead too. That’s why cemeteries are a global phenomenon. Neither cultural variances, nor lawlessness should be allowed accelerate their replacements with Crematoria, only for rapacious land developers to illegally access and possess them. Cremation too is not our culture.

There is a clear need for synergy amongst the Ministries of Social Welfare, Political Affairs, Internal Affairs, Education, ONS and EPA and the FCC to restore orderliness in our municipal cemeteries in these days of unbridled lawlessness, because the Councils just cannot do it by themselves. The Decentralisation Secretariat can also lend a hand to assist Councils country wide to effectively enforce the collection of a revised burial fees structure to augment their own funds generation, both to enable them to run their cemeteries profitably and ultimately, validate their relevance within the President’s sustainable development agenda.