Written by Alieu SK Manjang
There is a looming cemetery crisis in the urban areas of the country; however, a critical policy issue like this does not seem to have garnered the attention of elected officials of Brikama Area Council, Kanifing and Banjul municipalities as well as religious institutions like the Supreme Islamic Council. Death is undoubtedly inevitable- a firm belief shared across all religions, but to what extent do politicians care about burial upon death, in light of the unprecedented land grab, sale and purchase at all levels in the Gambia? The doctrinal differences between monotheistic religions and other religions did not prevent sharing the belief in the inevitability of death for all.
In addition, no matter how high Western secularism has become, it did not prevent secular Western nations from considering the issue of allocating cemeteries for different religions within the policies adopted by councils and municipalities. With the unprecedented influx of Muslims into European countries, finding suitable cemeteries for Muslims became the most pressing issue that ramped up pressure on municipalities to provide cemeteries for all residents of cities whose current cemeteries have reached their capacity limits. This topic has caught the attention of the German city of Wuppertal, which launched a new project for the Muslim cemetery in 2008.
However, the cemetery crisis in cities is not a Western problem as much as it is a city issue characterized by the influx of immigrants from the countryside or other countries. Voices have been raised in Morocco, for example, recently, to adopt horizontal burial (i.e. placing a grave on top of a grave) similar to what is done in some Arab cities with existing overcrowded cemeteries and a high population. The Gambian cities within Banjul and Kanifing municipalities, as well as Brikama Area Council, are facing a similar crisis, amid internal migration from the countryside to urban areas, from neighbouring countries to the Gambia, and from the Gambia overseas. These overlapping factors led to the abandonment of the prevailing traditional method of possessing land, with the excessive number of Indigenous residents in these areas beginning to sell their agricultural lands in light of the increasing demand for land without guidance or policy direction from the relevant authorities from the central or local government.
The natural result of this scramble for land ownership was the control of the new capitalists over the lands in prime areas. Thus, land ownership for housing remained a privilege and not an entitlement for ordinary citizens and a certain number of civil servants who spend their entire lives moving between rental houses. Perhaps the most critical issue confronting cities and settlements located in the aforementioned councils and municipalities, as a result of the liquefaction of lands, is the lack of lands allocated as cemeteries due to the size of real estate companies allocating areas meant for cemeteries coupled with the fact that the current cemeteries have reached the limits of their absorptive capacity, forcing residents of the new settlements to travel long distances, occasionally by car, to reach cemeteries in order to bury their loved ones. It also prompts the residents to narrow the space between the graves, which inadvertently leads to the digging of old graves in a way that violates the sanctity of the dead.
Despite the importance and gravity of this issue and everyone’s belief in death and burial according to religious rites, the lack of cemeteries designated for burial in urban areas did not receive the attention of politicians and voters in previous municipal elections, as the voters’ demands and politicians’ promises focused on providing markets and roads, and garages, waste management, the development of market infrastructures, the building of gardens and parks, provision of housing, scholarships, improvement of the operation of local governments and other issues that were deemed imperative. Consequently, the issue, which has become a real crisis in some places, was absent from the candidates’ agenda in recent municipal elections.
In light of the shrinking land suitable for cemeteries and the overcrowding of old ones, questions arise about the policy that councils and municipalities will adopt to deal with the cemetery crisis. Will urban residents resort to digging graves or selling land to bury their loved ones in the future? Will people have to move their dead to the countryside for burial? With the beginning of a new tenure for chairpersons of councils and municipalities, and since religious institutions, especially the Supreme Islamic Council, find themselves obliged to deal with this file given the spiritual and sacred nature of cemeteries, these institutions must engage councils and municipalities to find a lasting solution to this critical issue in people’s lives.
Meanwhile, dialogue should be initiated with real estate companies and indigenous residents of Kombo in order to allocate spaces for cemeteries so that the crisis does not aggravate; hence an optimal solution becomes untenable.
Alieu SK Manjang