Three Cemeteries

Photograph by Rowan Moore Gerety

1. Cimeterio Muanhua, Mutomote

Shall we build graves or houses here?

In February of last year, Nando Momade was at work when his girlfriend called to say that people were burying a body in their yard. By the time he got home, they had almost finished: a group of 30 relatives stood by in silence while two of their kin covered the deceased with earth. The hole, now an unmarked mound next to a septic tank Momade is building, was directly under the outside wall of his bedroom. “Couldn’t you put the grave further away, on the other side there?” Momade recalls asking the men. He pointed to an open patch of dirt 30 or 40 feet away. At this an old man grabbed him by the shirt collar: “we’ll leave him where we buried him.” Momade backed down.

Momade, who is 25, makes his living as a carpenter. He grew up on Ilha de Moçambique (Mozambique Island), a tiny, now-decaying city off the coast that was once Vasco de Gama’s capital of Portuguese Africa. He came to Nampula, the largest city in Northern Mozambique, “to look for life,” as Mozambicans often put it, and bought his house in December 2010 for 30,000 meticais—about $1,000. His neighbors are also migrants from the countryside. Though nearly 80% of Mozambicans still live in rural areas, the country’s urban population has ballooned since independence in 1975. In Nampula, people seem to settle as soon as they possibly can once they reach the city, so that the city’s migrant neighborhoods are like a layout of the region in miniature, with people from the mountains on the inland side of town and people from the sea closest to the coast. Most migrants in the city spend a preliminary period under the wing of a relative and build or move into their own homes as soon they are able to afford it, pushing the city limits further and further back towards home. As homeowners, Momade and his neighbors have reached an important benchmark of success in the city, but it is not a victory they relish altogether. “It’s not normal: you buy a lot here, and then two or three months later they come and bury a body in your yard,” Momade explained, looking perplexed.

Directly behind Momade’s home stands a bamboo skeleton of a house overrun with vines. In front of it, spaced five feet apart, two small pieces of wood stick upright out of the sand. The lot belongs to a woman whom Momade said was due to become his next-door neighbor. She had started construction on this new house while living in another neighborhood, only to discover two freshly dug graves by the doorstep. “After that, she gave up. She gave up because of those two bodies,” Momade explained. He seemed reminded, in the telling of his would-be neighbor’s story, of indignities he had previously resigned to ignore, since he was unlikely to find another house for 30,000 mets. “How can you go live with kids somewhere where two people are buried?”

The donos of the cemetery—the families who bury their dead there—ask themselves the same thing. One day in June I visited the cemetery with Domingos Mario Muanhua, the traditional chief who authorizes the burials there. Muanhua is in his mid-forties, slight and usually barefoot, with pursed lips and a faint bulge of a smile that makes him seem always to be on the verge of laughter. “Have you ever heard of such a thing? Houses in a cemetery? Tombstones in houses?” he asked me. A five-minute walk from Muanhua’s house, in a neighborhood called Mutomote, is a dense confusion of graves and dwellings about the size of half a football field. Some of the locals call the area ‘Cemetery,’ but in a way that suggests historical record or synecdoche, like the Bowery or the Meatpacking District, more than direct reference. Muanhua claims that many of his families’ graves have already been leveled, and houses built on top of them. The current residents dispute this, but turnover in the area is high. Many of those who first built their houses there have left, selling their homes without a whisper about the cemetery’s continued growth, lest they fail to recoup on the investment. Momade and his neighbors told me that the tombs are one reason that houses in the area are affordable.

Turning a corner, Muanhua and I came upon a 14-year-old girl who sat on a tombstone taking her hair extensions out with a comb. Muanhua barely glanced at her before she stood up and ran into her house, holding back embarrassed laughter. Nearby, someone had put up a plastic enclosure over a tomb to take advantage of the clean concrete surface it offered for bathing. Muanhua stopped in a narrow alley between two houses and pointed both hands at the ground:“This is where we used to do our ceremonies—where we used to spread flour on the ground, where we prayed and clapped our hands. How could you do a ceremony here? The people who are living there, don’t they have cemeteries? Beyond the alley, a pile of trash was heaped high on a row of graves.

Nampula has grown terrifically in the last forty years. The city stretches out across a plain studded with small granite mountains that rise as abruptly as a rash. Home to 23,072 people in 1970, the 2007 census counted nearly 500,000. Today, more than two thirds of Nampula residents were born elsewhere. Most of them live in the meandering sand bairros surrounding the city center—labyrinths of unplanned settlements that often look simply like a denser version of the countryside. The houses in the bairros are made of mud bricks, covered by those who can afford it with a thin layer of cement stucco or eventually replaced with cinderblocks. The roofs are corrugated steel or thatch. Where there is room, there are crops growing up around the houses: bananas and cassava, corn, pigeon peas, and papaya.

Nampula’s perimeter began to swell in the 1980s, as whole villages streamed into the city to take refuge from the rural violence of Mozambique’s civil war. In those days locals ceded fallow plots to newcomers for free, or asked for a pittance in compensation for the crops that would be uprooted to build new houses. Even after the war ended in 1992, Muanhua sold a plot with two cashew trees for a few dollars. “But it’s not the land you’re selling,” he said, backpedaling; “it’s the house you have there, or the mango tree, or the cassava.” Mozambique’s constitution claims all the land for the state, but to sell improvements on the land, even ones as basic as cashew trees, is considered legal. And so, in deference to the law, the boom in land speculation in Nampula has been disguised as the sale of planted crops. In some neighborhoods, said a local official who declined to give his name, “people are paying 200,000 meticais”—over $60,000—“for a few mango trees.”

But Muanhua did not sell his family’s cemetery. The man who did, by all accounts except his own, is Neighborhood Secretary Ismael Makonde, the government official responsible for civil affairs in a section of Mutomote. I spoke with Makonde one morning in the half-darkness of his cinderblock living room while silent images scratched across a television in the corner. “The cemetery is not my problem,” he said. He recalled a meeting one day in 2002 when the whole Muanhua clan had come to Mutomote. Together, they had traced the outlines of the family cemetery and reached a consensus: no more houses here. Makonde assured me that there haven’t been any more houses, and only two or three graves.

And yet Momade, the carpenter, and several of his neighbors were adamant that Makonde himself had sold the plots where they now lived. Selling for 3,000 meticais in 2005 and 10,000 in 2010, the lots are carved in ever-smaller pieces for higher prices. In July, there was a grand cinderblock house going up in the center of an uninterrupted patch of tombs. And still the burials continue. Muanhua wouldn’t consider putting his kin anywhere else, for to change cemeteries is to die more quickly: “If a family starts changing cemeteries, and buries someone in a place where he has no relatives, it won’t be long before others follow.”  A spirit doesn’t like to stay alone.


2. Universidade Lurio, Marere

An academic struggle with the supernatural

It was about 10 p.m. on January 26, “the quiet hours,” when Carlitos Tacala suddenly left his post. Tacala is a security guard at the new campus of the Universidade Lurio, near Nampula. He began to feel as if he were in a dream. “Dressed as I am now, I walked straight into the river. I crossed the river, and then I started to go around the mountain, doing laps until 3 a.m., 4 a.m. I snapped out of it around daybreak. When I went to our office, my coworkers asked me, ‘What were you doing?’ My whole body was aching; I was exhausted, fearful. ‘We saw you,’ they said, ‘but we were afraid to come ask—we didn’t know who you were. It was like some sort of shadow.’”

To this day, Tacala and his co-workers are haunted by opening and closing doors, phantom footsteps, and other supernatural phenomena whenever they work into the evening. “I really should quit,” Tacala told me, but quitting is not done lightly in Mozambique’s job market. Jorge Ferrão, an imposing, baby-faced biologist who is the founder-president of Uni Lurio, told me flatly that there are no supernatural occurrences on campus. “He’s lying,” Tacala observed in response. “That’s only because he doesn’t work at night.”

At issue are 50-odd tombs belonging to the families that lived on the land where Uni Lurio now stands, a health sciences college with the appearance of a monument to bright blue paint. The tombs are still there, and depending on whom you talk to, their occupants have not been properly appeased. Ferrão does not understand why. By his count, the University has funded six ceremonies with the express goal of appeasing the ancestral spirits and obtaining authorization to exhume them or build over their graves. Either outcome would suit him if they could find someone to do the work: the municipality wants the families to destroy the tombs, the families want the university to do so, and the university thinks the municipality should. The university has been looking for six months for a construction firm willing to demolish tombstones.

Before the university was built, Evelio Banza, who was Uni Lurio’s legal counsel at the time, hoped to find a “single solution” for the graves. The families were divided between exhumation, which some likened to a second death, and building over the graves, as the colonial government had done to build the hospital, roads, and the governor’s office in Nampula. “It was hard,” Banza told me on the telephone. “One person from one religious group would say one thing, and everyone would agree. And then, another person from the same group would say the opposite.” The University found itself in sepulchral negotiations with Catholics and Muslims whose faith was colored by varying degrees of syncretism with traditional animist beliefs. The only convergence was around expense. “The families end up wanting to use this as a source of income,” Banza said, referring to the locals’ predilection for ceremonies.

In recent years, familial cemeteries have stood in the way of large development projects often enough that Mozambique’s Ministry of Industry and Commerce, where Banza now works, is contemplating creating large zones for economic development where there are either 1) no tombs at all or 2) they can be dispatched all at once prior to any construction. It is not uncommon for fake tombs to be built on lots where there is rumor of new development.

In theory, the government awards businesses and institutions rights to land use in a process that requires input and acceptance by the local community. Many of the university’s neighbors saw this process as having a foregone conclusion.

Fernando Comala, whose father moved to the area in 1910, remembered holding out against moving until the president of the City Council came to visit him in person in March 2009. “But he only came to have a meeting,” he said. “He didn’t want to talk about my fields.” Weeks later, Comala’s fields were the first to fall in the tracks of heavy machinery. In April, halfway between planting season and the harvest, bulldozers appeared in his cassava patch before Comala had received any compensation. “Now, how are you going to harvest in front of a bulldozer?” he asked me.

We were sitting in a spot of shade with Albino Chico and Arturo Daniel, farmers fifteen and thirty years Comala’s junior, respectively, outside the home of Chico’s son, where he moved when his own home was demolished. The three of them formed the impromptu committee that had spoken on behalf of the community with the university and the local government. “We’ve ended up in parentheses,” Comala concluded.

They were compensated as follows: 20,000 meticais for each house, 250 meticais for each fruit tree, fifteen sacks of cement and twenty sheets of zinc roofing. But, said Comala, who got a total of 47,000 meticais ($1,700), “they didn’t count straight.” Chico produced a fragile piece of folded paper with an exhaustive list of his defunct crops. The trees had been vastly undercounted, he reckoned, and the annuals—staples like corn and cassava—had not been counted at all.

Ancestral spirits offer an appealing avenue of resistance. Daniel, whose mother is buried in the university campus, explained with some glee that Uni Lurio had gotten as far as renting a bulldozer after the most recent ceremony, only to have the driver refuse to operate it to clear the graves. Daniel and his neighbors had asked the university for “two goats, twenty chickens, and soft drinks to hold a proper ceremony. But a guy from City Hall told them all they had to do was go and pray by the mountain, so they did.” Daniel laughed at the evident silliness of this. “The spirits know somehow they were kicked out,” said Chico. “They know their families aren’t happy.” If they try and knock down the graves now, “the machine won’t make it out of there.”


3. Cimeterio São Jose, Matadouro

In the graveyard of nationalization

Leandro Bolacha, director of Funerary Services for the City of Nampula, parked his motorcycle at the entrance to São Jose Cemetery and pointed at the concrete wall that zig-zagged down the left side. If it weren’t for the wall, Bolacha explained, “they would dig graves until they hit the houses.” This was his prime example of graveyards beyond the control of City Hall. Of the 145 cemeteries registered with the city of Nampula, the government actively manages only two, and has built a wall around five, once at the request of the President of Mozambique himself (Bolacha speculated that the President was tired of looking at tombs on the drive to his official residence when he visited Nampula.)

Others, like São Jose, have been closed off piecemeal by the neighbors, who pile trash up against the cemetery’s edge. Weary of losing square footage of their yards to new burials, some owners of adjacent lots have invested in cinderblock walls, the only foolproof strategy to stop a cemetery from expanding. The wall that Bolacha was pointing to had clearly been built to claim maximum square footage for the other side, closely skirting the corners of outlying graves. Only a small portion of the perimeter of the cemetery was not being actively obstructed.

A few days later, I returned to speak with Padre António Martíns, a cantankerous, heron-like Portuguese man who has been in the service of the Catholic church in Mozambique since 1958. I asked him about the cemetery’s jagged shape. “That cemetery has no shape! It never had a shape. Whenever someone dies, they bury him there.” During the colonial era, Martíns explained, São Jose had been established as a parish school. The school grew into a church and then another one. In those days, the Church’s landholdings were vast. You had to be a Christian to build your house on such land, and you had to ask the Father’s permission. After Independence in 1975, all church property was nationalized. When the Church appealed to the government to reclaim its schools and churches, the cemeteries remained public property.

As occurred throughout Nampula, refugees of the war flocked to the city looking for open land, and found it near São Jose. At the time, the cemetery consisted of only a handful of graves, they say. For years the cemetery grew and the neighborhood around it thickened without incident. But in 2006, a cholera outbreak in the area brought new burials each day, sometimes as many as three or four. “During that time, you’d be at home sleeping,” said Amaral Jaime, who has lived nearby since 1994, “and at 4 in the morning you’d start to hear shovels—clack, clack, clack.” Jaime’s fence was taken up and a body buried where a fence post had been. “We asked the church: ‘Are you the ones who send people here, to lift up our fences and make graves?’ They wouldn’t tell us anything.”

Jaime’s former neighbor António Sabonete is a traditional doctor, or curandeiro, who walked me around the cemetery and explained why it provoked sickness and ill health among the neighbors. “Whoever lives near a cemetery has got an evil spirit in his house.” Most of the people buried there are nominally Christian, Sabonete explained, but traditional, animist ceremonies are regularly performed there to find out if the deceased died naturally or was killed out of malice. The practice, known as ‘mining,’ consists of taking the horn of an animal that was killed in the wild—“dragged to its death” was how Sabonete put it—filling it with some burned wood and remedies, tying it to one’s ankle, and dragging it around the perimeter of the grave. If the bearer encounters resistance on a certain spot, there is a curse there that must be purged. “If there is smoke from a fire here, don’t you think it will reach the neighbors’ houses?”

To this day, it remains unclear exactly who has dominion over the graveyard. “All of this is the work of the people—not the government, or the church, but the people,” Sabonete said. The government drew a line around cemetery in 2003, since overtaken, then promised to erect a wall in 2009. As for the vast majority of real estate in Mozambique, no precise records exist for the the size and shape of Cimetério São José nor for the lots abutting it. Sponsored by Western governments and the UNDP, the city is undertaking several ‘land legalization’ projects to give formal deeds and dimensions to urban property owners, but these concern only a few thousand lots. The amount of land under the sway of Nampula’s informal real estate market continues to grow far faster than the government’s capacity to regulate it.

Officially, the church stopped burying people in the cemetery in 2009, but Father Martíns had prayed at the burial of a parishioner there only two weeks before we met. Five or six times as we spoke, he called the cemetery an ‘embarrassment.’ It is so full that families have taken to partially exhuming their relatives’ old graves to make room for new burials. Father Martíns called out to a grey-haired man in a blue collared shirt: why do people persist in making burials in a full cemetery? “They’re all full,” he said. “And in our culture, you have to bury someone where their family is. Otherwise, it would be against their will.” Fátima Ofuso, a teacher at the parish school, had a different explanation. Money, as with so much in Mozambique, may be the foremost concern. The municipal cemetery charges a fee, and it is too far away. Funeral processions here are on foot, not by car. “If we didn’t bury people here … we’d have to carry them all the way there. It’s very difficult, for those of us without means, to pay for the transport.”

Rowan Moore Gerety is a writer based in Los Angeles. He has contributed to Marketplace, Living on Earth, and The Huffington Post, among others.