The first thing you notice when you get to Langáta Cemetery is the gate.
It’s green and yellow, the predominant colours of the Nairobi City Council, and old. It’s also stuck in someone’s grave. A grave right at the gate, a not-so-subtle, but realistic reminder that this is a graveyard. An old, populated but still useful graveyard.
The pathways were once tarmacked, you can see that through what’s left of them now. Long, now-dusty paths that lead to rows and rows of tombstones.
The older tombstones are a work of art, amazing, elegant works of artistry. The most interesting ones are the ones from the 1950-1980 stretch, then it’s like people got tired of having to fashion grand tombstones with heartfelt messages.
‘Here lies a husband, friend, son and gallant soldier.’
And they just started mass-producing wooden crosses with ‘R.I.P’ emblazoned on them that fall off in a few years, or metal ones that rust in the onslaught of a sustained rainy season. Although you’ll see a sizeable number of post-2000 marble tombstones that look thoughtfully prepared.
The herdsmen will probably throw you off, herds of cattle brought to the cemetery to browse through the grass and daisies that are being pushed up. And it makes you think that people in need of something will quickly throw culture to the wind, because I don’t imagine a pre-colonial herdsboy going to the graveyard to feed his family’s cattle and not getting a beatdown for breaking some taboo. He’d probably be banished to the wolves in the forests that littered pre-colonial Kenya, along with the twins, albinos, cowards, thieves and adulterers. And now, our herdsboy will rest on a tombstone as the cows act as a living, breathing lawnmower.
You will also be amazed by the number of people taking naps under the shade, and you wonder what would happen if they woke up from a nightmare-nap and found themselves staring at tombstones.
If you’re lucky, or unlucky, you might also run into a girl named Brenda. She’s not a ghost, or bereaved, she’s a twenty-year-old domestic worker that comes here to unclog her mind. If you look the type, she’ll motion for you to come over, and she’ll ask you for advice. If you’ll be in the mood, and if you’ll have time to spare, you’ll listen to her tell you about her life. And how she hasn’t seen her one-year-old baby in over three months. Depending on how she feels around you, she might start weeping when she tells you about this guy she likes, and who keeps asking to be sent money, and keeps taking her phones and disappearing with them. If you’ll still be listening you’ll ask her to leave the loser alone, and to spend more time with her daughter. As she walks away, you’ll resist the urge to take a photo of her. You’ll also wonder how a place so connected to hopelessness and despair can offer someone solace.
Later, you’ll realize that not too many famous people are buried here, and it’s mostly faceless people who are.
People who lived lives devoid of fame and public recognition, people whose families forgot about them after the fifth anniversary,
and now their graveyards are where herds of cows come to shit.
Then you’ll see graveyards with well-tended gardens, and the date of death will be thirty odd years ago, but the bouquet of flowers will be less than a month old, and you’ll see the importance of having a lasting legacy, where people will miss you when you are gone.
That your grandchildren, (if thank God you live that long), will come to your grave, and those old enough to remember you will thank God they had a life with you, and they will shed a tear because they no longer have you.
Then you’ll see the litter that characterises us as Kenyans, and you’ll realize that old habits die hard, (no pun intended). Groundnut wrappings, bottles of liquor, newspapers, the kind of things most Kenyans feel nothing when throwing them to the ground.
And then you’ll be saddened that we don’t care about our environment, and no place is too sacred, or spooky, for us to litter.
Then you’ll see a tap that doesn’t work.
and you’ll be reminded of the government ineptitude that characterises our public institutions. A snack shop will remind you that people will still ‘burudika na Coke baridi’ even when you’re too stiff to swat the flies from your face.
Then you’ll see the shrinking space and wonder where the 3 million-plus inhabitants of Nairobi will fit.
Then you’ll wonder just how much the government allocates to this important public facilities, the derelict facilities will make you conclude that it wouldn’t be much.
The last thing you’ll see when you leave is the gate at the Langáta Cemetery, and an i.d stuck atop a wooden post will let you know that Kenyans will forget their i.ds just about anywhere.
The rundown gate, the old, yellow and green gate houses a lot of stories, some of them over sixty years, if you know someone lying there, buy a flower, repair a cross, don’t let cows be the only things giving a shit about your special someone’s graveyard.
*proud to give the photo credits to myself for the first time.