- How residents appropriate, defecate and dump refuse on European graves
By Cosmas Omegoh (who was in Lokoja)
If the dead could talk, some white colonial soldiers buried in Lokoja would have been doing so. They would have been shouting themselves hoarse, protesting the way and manner residents of the city have invaded their abode and denied them sleep.
One of the things that make Lokoja, the Kogi State capital a Nigerian township like no other is that it hosts about the biggest cemetery for white colonial masters. Various administrators and soldiers as well as white and black missionaries who died in and around the area were buried there in their large numbers. Some of them were buried way back in 1880s, the rest a little after 1900. They have long decayed and become mere earth. But there are still compelling signs at their gravesides, clearly suggesting who owned the graves.
When Daily Sun visited Lokoja recently, there were more than enough signs that those dead were having some rough patches at the hands of city residents who have appropriated the portions apportioned to the dead.
In most cultures, the dead are accorded their fullest respect. No wonder then that they are washed and clothed before burial. Their tombs and gravesides, which are their final, earthly resting homes, are protected from assaults. And they possibly trust that the living would help them rest peacefully.
But at the Lokoja cemeteries, there seem to be no let up to the manner the residents are abusing the dead. Daily Sun investigations showed startling ways the people have confiscated the places. They defecate and pour refuse on the dead. The daring ones play and rest with the dead. Some, even sadly, sleep on their graves in the day and at night. They defile the authorities and go on abusing the facility with gusto.
Looking back, one recalls that at some point, the colonial masters had Lokoja as their administrative headquarters. That was a long time before the Nigerian idea was ever conceived. Because of the confluence of the Rivers Niger and Benue, Lokoja proved a perfect place for administration and commerce for the colonial masters, their soldiers and the accompanying missionaries. Many of them who died were brought to Lokoja for burial. And that was how the cemetery idea was first introduced into the country. One of them is the European Soldiers/African cemetery said to be the biggest in the country.
Mr. Solomon Ibejiagbe, Curator, National Museum and Monuments, Lokoja recalled that “when the colonial masters arrived here, they had their own ways of doing things including burial of their dead.
“Before then, our people were used to burying the dead, especially the more important ones, inside the home and the less important ones outside. Today, we visit their graves to make consultations, take oaths and even judgment.
“We see the dead as part of us and that is why we see the elders as nearer to our ancestors. We don’t throw away their dead bodies in a different place and live in a different place and we don’t defecate on their graves. We protect them and allow them to reside with us.
“But when the colonial masters arrive, they said we should not bury our dead in our homes. They brought the idea of the cemetery because they said they wanted to provide amenities: house, water and electricity, which might interfere with the tombs of the dead as they were being brought into the homes. That was how they introduced the two cemeteries we now have in Lokoja where they buried their own.
“Some of them worked here as soldiers, traders, interpreters and missionaries. Even the African missionaries who worked with them were buried there. One of them was the father of Bishop George Bako, former journalist and now Anglican Bishop of Lokoja. His father was shot with a poisoned arrow as he was preaching at Koton Karfi, in Kogi State and was buried at the Lokoja cemetery.”
Daily Sun was told that the first cemetery the colonial masters established in the city is located on a swath of land on Murtala Mohammed Way, overlooking the Unity Bank Plc, formerly Bank of the North. The second and bigger one is on the far end of the same Murtala Muhammed Way, opposite Emmanuel Anglican Church.
The first cemetery, which is right now in the heart of Lokoja, is sandwiched by buildings, having shrunk to a half plot of land. A peep into the cemetery revealed some insignia still standing on the deceased’s’ gravesides indicating when they died and were buried. Some of them dated back to 1895.
“This place used to be much bigger than it is now,” a guide, Mr. Niyi Ejibunu said. “But over time, some people have been encroaching on this cemetery. People have long taken over parts of the land and that is why it is this small.”
The second cemetery overlooking Emmanuel Anglican Church, sits on a plot of land averaging a football field. It is enclosed by a well-designed, shoulder-high wall with a brown gate that admits visitors. Various artisans plying their trade at the entrance gate provide skeletal care and willingly open the gate to inquisitive visitors.
The facility lies forlorn. At one section, one sees long planks with which some people play, rest and sleep on, in the day and perhaps at night. Few strides inside, one is hit by this thick odour of excreta. The excreta lies here and there, indicating that the residents have converted the place to a public latrine. Then to the left hand, heaps of refuse rise up. Residents who live on that section of the cemetery use the facility as their refuse dump.
A few aging mango trees with huge trunks dot the place; same with other trees. The cemetery is overgrown with dry, elephant grasses, weeds, shrubs and climbers which kept crunching under the visitors’ feet, having been scourged dry by the harmattan.
All over the facility, striking graveyard monuments are seen still standing tall. Whereas some are cast in solid iron, some are made of tombstones and shiny aluminum plates which have outlasted the days. The size of the insignia appeared to announce the size and stature of the deceased while some of the graves were merely secured with some stones to indicate the exact points the deceased were buried. All the insignias bear dates of death and burial of the deceased and remain as fresh as ever.
Some of those graves one could not ignore were those of “Corporal J. Carpenter who died on June 14, 1898 and Col. Seg. M Roach who died on May 16, 1905. So moving was the inscription on the tombstone of a certain R E Sheddon who died 11th October, 1904. Oration done by his fiancée, reads “In affectionate memory of my beloved fiancée, Cap Robert Smart Sheddon, who felt asleep on 11th October 1904, aged 40 years, until the day broke and the shadows, flew away.”
An artisan working in front of the cemetery who refused to be identified told Daily Sun that “many people come here to rest and sleep in the day. Some even stay into the night and possibly sleep here. I know a madman who sleeps here.
“Just look at those planks and broken benches. They belong to people who make use of this place.
“We are worried that some people come here to pass excreta. Each time we see them, we drive them away. Some people even come here to smoke Indian hemp. If we were not here, this place could have been turned to something else,” he said.
Mr. Joseph Olowolaiyemo, General Manager, Kogi State Hotel and Tourism Board, admitted that the Lokoja cemetery had been under invasion, but said his agency had been doing all it could to restrain people from further desecrating it.
“We recently sprayed the place to prevent it from being totally taken over by weeds and grasses. That is why you saw it in that condition.
“We are unhappy that some residents have been dumping refuse on the facility. We have in the past engaged and told them the need to refrain from converting the place to a dump. It is not fair to do that. But because one cannot be there all day, they persist even after they have been warned not to do so.”
He acknowledged that the cemetery was a very important one in the history of the country and wished that more care could be given to it, noting that it could be a potential money-spinner for the country.
“The mere fact that some whites died and were buried in that cemetery suggests that we can convert the place to a tourist centre. Their latter-day, family members can come all the way from Britain to see where their loved ones were buried. It is possible,” he said, sounding optimistic.