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Strange Stories of Abuja’s Keepers of the Dead

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The watchmen and gravediggers of Abuja live interesting lives among the dead. From normal days at the cemetery when all they have to do is dig graves and help bury the dead, to strange ones with snoopy visitors to the graveyards or with strange and disturbing apparitions.

Every occupation relies on certain traits.

For watchmen and gravediggers, strength and courage are essential to overcome not just spooky tales of the land of the dead but also the constant reminder of what becomes their fate in life.

For a meagre pay, these brave men devote their lives to guarding the remains of strangers, both high and low, they met only through shrouds or caskets.

One of them is Garba Aliyu, 37, for who the life-threatening danger of penury pushed him to be a resident among the dead at Abuja’s Gudu Cemetery.

A few months after he started work at the cemetery, Abuja, was forced into the COVID-19 lockdown.

With bodies piling-up from the pandemic, a new section was carved out for victims of the disease and Garba was contracted by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, NCDC, to be one of its gravediggers.

“I started by assisting people here before I was employed by NCDC so anytime I am needed, I would be asked to dig the grave before the body arrives,” he said.

He spends his days and nights at the cemetery and if there are other entities there with him, Garba says, he is ready to meet them.

“I am here all day and move around more at night. I have nothing to be scared about.

“People do harp on spirits but if truly they exist, I am here for them,” he said. “If I can control them, they would go back and sleep.

“But if they see me, because I do hear strange sounds at night, that means they carry on with their duties while I do mine.”

Every morning is the same and not the same.

He wakes up and says his prayers thanking God for “waking me among the living as I slept among the dead, so since I wake up among the living, those who have died may their soul rest in peace and we who are still living, may you continue to be our guide, granting long life and posterity.”

His phone rang. They wanted him to dig a grave for someone who died from COVID-19.

He said he felt a pang for the victim and the people they are living behind. He said a prayer for them.

With the slowdown in deaths from the disease in Nigeria, he is not as busy as he used to be a few months ago.

His resolve to be a gravedigger has not diminished.

But he has to juggle between jobs to make ends meet.

“Now there have been no burials but I go out hustling to get what to eat.

“I am into car wash operation and work as a security guard for a billboard company but if there is a death for me to dig a grave I still do that,” he said.

Abode of the death, sustenance for the living

The vast lands of the Muslim Community Cemetery in Kubwa, Bwari District, while holding the remains of the dead, provide sustenance for the living.

At the entrance, a generator repairer could be seen trying to trick life into a generator.

Next to him, a tomato seller waits in his shed for the next customer.

Inside, stalks of corn planted in several rows, in a show of camaraderie, wave their leaves as if to greet visitors to their macabre farmland.

A thoroughfare cuts across the cemetery serving as a border between those ensconced in the ground and the farmland providing corns, pepper and beans for the living.

The section was first cultivated some years back to rid it of snakes and weeds.

Mallam Jafaru Sule, who has been working at the cemetery for 26 years, said with snakes roaming in the overgrown weeds and no donations forthcoming to make it friendly to visitors, the cemetery committee decided that those working in the cemetery and their families could cultivate the land.

“Now the situation has changed with the farmland in the cemetery,” he said. “A visitor would not have been able to go far into the graveyard in its former state due to snakes and weeds.

“Also, we have been getting help from people in the community and recently, serious work was done.”

Aminu Ibrahim is 31 and hails from Sokoto.

He said he started working as a guard at the cemetery when introduced to it by his dad. He has been at it for seven years.

He and Malam Jafaru take turns watching the cemetery and in the daytime manage the tomato business they opened in its vicinity.

Sometimes they have to keep an eye out for mischief-makers, who visit the grave for dubious reasons.

They had to put laws in place on when visitations are to be made.

“Some visit the cemetery to bury some fetish materials but anytime we notice them, we do all our best to chase them away.

“To forestall any nocturnal activities, the committee overseeing the cemetery enacted a law.

“So, when it is 7 pm no corpse would be buried till the next morning,” he said.

The size of the land has also caught the attention of land grabbers.

“Land is a precious commodity in Abuja and three years ago, some people came to inform us that the side used for farming was theirs and that they have come with blocks to demarcate the place from the rest of the grave.

“We called the police and they ran away before the police could arrive,” Malam Sule said.

It took the intervention of the police to put an end to their menace.

In his 12 years working in the cemetery, he had seen relatives returning after burials saying they had forgotten something but often he had noticed they were up to something suspicious and had ended up driving them away.

But in those dozen years, there has been one experience that has remained with him.

“I was digging a grave in the middle of the cemetery around noon when a lady appeared to me. Allah brought her.

“I raised my head to see who she was but I could not see her body from the waist down,” he said.

“I summoned the courage to ask her who she was looking for in Hausa but she responded that she doesn’t understand Hausa. Then I asked her again in English. Responding, she said, pointing to a grave, ‘Na me kill this one.’ I told her to wait for me to finish what I was doing but couldn’t find her again. It was a scary moment for me but that didn’t make me leave the job because I know I am receiving a reward for what I am doing.”

While awaiting their rewards in heaven, after they too join the ones they have been keeping watch over all these years, they still aspire to live decent lives, especially as they age.

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