Construction of a Greek Orthodox Church in the middle of a graveyard in Blantyre’s Ndirande Township has courted controversy, with city authorities claiming bodies were exhumed while relations demand to know where the corpses are.
There are also conflicting statements on how the church was allowed to develop the structure on Plot Number NU/93 in Ndirande, most of which is a cemetery largely used by Muslims. The Muslim Association of Malawi (MAM) has since cried foul.
The Greek Orthodox Church is being built opposite Ndirande’s Holy Ghost Catholic Church in Malabada.
The Blantyre City Council (BCC) says the bodies of those that were buried at the place were exhumed while the Malawi Police Service (MPS)—who were supposed to be part of the dig-out process—say they are not aware that the bodies were unearthed.
On the other hand, chief Somanje-Makata of the area says he does not know that the place is a graveyard.
But three people The Nation interviewed—Mataka Ndoka, Daudi Bunaya and Amin Chipojola—all said last week that their relatives were buried at the place.
“My son, Amin, was buried there. I also know a number of people who were buried there,” said Chipojola.
Ndoka mentioned the brother of his late father, one Ahmed Kamundi and one Che Juka as some of several people buried at the place. Bunaya had his relative, Asigele N’dala, buried there too.
Ndoka told The Nation that when he heard about the church project, he could not initially believe it because no one “would be comfortable to worship God while sitting on people’s bones”.
Secretary for MAM Blantyre District Tony Chirambo said the issue of a graveyard being turned into a churchyard started in 2012.
“People were angry when the issue came to light. They came to complain to MAM district. We fought hard against the issue and it died down. However, when campaign [for this year’s tripartite elections] heated up and everyone was busy, construction at the place started,” said Chirambo.
The Nation went to Ginnery Corner in Blantyre to find out from the Greek Orthodox Church how it acquired the land and whether it was aware that the place was a cemetery.
But the Reverend Chilembwe—who we were referred to for an interview—refused to answer our questions and referred the matter to BCC.
BCC urban planner Brian Nsitu expressed ignorance on how the land was acquired. Nsitu, however, said when the church brought the issue to the council, it initially rejected the proposal because the map clearly showed that the place was a graveyard.
He said the church then hired a legal firm, Chisanga and Tomoka, to help it push for the graveyard land ownership.
The lawyers took up the issue with the Ministry of Health as it also touched on public health.
In an interview last Tuesday, Mayer Chisanga from the legal firm; said the Greek Orthodox Church took the file; hence, he could not comment on the matter.
But in a letter signed by Ministry of Health’s Paul Chiunguzeni, the ministry consented to the land acquisition, according to a letter dated April 5 2013 that we have seen.
Chiunguzeni also ordered the exhumation of the bodies at the graveyard on condition that proper procedures are followed in line with the Public Health Act Chapter 34.01 Section 115 of the Laws of Malawi.
According to the letter, the exhumation would be supervised by BCC and the district health office (DHO) and that infection prevention measures should be followed.
The bodies exhumed, according to the ministry, would then be wrapped in leak proof containers or caskets, transported using appropriate vehicles and that the vehicles used should be sprayed with disinfectants after use.
BCC wrote back on April 26 2013 acknowledging receipt of Chiunguzeni’s letter. It, however, asked for a court order to carry out the exercise.
South Lunzu Magistrate’s Court issued the order on October 25 the same year. BCC pegged each exhumed grave at K115 000 and emphasised that the police should be present when carrying out the exercise.
Nsitu was, however, not aware whether the exhumation took place and referred The Nation to BCC health department.
The council’s deputy director of health Samden Seunda claimed that the exhumation took place on November 7 2013.
But many concerned people dispute Seunda’s claim.
“If they claim that exhumation was done, where did they take the remains to? Who was there? Why did they decide to exclude MAM and family members of those buried there? You can conclude [on your own] whether BCC is telling the truth or not,” charged MAM’s Chirambo.
Police have also distanced themselves from the exhumation exercise. Blantyre police spokesperson Elizabeth Divala said a date was set for exhumation, but it failed to take place.
“We are still waiting for another date for the exercise, but if you say that construction has already started, this is news to us,” said Divala.
Senior Chief Kapeni said he just heard that exhumation had taken place, but was not present. Kapeni referred the matter to Group Village Head Somanje-Makata of the area.
However, Makata denied that the place was a graveyard and accused The Nation of trying to create a storm out of a teapot.
Said the chief: “That place was not a graveyard and no one has come to tell me about it. The Nation doesn’t like me and you have been writing a number of negative stories about me. If you have nothing to write, just close your [paper],” said an angry Somanje-Makata.
However, Village Head Gamulani of the area said she knows many people who were buried there, some of whom she personally attended their burial.
According to her, some of them are the first chief of Ndirande, Kan’jonanga and his wife; Sheik Sadik, Mr. Mwalimu and his wife.
“I thought government would intervene on the matter, but I am disappointed that nothing happened. In fact, how would the church be comfortable praying at the place where under them there are bones of people?” Asked Gamulani who claimed to have seen “many frightening things at the place the moment construction started”.
Daudi Bunaya, who worked as a builder at the place for two months and then quit, said the place was just levelled.
Encroachment on graveyards is becoming a common occurrence in the country with other parts of Ndirande, Manje and Soche East in Blantyre, among other areas.