In a cemetery in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo) overrun with weeds, where trash is strewn among the graves and banana trees, the living have moved in with the dead.
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 Congolese first lady Marie Olive Lembe di Sita Kabila — in the Kinsuka Cemetery in Kinsuka, southwest of Kinshasa, the country’s capital.
As they attempt to lead normal lives in this unlikely setting, the cemetery dwellers, who number at least in the several hundreds, are not only living on the land illegally, but still face dangerous sanitary conditions.
“You’re afraid you’re going to dig up a bone,” 19-year-old Emile said as he worked on the foundation for his elder 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.
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 do have electricity and pay a “bill” to 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 terrorizing 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.
Yet life among the gravestones is no free ride, said Therese, a five-year resident of Kinsuka. The 57-year-old widow paid a local chieftain to buy four plots of land with her children’s help.
“They cost between US$2,500 to US$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 to be draped over.
“In November, the police came to destroy the houses. They took my things,” Therese 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.”
Despite the difficulties, scenes typical of village life have still managed to sprout up in the cemetery. The dirt paths are lined with wooden stalls selling food and basic supplies, and children in traditional blue-and-white kits play soccer at a Protestant school built inside the graveyard three years ago.
“Today, it has about 150 students. Parents pay 78,000 Congolese francs [about US$80] per year, against US$300 to US$400 elsewhere,” the school’s director said.
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, Kabila’s father, a local burial tax collector said.
Government officials say the homes in Kinsuka and other cemeteries across the country constitute a public health hazard, citing the up to 50 years it take after a site’s last burial to ensure that he ground is fully decontaminated.