The volunteer graveyard workers of Kaduna
MUHAMMAD SABIU reports on a group of volunteers at a Kaduna cemetery who, though not on a fixed salary, ensure the environment is kept clean always and the different experiences they have on a daily basis.
A cemetery is supposed to be a serene and clean environment for the departed souls to rest peacefully, but not all graveyards have these qualities.
The Bachama road cemetery in Tudun Wada, Kaduna, Kaduna State, came into being over 100 years ago. It was said that the then British colonial government made provisions for the establishment of the cemetery and others across the state. Today, after several attempts at expansion, the Bachama cemetery is, today, regarded as the biggest in Kaduna and by extension the whole of Northern Nigeria.
Going by the laws and traditions of the Northern part of the country, the supervision and maintenance of cemeteries lie with both local governments and states. However, over the years, these tiers of government have abandoned this responsibility, thus leaving the religious institutions and local communities to take care of the graveyards wherein lay their departed relations.
The reason cannot be far-fetched. Being a secular nation, government must have felt that such things are better left to the religious bodies to which the departed souls belonged while still alive.
Unfortunately, today, even the religious bodies that are supposed to take care of these cemeteries are not living up to their responsibilities. Instead, a few people who are basically volunteers are in charge of keeping most of the cemeteries clean and tidy.
Sometimes these volunteers leave the comfort of their homes as early as 4.00 am to dig a grave when someone is reported to have died. They make use of their physical strength and sweat to make the dead happy by ensuring that they get a benefiting resting place.
Sunday Tribune gathered that the neglect in the cemetery today is so pronounced that some graves have been taken over by weeds and tall grasses. Some others have been ripped apart by gully erosion, sometimes exposing the dried bones of bodies buried there. Most of the graves obviously are waiting for total rehabilitation.
Even those who have volunteered to take the burden of taking care of the cemetery appear to be frustrated now. First, it is a job that has no fixed salary or pension, nor is it officially recognised by either by government or society at large. Ironically, some of these volunteer workers have been working in the cemetery for more than 30 years. Some of them told Sunday Tribune that they have been there for a little less than that, maybe 10 or 20 years.
According to the leader of the volunteers, Musa Abubakar, the Bachama road cemetery today is being managed by 14 volunteer workers. Abubakar who is 68 years old disclosed that he started digging graves 30 years ago. Recounting what made him to start the work as a volunteer, he said that at that time “there was crisis in the state and many Muslims lost their lives and their lifeless bodies were left unattended to for days.
“I could see hundreds of lifeless bodies lying around. For two days they were left unattended to and eventually some of these corpses started decomposing and oozing unpleasant odour. I was touched with this unpleasant experience. There and then, I told myself that I was going to begin work in the cemetery as a volunteer grave-digger.”
Recalling his experience he told the Sunday Tribune that digging a grave is not an easy job, because it saps the digger of all his energy especially if he was not prepared or had not eaten well before staring the work.
“You have to be mentally ready and physically fit to do the job. When we started, we were contented with the little we got as we could then conveniently take care of our families without stress. But today because of the exigency of life, people are finding it difficult to meet the basic and increasing needs of their families.
“So, if we say that we don›t need assistance, we are not being truthful. What we actually need is that we want a fixed salary or allowance, whatever you call it,” he explained.
Shedding more light on this, the 68-year-old cemetery worker remarked that since he started working in the cemetery, he and his colleagues have been depending on stipends or the goodwill of people who visit the graveyard to bury or pray for the souls of their departed ones.
“Usually, when mourners are leaving they would drop some stipends. How do you expect someone with 15 children and 30 grandchildren to depend on this?
“It is time a committee was formed to handle the running of the cemetery, the way the mosque is being run by a committee. This was necessary because the committee will also see to the welfare of the workers and as well guard against encroachment. You would be surprised to discover that today, the cemetery has been taken over by farmers. People now farm on the graveyard,” he said.
Abubakar while appealing to rich individuals and organisations to assist in the running of the cemetery, however, regretted that most of the rich have no fear of God, claiming they are only interested in spending their money on frivolous things.
He also urged Muslim associations and groups to compel their members to put more efforts into the maintenance of cemeteries, pointing out that this would go a long way in alleviating the problems faced by the grave workers.
Apart from that, Abubakar maintained that government should come in and give permanent employment to the cemetery workers, insisting that by law, it is the responsibility of government to take care of both the living and dead.
Another volunteer worker, who pleaded for anonymity, also spoke on the problems being faced by the grave diggers. This, he said, concerns unidentified bodies not claimed by relations.
“Another area which needs to be addressed is the issue of unidentified corpses. Usually, there are cases of people dying as a result of motor accidents and their relations would not come to claim the dead bodies. Also there are instances where some dead bodies are found by the roadsides and their identities unknown. In such situations, the police usually obtain orders from the courts to be allowed to bury such corpses and once the orders were obtained, the local government department of health is saddled with the responsibility of the burial.
“Most of the times we are asked to carry out the burial without making provisions for gloves, diggers, shovels, perfumes, chemical etc. At times, the only two of us that are recognised by the local government are left to bury 30 corpses at a time,” he stated.
Sunday Tribune tried to find out if the men had encountered any case of grave robbers before. The anonymous grave digger said though people could be fetish, he had never encountered any grave robber.
“Everyday, we see so many funny things in the cemetery. People come to drop charms, eggs, clothes, concoctions or pour blood on graves. There was also one occasion that I caught a young couple making love in the cemetery. Later, when they were interrogated, they disclosed that it was a native doctor who asked them to do so.
“We traced the way to the native doctor’s house to counsel him but some youths who got wind of it almost set his house ablaze, including the houses of other native doctors around before they were prevented by the authorities,” he revealed.
However, in spite of these experiences, Abubakar remarked that he was delighted by the support that the volunteers are receiving from a few Godly people who have assisting them over the years.
For instance, he disclosed ‘that the road network within the cemetery was constructed by the former Kaduna State governor, Lawal Kaita, while the state government built the gate and fenced the entire cemetery, thus putting a temporary stop to encroachment.
He also remarked that since the beginning of the raining season, a man has been responsible for the cutting of grasses in the cemetery. The man, he said usually comes every Saturday and Sunday for the job.
“You can see for yourself that the entire cemetery is neat from every angle you stand; you can vividly see everywhere,” he declared.
Sunday Tribune sought the views of Islamic scholars on the necessity of taking care of of the cemetery. According to Mallam Yahuza, while speaking on issues surrounding taking care of graveyards advised the Muslim community to begin to think of supporting the cemetery workers by putting them on a fixed allowance, adding that they need the support of every Muslim because they are doing a very important job in the community.
“If we cannot endeavour to give them fixed allowance or salary, then every family should finance the burial of their loved ones. After all, it is a religious obligation that must be adhered to. Unfortunately, these workers are not being catered for by their community,” he lamented.