KAMPALA – A few years ago, an environmentalist in the names of Maathai Wangari, a Nobel Prize winner in Kenya died and left a will that stunned many including her own family.
In her will, she demanded to have her body burnt in what is known as cremation. Her death and her decision was intended to remind us about the impact of concrete graves which message has been ignored by policymakers.
Maathai did not want to deprive people of space for growing food as she was a self-confessed advocate of the environment. Maathai would have betrayed the cause she stood for if she was buried in a coffin and a concrete grave. And if there is heaven, I think she is seated on the left hand of the father for choosing to do the right thing, preserve the environment for the future.
Maathai’s example to the future generations has only been copied by our own Ndyakira Amooti, an environmental reporter at New Vision who died after making his will.
Thankfully, his will was respected and he was wrapped in a blanket and buried under the earth without a coffin or concrete. The rest of us have largely remained victims of our conscience, nature, fear, culture and religion and insist that since we came into the world in a special way, we must go back the same way.
During the peak of the corona virus, many countries lost their citizens in large numbers. As is the norm, funeral services were contracted to bury the dead in a manner that would show respect for them. A lot of money was paid out for the construction of high class graves with concrete and tiles.
On the other hand, it was a moment of truth worth reflecting about by policymakers, a lot of land had been “wasted” to appease the dead, countries like Brazil took a very unprecedented decision to exhume remains buried three years earlier at the Vila Formosa cemetery in Sao Paulo to free up space for coronavirus bodies.
They dug up the bones of people buried in the past and stored them in numbered bags in large metal containers.
While this is happening elsewhere in the world, Ugandans do not seem to learn any lessons. Almost every family in Uganda has burial grounds that they have owned for more a minimum of 30 years, those that are affected by urbanization are relocated to another place considered more rural and each buried in their own space and under concrete setting.
As a Lawyer, I have met Clients wishing to make their final wills and testaments. Upon giving away what they have accumulated during their earthly life, the last paragraph of the will is how and where they wish to be buried and in what manner. Many of them prefer a grave made of tiles, glass, marble and or terrazzo and at times a shelter over the grave. I think it is a precursor for life after death especially those who are awaiting the return of Jesus.
Besides wasting up the space for future use, these graves are also wasting up the soil in equal measure. The whole process of appeasing the dead is destroying the quality of soil and creating unfair competition between the dead and the living.
The dead of course enjoy the lions share as they are feared by the living that they could arise in the night to haunt them for not paying attention or destroying the graves. Matters are made worse that Uganda’s Laws including the constitution and the Penal Code Act criminalise doing anything that would interfere with the peace of the dead. To exhume remains of the dead, one must secure permission from Government agencies with strict instructions on how to rebury.
Some time back I read a report where the faculty of agricultural and environmental sciences at Makerere University on the status of Uganda’s soils warned the country against the use of cemented graves saying the materials used such as tiles are undegradable and interfere with soil status as the roots which help in soil productivity cannot penetrate through the cemented graves.
One would have expected organisations like the National Environment Management Authority to implement the findings of such reports and advise the Government appropriately. These guys at NEMA need to be reminded that it is their core duty to preserve the environment. They must be seen to advise Government on sustainable ways of burying the dead without causing harm to land and they- NEMA need to sensitize the masses to know that a prestigious send-off is tantamount to “stealing” land from future generations.
It is time to Act:
Uganda depends on agriculture for its survival; the activity is incomplete without land. If land on which agriculture thrives is being threatened by concrete graves, then the future of its population is in serious danger. That amount of concrete is increasingly interrupting the natural flow of water, nutrients, soil and soon, the ground will keep losing valuable nutrients, becoming degraded and unable to sustain the people left above it.
The danger is even eminent that the largest population is the youth and as the population grows, Uganda’s 4.4 million-acre arable land is reducing in size, thanks be to graves made of marble, bricks, tiles, granite, glass, wire mesh, iron sheets, among others. Some of these graves are as old as 70 years and constantly renovated. A report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says poor land use is fuelling depletion of resources, reduction of soil fertility and exacerbating the food crisis and thus threatening the economies of agriculture-dependent countries, such as Uganda.
When I told my elderly relatives about my desire to have my body given to medical schools for studies, I was rebuked and warned that as a family they would never allow such a thing to happen even if it was written in my will. It is easier to talk about nature and forget that cultures always acts with an equal or even repulsive force. Our cultures have allowed the dead to out-compete the living for land.
Everyone agrees that human culture has developed enormously in the relatively short period we have been on this earth. We have language, art, religion, science and philosophy; we know our history and think about the future. We are driven by the urge to make things better: discover fire and the wheel, cure illnesses, improve education, and invent things to make life more enjoyable among others.
We think about ourselves and do all we can and even what we cannot to make life more comfortable. We even attempt to insure our lives against hell by investing more in issues that are said to relate with God. As a precursor of what to expect in heaven when we die, people try to buy or build expensive graves for themselves or for their loved ones, they say such acts speak volumes of what to expect after death. So we purchase metallic or class coffins while others go for expensive wooden boxes which are eventually buried in the grave made out of terrazzo, cement, tiles and some tines shelters made of class. Some people refuse to die even when they are dead, they make strong wills that their bodies be preserved and stored in glass-like houses. All these acts create unfair competition, once somebody is dead, they must accept to go back where they came from, soil.
The effects of concrete graves are not only environmental but ecological, social and above all economic. We all respect the dead and would desire to give them a “decent” burial, to others; it’s a sign of life after death. However, it is important to remember that mankind depends on land (and resources therein such as minerals) and, therefore, soil. With my little biology, I know that movement of air, water and soil organisms along with vital nutrients for both plant and animal need to circulate freely.
I personally do not know why man wants to recreate nature far way away from what nature intended him to be, a man was molded out of soil and the only difference being life in him. The removal of life from him-death leaves him nothing but soil. From the inception of creation as we are told, man was made out of soil, the decomposition of the dead is part of the recycling of important nutrients back to the soil or part of the formation of important minerals like carbonates for lime, natural gases and oil all of which are vital.
You now understand why am against these concrete graves, wire mesh, iron sheets and metallic or glass coffins. If unchecked we shall begin to feel the impact in less than twenty years from now and we may resort to breaking down house to put up skyscrapers to accommodate the living in discomfort yet the dead are living in bungalow- like graves surrounded by green grass.
Today, every homestead has atleast three concrete graves. We should not forget that due to our cultural beliefs in many areas, even cultivating near a grave is not acceptable and yet in most areas those anticipating death usually dictate where they want to be buried. Graves are scattered in every homestead and therefore increasing on land fragmentation. In most of our old cultures, there were elaborate ways in which our dead were honoured and buried decently without encroaching on the environment.
I recently lost a friend and had to travel upcountry for burial. Being a Sunday, I wanted to travel back to Kampala that very day and be able to work on Monday. The announcement on radio read that burial would be at 2.00 pm; this was not the case, for the gravediggers were looking around for tiles to decorate the concrete grave. I lost my patience and drove off at 3.00 pm; the actual burial took place at 4.45 pm. Meanwhile, the nearby home had over 20 concrete graves, one wonders whether that land will ever be put to use. “These images broke my heart down more than the pictures of death that I see in the newspapers on a daily basis, for death is but inevitable, but an injustice to the environment is a choice”.
I come personally from Bugisu, an area that has been hit by scarcity of land and land fragmentation because of the high population and also due to the forest reserve around the mountain. It is common knowledge that nature-based tourism is the leading foreign exchange earner in Uganda ahead of agriculture. With a population growth rate of about 3.7% per annum and the growing fashion of concrete graves and other concrete developments, the available land for settlement and agriculture keeps reducing. Dr. Tom Okurut, the executive director of the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), says people have abandoned the practice of burying the dead in the earth because cultural beliefs have blind-folded them and scientific facts have not been explained to them. Who does Okurut expect to explain these scientific facts to the common man other than NEMA, it is their mandate?
The distinction between ‘culture’ and ‘nature’ crops up in many discussions about who we are, what we should do or where we are going. Whether we talk about politics, development, investors etc, there’s always someone who says that this or that is not natural but cultural, or the other way round. Nature, we say, soothes, enchants and relaxes us, it absorbs the stress and worries of our ‘unnatural’ over-busy life. But when culture is fused with nature, the outcome is always disastrous, especially for the living.
In many cultures in Uganda, including mine, it is taboo to build a house on a known grave and worse still to construct a house or road in that area. For those of us who have been keen, many developments have been frustrated or delayed due stringent cultures concerning family burial places. It must also be noted that concrete graves (some with tiles, iron sheets, wire mesh) take long to decompose. The environmental hazards of concrete graves can well be equated to cancer that is left unattended to until it kills its host. Many countries in the world used to bury their dead in metallic coffins and in a well tiled concrete grave. As their priorities expanded, they had to get rid of such hopeless cultures. I mean, what does it add to you to get such an extravagant burial, however rich you are, it’s the end of life,” From Soil To Soil” leave a clean environment for others to come after you.
Our friends in other counties have passed national legislation against the use of non-decomposing burial material, why not us. God forbid, if President Museveni wins the next election and that being his last time to participate in elective politics, banning concrete graves and the use of other undegradable materials should be his priority. I know it won’t come easy and may take some time but very urgent for the future. Families should be allowed a maximum of 3 graves in their graveyard with one being a mass grave and bigger in size. If a family member dies, they should exhume the remains of the person who died first and place it in the mass grave to create space for the latest death.
The President must be aware of the danger of concrete graves but he fears annoying the voters. If the President can order for installation of cameras to curb criminality, if he can evade signing papers for the execution of death row convicts, if he can sack Amama Mbabazi or Kale Kayihura, if he can stop the court-martial from trying Kiiza Besigye, and if he can stop authorities from evicting people from forests, and if he can order for an investigation into the global fund, and if he can push for the amendment of laws concerning the age limit, he can also order all district authorities and cultural institutions to stop burying the dead in anything that cant decompose within 6 months.
in many countries, there are either designated areas commonly known as cemeteries in which the dead are buried. These are useful since they can be reused after some time. There is also the practice of the Hindus where the remains are cremated- burnt to ash and stored in potable containers. This culture can be introduced; after all, burying the dead in concrete, marble or tiled graves was copied from the western world. Bravo to our Muslims friends, their way of burying the dead whereas is the culture of the Arabs is certainly an example from which we can copy for the sake of the environment.
Lastly, Ugandans need to be reminded that before the missionaries came, many ethnic groups used to bury their dead in environmentally friendly ways such backcloth, others would simply cover with grass, others in banana fibres, others in caves, But in the late 1880s, the elite started copying the western culture of burying their dead in wooden coffins and concrete graves.
Over the years, the culture of cemented graves spread to the whole country with the exception of Karamoja where it has the smallest footprint. The Karamojong simply spread straws of grass on the body of the deceased and then shift to another area without harming the environment.
If Jesus wants to take you to heaven, it does not matter whether you were burnt, buried, dropped in an ocean or buried in a collapsed building, he does not need your body but your soul. Leave the body to go back to its soil.
We do not have verified statistics on how much land is occupied by cemented graves, but the footprint they leave on arable land is increasing. It is not only the wealthy who are buried in cement, but also people who spent their earthly lives in mud and wattle houses or even caves. According to projections by the Uganda Bureau of Statistics, an estimated 3.9 million Ugandans were expected to die between 2010 and 2017. Another 2.1 million Ugandans should have died between 2017 to date. If all these were buried in cemented graves, the concrete would cover nearly 2,000 plus acres of land.
As an example, I present myself for others to follow, in my will; I have made it clear that I should NEVER be buried in a concrete grave or anything that can degrade the environment. I pray that those who will bury me will have the courtesy to honour my wish.
Rogers Wadada is a Lawyer/Researcher/Human Rights Activist, Environmentalist and Politician