Kinshasa — Despite the health risks, hundreds of families are living in a cemetery in the Congolese capital, Kinshasa. Municipal authorities seem powerless to act.
Visiting the Kinsuka cemetery in early December, IPS counted 100 families, including around 500 children aged from less than a year old to 10.
The first structures sprang up here in 2010. Fridolin Kaweshi, the minister in charge of land-use planning, urbanisation and housing, told IPS that the government has repeatedly banned the construction of homes on this site.
In April, houses in the cemetery were demolished on orders from the provincial governor, but late at night, the occupants rebuilt their small shelters of earth and wood.
"We have nowhere else to go," resident Cynthia Bukasa told IPS. "The government has to take steps to protect us and give us a place where we can build."
Bukasa explained that her husband, a police officer, is stationed in Bas-Congo Province, in the western part of the country. He had built a small house for her here and then left. She added that living on his salary of around 50 dollars, the family doesn't have the resources to pay rent elsewhere.
Olivier Mandja, mayor of Mont Ngafula Commune, within whose boundaries the cemetery lies, told IPS, "The structures on this site are the work of soldiers and members of the police force over which the commune has no authority."
Approached by IPS, soldiers and police officers at Kinsuka refused to speak, preferring to let their wives answer questions. Even the higher-ranking officers preferred to remain silent.
Other residents were happy to speak. "We got official authorisation from the authorities to build houses here and live in them," said Jean Mbulu, a resident at the cemetery and father of three little girls, the oldest of whom is six.
Mbulu said he bought the plot from Eddy Mambuya, the traditional chief of Mont Ngafula - though he declined to show IPS the documents proving this. "I was stunned when people said we were illegally occupying this land," he said.
Reached by IPS, Chief Mambuya, stated that while he is an authority established and recognised by the law, he denied all responsibility for the sale of land for construction on the site.
"It's thanks to us that the cemetery is regularly cleaned up," said Michel Aveledi, another Kinsuka resident. "We pull up the grass and pick up the plastic bags which invade the place from time to time."
He said he wanted to see the government decommission the cemetery and build a school for the children next to the houses that are already there.
But experts believe the health of the families who live on this site is at risk, and have called on the government to take urgent steps to protect the children in particular.
Jean Myasukila is an epidemiologist based in Kinshasa. "The health risks for people living in houses built in a cemetery are enormous," he told IPS.
"When bodies decompose, they give off odours and gases which are very harmful to health, especially of children," he said.
"We also have to consider the flies which land on particles of bodies or bones which become unearthed, which can then alight on food or kitchen utensils. These flies are vectors for harmful microbes," according to Myasukila. "It's not acceptable to leave these families there, if only for reasons of hygiene."
Chancey Maroy, a member of civil society and an environmental protection expert, told IPS that the land the graveyard is built on is not stable, as it is on a slope that is not protected by any anti-erosion mechanisms. "The structures on the burial site could also accelerate landslides, which have already been seen there. This adds to the dangers faced by the families who live there," he said.
Kinsuka residents have also come into conflict with those using the graveyard for its intended purpose. In early December, a group of people coming to bury a body encountered strong resistance from the cemetery's residents. On the eve of the burial, residents built a shack on the spot purchased by the bereaved family of the interment. The family was forced to bury their loved one elsewhere in the cemetery, but the authorities took no action.
Damas Balinga, director of the DRC's Ministry for Planning and Monitoring the Implementation of the Revolution of Modernity, told IPS, "In the framework the five-year plan of action, the government is preparing the implementation of its programme to modernise the city of Kinshasa. New housing developments are in the process of being created. Families in distress need only have confidence in the government in order to benefit."