Tag: poverty

Poor families move in with the dead in Kinshasa cemetery

In a Congolese cemetery overrun with weeds and rubbish strewn among the graves and banana trees, the living have moved in with the dead – some of them years ago.

For want of money and space, families have built houses out of earth, brick or sheet metal alongside tombs – some of prominent figures like the father of the current first lady – in the Kinsuka cemetery in Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s capital.

As they attempt to lead normal lives in this unlikely setting, the cemetery dwellers, who number at least several hundred, are not only living on the land illegally but also face dangerous sanitary conditions.

“You’re afraid you’re going to dig up a bone,” said 19-year-old Emile as he worked on the foundation for his older brother’s new house just steps away from a well-tended grave.

Should he, or the others, degrade a tombstone they face up to six months in prison, while living without a proper land title could mean a year in jail under the country’s penal code.

A woman and a child stand next to a pit at the Kinsuka cemetery on June 10 2014. (Pic: AFP)
A woman and a child stand next to a pit at the Kinsuka cemetery on June 10 2014. (Pic: AFP)

Neighbour Bibiche (23) has lived in the cemetery for two years but says it is still an unsettling experience.

“You feel afraid sleeping amidst the graves, but we had no home,” she said. “The cemetery isn’t good, we have no electricity.”

Yet other cemetery residents say they not only have electricity but pay a “bill” to the national power company, SNEL.

Despite its vast mineral wealth, two-thirds of the DR Congo’s 68 million people are mired in poverty, exacerbated by back-to-back wars that ravaged the country from 1996 to 2003 and left a complex web of rebel groups still terrorising the eastern provinces.

Finding housing is a constant struggle for many, and large numbers of civilians – and even police and soldiers – have taken to the country’s cemeteries to find a place to call home.

But life among the gravestones is no free ride, explained Therese, a five-year resident of Kinsuka cemetery. The 57-year-old widow paid a local chief to buy four plots of land with her children’s help.

“They cost between $2 500 to $4 000 each,” said Therese, who like all the cemetery residents only gave her first name for fear of reprisal.

Inside her two-room house, the bedroom has a mosquito net but no bed.

“In November, the police came to destroy the houses. They took my things,” she said.

“I had to rebuild my house, but I don’t have the courage to rebuild on my other plots that I wanted to rent out.”

Yet scenes typical of village life can still be found in Kinsuka. The dirt paths are lined with wooden stalls selling food and basic supplies, and children in traditional blue and white kits play football at a Protestant school built inside the graveyard three years ago.

“Today it has about 150 students. Parents pay 78 000 Congolese francs per year, against $300 to $400 dollars elsewhere,” said the school’s director.

In some parts of cemetery the construction of homes has made it harder to locate remaining burial plots. The graveyard was founded in 1978 and is the final resting place of several well-known figures, such as engineer Sita Barnabe Kinsumbu, the father of the DRC’s first lady Olive Lembe Kabila, according to a local burial tax collector.

Public health hazard
Government officials say the homes in Kinsuka and other cemeteries across the country constitute a public health hazard, noting that it takes as long as 50 years after a site’s last burial to ensure the ground is fully decontaminated.

“Sometimes people find a source of water but when you sniff it, it smells like a corpse,” said Dr Benjamin Mavard Kwengani, director of hygiene at Kinshasa’s health ministry.

“We haven’t done a study, but there have been abnormal cases in the (cemetery) communities – diarrhoea and abnormalities that we can’t explain,” he said.

According to Pius Ngoie, an advisor to the urban planning ministry, cemetery villages only continue to exist due to negligence and corruption within the civil service.

“Some of the state’s civil servants … are completely irresponsible” and “fraudulently” sell tracts of land in the cemetery, he said.

The cemetery dwellers are under no illusions that their homes could be razed at any moment.

“One day, a [state] tractor is going to come and knock down the houses and they will lose everything,” said Peter, whose father and grandfather are buried in Kinsuka.

His words turned out to be prophetic. Just a few days later, soldiers arrived to destroy some of the homes built on the remains of this final resting place.

Habibou Bangré for AFP

On Africa and the root of money

“Money is the root of all evil”  is a common saying around the world; but it is much more than a saying in Africa. It is the badge of honour accorded to poverty. This is not an argument about the truth behind the root of all evil though, it is a peek into the realities behind the root of money itself. How do genuinely rich people come about their money? How is money created and what is the cause of poverty? Is there even a cause for poverty? Nothing is set in stone but some realities are glaring. We only ignore them at our own peril. Africa must understand the root of money to deal with its age-long challenges with poverty.

There is no cause for poverty. Poverty happens naturally. If you do not produce you are poor. To survive, you are forced to depend on the benevolence of those who have money. You are forced to subject your dignity to the whims of those you beg from. Money on the other hand requires a cause; to make money, whether as a country or as an individual, there are things you need to do. Money is an effect of the process of creating value. The richest countries in the world are countries that are either adding value to products or countries that are creating value through services. Countries that solely depend on exporting mineral resources without adding value get to make some money from their natural endowments, but countries that add value to such products even get to make more off such endowments. This is the secret of poverty and prosperity and hating on these principles doesn’t change the cause and effect nature of their realities.

(Pic: Flickr / Tax Credits)
(Pic: Flickr / Tax Credits)

Like every human phenomenon, the process of making money can be abused. People cheat their way through, people steal, and there are indeed countless ways to abuse the principle of creating wealth but those who want to make money the right way must understand the cause and effect reality behind money. If many Africans are poor, it means many Africans are not creating value. Value creation does not have to come through jobs alone, value creation could come through work. Like it has been said, there may be a shortage of jobs; there is no shortage of work. Working without pay may not result in earning cash right away but it does result in gaining useful experience that would come useful when the paid jobs come. Money, it must be said, is only one of the byproducts of creating value. You learn new, better ways to do or not to do things, you engage your mind productively, you advance yourself and you enjoy the fulfillment of adding your quota to making society a better place.

As a people, we need to face the truths that stare us in the face everyday. How long are we going to continue excusing our collective poverty on things that are beyond us when as a matter of fact, we have the power to get wealth right within our minds and in our hands? How can we continue to pretend money is the root of all evil when we already know poverty is the face, soul and spirit of evil itself? The days of depending on governments must give way to the realisation that government cannot even save itself let alone save the people. We need to hit the farms and the workstations and look to be more productive. We need to learn new, better and faster ways to deal with old and new problems. We need to embrace the realities of a world that now depends on inter-relationships, not as a choice but as an unavoidable consequence of its continued modernity. We can pretend about the realities that exist in the world but our pretense cannot save us from their effects.

Every African reading this must come to an understanding; we cannot continue to blame others for our failings. We have to look at ourselves and seek for answers to our own questions. If we do not take responsibility, we will always be responsible for our failings. Thankfully, today looks far better than the Africa we used to know. Things are fast changing and economies are picking up. We must note that this did not happen in our years of almost complete dependence on aid, but in our newfound penchant for trade. That trade is today much more about natural resources but as long as we invest the money from these to better the lots of our people through education, the services sector that are already springing up across the continent will experience a boom in the face of the continued supply of labour in the coming years.

About 50% of our continent is under 20. That says a lot about our future. It can go either way – we either use this youthful energetic population to produce the much-needed value for our continent and the world, getting the consequential wealth in return, or we prepare for the curse of an idle youth population tomorrow. It is all in the understanding of this truth; value creation is the root of money and as long as we do not create enough value, we will continue to have enough poverty to cry about. It is in our hands. Literally.

Japheth J Omojuwa for Okayafrica, a blog dedicated to bringing you the latest from Africa’s New Wave. Omojuwa lectures at Berlin’s Free University. Connect with him on Twitter.