The graveyard is traditionally a dreaded site which, in the African context, hardly ever gets visited without some communal event such as a funeral or tombstone unveiling ceremony taking place there.
But on a sweltering Monday afternoon three weeks ago, some residents of Chikwera Village—a flat range south east of Mitundu Trading Centre in Lilongwe—invaded the lone burial ground in their area after their houses went up in smoke.
“It was scary but the site was the only readily available secure place for us,” says Mphatso Chitsime, an inhabitant of the small village hemmed in by vast crop fields.
Other residents of the village escaped into the empty, baked gardens nearby to watch the flaming spectacle unfold at a distance.
Little children and their grandparents of advanced years could not shield their village from the attack of masked men on rampage.
“They covered their faces with improvised masks and started torching houses one after another. A total of 28 houses were burnt down,” Chitsime states.
The vandals reportedly took with them livestock, motorcycles, kitchen utensils and other household items in the course of their rage which they also exacted in three other villages.
In one instance, they simply burnt down a sty, killing two piglets in the process.
A report by Lilongwe Police Station, released few days after the incident, indicated a total of 36 houses had been razed down by men from a neighbouring village, Makwinja.
The assailants accused Chikwera Village of providing a sanctuary to a man suspected of murdering a motorcycle taxi rider from Makwinja.
Some prime suspects were picked by the police. More were reportedly on the wanted list.
“On October 15, the motorcycle taxi operator identified as Jonathan Kamgula was heavily assaulted by unknown assailants while plying his business around 1900 hours, and was robbed of his bike,” the police report reads.
The victim died two days after the assault, at Kamuzu Central Hospital, where he had been referred to from Mitundu Health Centre.
The police report said the people of Makwinja Village, where the taxi rider came from, suspected an ex-convict to have murdered Kamgula.
“While Kamgula’s funeral ceremony was taking place, some angry people left the place and embarked on a search of the suspect,” the report added.
They failed to locate him, overran Chikwera Village joined by other delinquents from Mitundu Trading Centre, and left people in destitution.
It turned out Kamgula’s killer had not been to this village.
An elderly woman, who lost literally all her possessions after her small grass-thatched house got razed down in the attack, is worried she will not even receive her next share in the social cash transfer programme.
“My national identity card was burnt in the house. I use it to access many services. This is one of my biggest losses,” says Zenifa Nelson.
She has three school-going children whose uniforms and writing materials were destroyed in the blaze that has also left residents of Chikwera Village terribly traumatised.
Three 50-kilogramme bags of maize which she had hoped would take her family through some three months got charred to ashes while she was attending the funeral ceremony in Makwinja Village.
Conveniently, the Department of Disaster Management Affairs (Dodma) rushed to Nelson’s village immediately after the arson, with bags of rice and some kitchen utensils.
“But we sleep in the dilapidated house. I’m old and I can’t do much to provide for the family,” the single mother said.
During the time of our visit, Nelson constantly clasped her hands around her head, walked into and out of her roofless house, stared at the walls stained with soot and returned to the veranda to continue with her seemingly infinite meditation.
Dust swirled in the gusts and settled on a cold fireplace which had not consumed any log since morning.
“We have run out of the food that [Dodma] gave us. We now have to rely on our neighbours and relatives from other villages to have something to eat,” Nelson said.
In the gravesite, a few yards from her torched house, a few trees growing free of human interference, could eventually go down as victims of the arson seek to roof their houses again.
This place—full of tombs, rodents and shrieking birds, with an eerie ambience—may eventually lose its inviolability.
“There is no other wooded area nearby. Most people cannot afford to buy planks for roofing their houses. We may have to relax our graveyard rules a little bit and allow people to cut a few trees there,” says Village Head Chikwera.
The attack on his area has sapped his grip on the people he oversees, he admits.
They constantly look up to him for answers to the incident and ask him about when their lives may become normal again.
“Rain is on the horizon and it would be impossible for these people to live in the torched houses. The walls standing now will soon collapse,” the traditional leader says.