In most societies, civilized or uncivilized, the desecration of graves is the ultimate insult. Usually burial places are revered, treated as sacred. How it comes about that a Town Council in a civilized country loses its way to the extent of threatening to flout this time-honoured social value, remains a mystery.
The Freetown City Council in the 1960s must have consisted of well educated, cultured members at the time of the demolition of the oldest Freetown cemetery. They must have been not only intelligent but endowed with wisdom, sound principles and consciousness of their role as guardians of the city’s values and traditions.
As far as I can remember—and my memory goes back a long way—no one had been buried at Howe St. cemetery for years. It had become evident that hardly anyone went there and the cemetery had obviously outlived its purpose. So, for about a year or more, notices went out in the papers and on the radio asking people who had ancestors or relatives buried there to come forward. In due course, the response proved to be negligible. It was only then that the City Fathers, presumably with the blessing of the Central Government, thought it fit to announce that the cemetery was going to be dismantled as from a particular date. There were no calls for fees of any kind, no threats or provocation—-only kindly advice and warnings. Those Councillors knew something about people’s feelings, and their main concern was to ensure that no one was distressed and that the dead were given the respect due to them. I do not know what happened to the headstones and tablets that were salvaged. Perhaps they were kept somewhere for a future place in a museum. What mattered was the Council’s satisfaction that there was no survivor who could prove his connection with or interest in the graves involved. The cemetery became a playing field for children in Central Freetown.
Compare this with the situation we have in today’s Freetown City Council—-ignorance, greed, disrespect for the citizens over whom they have manifestly decided to ride rough shod. Their approach is: ‘Are you interested in any graves? If so, simply pay up by the end of next month, and continue to pay every year. Otherwise our bulldozer will grind down your graves and other people will be buried there.’
In effect, this is the stance of today’s City Council. So where are the culture and refinement, the sense of tradition, the feeling for others of old Freetown? The new watchword is money—–a phenomenon recalling Goldsmith’s ‘Where wealth accumulates and men decay’. We see people losing their power to feel for others, to think and make decisions that show sympathy and concern for the people they serve.
Some time in the late 60s, a Freetown family with strong connections in Guinea where their father/grandfather had been Archdeacon in the Anglican Church in Conakry, received a surprise communication from the Mayor’s office in Conakry telling them of development plans which envisaged demolishing graves in a cemetery in which this family had ancestors buried. Those responsible had done their research to find descendants even outside Guinea, to warn people and test their reactions, before any action was taken.
I believe the family gave their consent and there was no harm done. Three generations on, and with no member left in Guinea, it made good sense. Again, compare the cautious, enlightened, painstaking approach of the Guinea authorities with the brash, high-handed arrogance of our ‘esteemed’ local Councillors.
Some years ago, a party of schoolgirls went for a day’s outing to Goderich by bus. By the evening they were stranded. Their bus tyres had been punctured by irate villagers who had apparently tried to warn the driver on arrival, not to park his bus on land they pointed out was part of their cemetery.
Communities have their sanctions against those who do not respect tradition. No temporal ruler has the right to trample on these. Burial sites are sacred places. By all means, tidy them up, raise the standard of upkeep, do your own research on graves that look abandoned. Encourage people with positive public notices. They have committed no crime! Otherwise, dear Councillors, you may find yourselves in the position of the reckless bus driver at nightfall. It will mean a great deal of hard work but will yield richer dividends in the end than the present mindless lust for easy money.
In developed countries, cemeteries are usually like parks (i.e. areas with lawns, trees and flowers- not spaces for lorries and cars!) Forgive me for pointing this out here because the fact is, only a few Sierra Leoneans who have been fortunate enough to travel abroad, are likely to know what a park is. The only one we had in Freetown has been fenced off with corrugated iron sheets for years. Only the Good Lord knows what is going on in there, as we citizens have no idea… But that is another matter.
Wednesday June 04, 2014
By Lulu Wright