No rest for the dead in Abidjan’s chaotic cemeteries
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Far from being resting places for the dead, cemeteries in Abidjan, the economic capital of the Ivory Coast, have become waste yards full of garbage, weeds and vandalised tombs, according to locals. Armed with photos of the worsening conditions, one of our Observers is trying to fight against this situation. He blames both the lack of investment by the authorities and the high price of burial plots, which pushes some families to bury their deceased loved ones illegally.
There are five different cemeteries in Abidjan district, located in the municipalities of Koumassi, Port-Bouët, Williamsville, Yopougon and Abidjan proper. The cemeteries are managed by the Ministry of the Environment and Sustainable Development.
However, Abidjan resident Hamadou Sawadogo is one of many who thinks that the authorities aren’t fulfilling their management and upkeep duties. Sawadogo first noticed the sorry state of the city’s cemeteries after his parents died 12 years ago.
He couldn’t stop thinking about the appalling conditions of the cemeteries so, in 2013, he founded an NGO called Hamed Plus, which works to clean up graveyards and keep premises secure.
“Cemeteries have become zones of lawlessness”
There are different kinds of degradation that are negatively impacting the city’s cemeteries. There is what you might call natural degradation, such as graveyards being invaded by weeds or tombstones that have started to crumble and collapse due to lack of proper upkeep.
Tombs in Yopougon cemetery. (Photo by our Observer)
There is also degradation of a different nature. Some of the tombs have been desecrated. In some cases, bodies have even been dug up and replaced by others. Sometimes, bodies are buried in the same grave, one on top of another. These things happen because many families, who don’t have the money for official burials, are forced to bury their deceased loved ones illegally.
Our cemeteries have been left to abandon; they have become lawless zones. Very few of the graveyards have fences or security guards. I’d actually say that there more thieves and vandals hanging out in the cemeteries than family members of the dead!
Rubbish piles up inside the cemetery in Koumassi. (Photo by our Observer).
In two press releases released in February 2018, Robert Beugré Membé, the governor of the autonomous district of Abidjan, said that caretakers are employed to manage and handle the upkeep of cemeteries. He also said that a special municipal police force is in charge of monitoring what goes on in the city’s cemeteries. Sawadogo, however, says that there is a lack of personnel.
"With the state of our cemeteries, how can we still tell our dead to rest in peace?”
I started with nothing. At first, I did the best I could with salvaged tools, including shovels, rakes and machetes, to clear weeds and branches away from the graves in Yopougon cemetery. Then, I used my own money to buy hammers, cement and wood to construct a kind of fence.
I spread the word of what I was doing amongst my friends and, in September 2014, we organised our first group clean-up effort. Together, we went to the cemetery in Yopougon. We cobbled together fences and then started cleaning the graves. We used machetes to clear away the weeds that were growing all over.
It was an arduous process because, without money, it was hard to get people together on a weekly basis. So it’s often the case that all the work we do in a day is undone in just a few days’ time.
This video shows volunteers participating in a clean-up day in Yopougon cemetery in 2014. (Video by our Observer.)
Volunteers use shovels to clear weeds from around a tomb in Yopougon cemetery. (Photo by our Observer).
"The authorities abandoned these cemeteries"
Five years after its creation, Sawadogo’s NGO still hasn’t received any financial or material support from the agency of the Environment and Sustainable Development.
In my day job, I work as head of security for a company. We don’t get any money from the city or state, so we only organise initiatives when I have some money to do so. While the authorities have commended our initiatives, they haven’t actually invested on the ground.
"Some people are buried illegally with the complicity of security guards"
Our Observer in Abidjan, Souleimana Sanogo, has also noticed problematic behavior by cemetery security guards. He blames this on the high price of plots.
To lease a plot, families pay a tax amounting to something between 5,000 and 15,000 CFA francs (about 8 to 23 euros). If they don’t pay again every three years, then the bodies are dug up and placed in mass graves so that the plot they were occupying can be used for other burials.
There are security guards at the entrances of the Williamsville, Yopougon and Abobo cemeteries. When hearses drive up to the gates, the security guards verify that they have the proper documents [including ID and a receipt for the purchase of the plot.] Even so, some people are buried illegally with the complicity of the security guards and the hearse drivers.
There’s a certain process for illegal burials. First, the hearse driver bribes the security guard before entering the premises. Once he is inside, the driver drops off the body and then leaves. The family waits a few minutes and then enter the cemetery discreetly, either by bribing the guards again or by slipping over the fence. Then, they bury their deceased relatives.
Sometimes, guards tell them not to dig too deeply because they might hit another body.
According to the director responsible for the Environment and Sustainable Development, Yao Kouadio, who was quoted in the local press, 198 employees from his agency are responsible for managing the cemeteries. "We can guarantee security,” he said, “But we can’t provide upkeep for the graves.”
FRANCE 24 reached out to both Yao Kouadio and Robert Beugré Membé, the governor of the district of Abidjan, but neither responded to our questions. We will publish their responses if they reply.