On Mount Kenya Road, south of Nanyuki, Kenya, there are two cemeteries, one is about 100 yards north of the equator, the other about 100 yards south of the equator.
They are very different cemeteries.
South of the equator is the Nanuyuki Commonwealth War Cemetery.
It is pristine, well-maintained and orderly.
North of the equator is the Nanyuki Public Cemetery, also known as St George’s Cemetery.
It is not only on the opposite side of the equator, it is opposite in almost every other way.
It is in very sad condition.
On 19 June 2021, I visited and photographed both cemeteries, from sunrise until noon.
Nanyuki Public Cemetery (Christian)
I knew nothing of the Public Cemetery except that it appears on Google Maps, with the notation “(Christian)” appended to the name. The entrance was gated, however the pedestrian door was not locked. It was immediately clear that the main area was not being maintained, as it was overgrown with many types of plants. Many of the grave markers are badly damaged – some by weather and time, others seemingly by vandals.
A man named Francis approached me from the adjacent residential area and identified himself as the caretaker. Once I identified myself and assured him of my reverence for those buried there, he was quite helpful, saying it was okay to visit and photograph. He returned a bit later and pointed out the area with the newer graves.
Probably less than 1/4 of the graves are marked, and due to conditions, there are very likely burials in the locations of previous graves. Many of the graves in the older section with stone/marble markers have European-sounding names and are from Colonial times. The more recent graves, in a back, lower area, have more traditional Kenyan names on very similar wooden painted markers. It appears that the wooden markers are rarely legible for more than five years.
It helped greatly that the cemetery was surveyed about 10-15 years ago, although not completely photographed. That survey only included Europeans / ex-pats, so either the local community had not started using the cemetery again, or they were ignored.
Nanyuki Commonwealth War Cemetery
In mid-morning, needing a break from the difficult task of photographing the Public Cemetery, I walked the short distance to the War Cemetery. I had seen the signs guiding visitors to the site. The entrance area was welcoming, however the gate was locked. The instructions to call for the unlock code on the adjacent sign did not work as my phone was still using a U.S. number. As I was considering if it would be faster to figure out how to make an international call to this local number, or quicker to just climb over the hedge, a man arrived on the back of a boda boda (motorcycle taxi), and introduced himself as James, the caretaker.
James let me in and waited. The cemetery was immaculate, except for a few areas where new grass had recently been planted. The around 200 headstones were almost all uniform and in military-precision straight rows. Most of the graves were for those who had died in WWII, however there were several later, as late as 1972.
As James was waiting on me, and I wanted to get back to finish the Public Cemetery, I photographed the headstones about 5 to 7 per photo to speed the process. The result was not as good as I had hoped, however it worked out fairly well since most of the names had already been documented in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission database. I later found that about a dozen of the graves were of people with military connections who were moved from the Public Cemetery to the War Cemetery. One grave, perhaps the only woman buried there, was Wanda Holden Soden, wife of First World War flying ace Frank Ormond “Mongoose” Soden.
The cemetery includes Europeans, South Africans, Ethiopians, and many Kenyans. A recent addition was a section to memorialize an aircrew that crashed on Mount Kenya and were buried on the mountain.
These two cemeteries represent two different worlds.
The Public Cemetery started off as “St George’s Cemetery,” a place to bury Colonialists, the Europeans who came in to exploit the people who lived here. That social situation has passed, the money has gone, and the old graves mostly forgotten. Local people have started using the remaining space to bury their dead. It’s interesting that now they rarely try to use long-lasting markers – it seems that they want the wooden markers to fade away. While most are of relatively modest means, a longer-lasting concrete or stone marker is not out of their reach. There is no attempt at a “permanent” marker. Perhaps they see the futility of the Colonialists.
The War Cemetery Commission has funding from six member states (United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and South Africa). The main function is to commemorate military service members who died in the two World Wars. War dead must be remembered, a relatively small lingering expense compared to the cost of war and the lives lost. While the uniformity of the graves, the mixing of ranks, seems to show an equality in the memorials, there are subtle differences, partly in the areas set aside for groups by nationality. A recent report on detailed the Commission’s “failures to properly commemorate black and Asian troops,” and there are signs of it here in the positioning of the graves. Also, the Commission’s downloadable database had the given and surnames of the African soldiers reversed, and only European soldiers had any information about their families in the database.
The recent Kenyan graves were adorned with wreaths, heart-shaped bundles of stems, fading bows, deflated balloons and wilted flowers left by mourners. The soldiers have no artifacts by regulation and the Colonialists had no sign of human visits at all. The War Cemetery order and neatly-trimmed grass glosses over the ugliness of war, while the Public Cemetery’s messiness epitomizes the impermanence and chaos of real life.
So we have a microcosm of fading Colonial influence, a differing perspective on graves from the Kenyans, and a War machine that has a vested interest in glorifying war. These real societal lines are more visible than the imaginary equatorial line that separates these cemeteries.
In the end, we want to honor the lives of those who came before us. There are many ways to remember. I take photos and post them online. I often pause while photographing to be present with them. I know them a bit better in the process.