Marko Phiri –
After Thomas Gumede’s father died in April, the Zimbabwean bus driver could not afford an expensive funeral. So, he applied for a burial plot through the local municipality.
He never expected he would end up burying his father halfway across Bulawayo, a city in southwest Zimbabwe.
“There are no cemeteries near where I live,” said Gumede, 39, whose father’s burial plot is about 25 km from his home.
“Imagine the transport costs,” he lamented. Each time he visits his father’s grave, he spends “at least $20 on petrol”.
As demand for housing continues to drive Bulawayo’s growth into surrounding rural areas, the city is struggling to find enough space to bury its dead, said Emmanuel Ndlovu, coordinator of the Bulawayo Progressive Residents’ Association.
World Bank figures show about one-third of Zimbabwe’s 16 million people live in urban areas, and that its urban population is growing around 2 per cent annually.
“The truth is, the municipality has run out of land, as it cannot keep expanding and encroaching into rural districts,” said Ndlovu, whose organisation lobbies the local municipality on behalf of residents.
With cemeteries in and around the city full to capacity, local authorities are encouraging citizens to consider alternatives to traditional burial. But attempts to promote cremation, double burials or even recycled graves are coming up against long-held cultural and spiritual beliefs.
When Gumede was asked if cremation could be an option for his family, he rejected the idea outright by invoking “ubuntu,” the southern African philosophy that says a person is who they are because of their connectedness to all of humanity.
“We did not even consider (cremation) as a family. It’s unheard of in our ubuntu as Africans,” he said.
Early this year, the Bulawayo City Council (BCC) held public meetings to try to convince residents of the benefits of cremation, but the idea was roundly rejected as “unAfrican”, said Ndlovu.
According to BCC spokeswoman Nesisa Mpofu, the city of about 1.5 million people has had fewer than 30 cremations since the start of the year. Searching for other solutions, the local government has started suggesting people bury two family members in the same plot, Mpofu said in emailed comments.
But, like cremation, the idea has met resistance among residents.
“I have never heard of any such thing as a double burial,” said Lloyd Tshuma, a secondary schoolteacher.
Tshuma planned to avoid the stress of finding a cemetery space in the city by being buried in his family’s traditional plot in the countryside. “I will be buried in my rural (area), as has my whole family,” he said.
Bulawayo municipality has also considered reusing old graves, a practice that is becoming more common in many parts of the world, as a growing number of countries find themselves low on space to bury the dead.
But Gibson Banda, a member of the Bulawayo United Residents’ Association, another organisation representing residents’ rights in the city, said families are not ready to bury loved ones in other people’s graves.
“There is a problem there because we believe people’s spirits linger in their graves,” Banda said.
“Imagine, then, your relative being buried among unknown spirits.” BCC spokeswoman Mpofu noted that there are two new cemeteries planned for the city, but construction for both has been delayed. But, once the two new cemeteries are finished “projections are that these will be enough burial
space for all in the foreseeable future,” Mpofu said. — Reuters