Calabar, the capital of Cross River State, is not only a historical city, it has grown to become cosmopolitan in nature.
According to the state governor, Prof Ben Ayade, there are over 4.5 million people in the state. But statistic from an international research group, MacroTrends says as at 2020 there were over 3.7m people in the state while 631,000 persons reside in Calabar, which is divided into Calabar South and Calabar Municipality, in a space almost a quarter the size of The Gambia.
The federal commissioner of National Population Commissioner in the state, Navy Captain Charles Ogwa (rtd), said the argument will be resolved as a national population will soon hold.
Nevertheless, sharp increase and congestions in parts of the coastal city are very glaring. Resultantly, the number of deaths has risen, too. This has made the need for private and public cemeteries imperative.
There is yet one known private cemetery which situates in Adiabo town near TINAPA, a stone throw to the private residence of the Obong of Calabar, Edidem Ekpo Okon Abasi Otu, V.
However, a number of public cemeteries dot some parts of the city. They include Goldie, Hawkins and Presbyterian Church cemeteries.
Created in the 1960s, all have now been congested. They are bushy and unkempt, the graves broken, with wild rodents and snakes everywhere. They have turned havens for the layabouts and dregs of the society.
Hawkins Cemetery is in the heart of the town in Calabar South. It is particularly popular. It sits on the size of about ten Olympic size football fields. This is where no fewer than ten burials are held almost every day, particularly weekends.
A casket dealer near the popular Watts market, Calabar, Etinyin Cobham, confirmed that the boys usually ask him to direct buyers to them if they cannot afford costly ones.
“It is true that if wealthy families bury their dead in the cemetery with beautiful and costly caskets, almost that same night the casket would be dug out and resold. You find the cemetery boys hovering around our shops to scout for potential coffin buyers,” he said.
Because the cemetery seems to be busy often, grave diggers and allied workers are always handy. Some of them are reportedly engaged by the governments of Calabar South local council and Calabar Municipality.
Amongst them, findings confirmed that there are a good number of young men who after roaming the streets where they allegedly commit crimes, will return to spend the night there. They smoke weeds, cocaine and other narcotics.
A recent visit to the cemetery showed that there are many graves waiting for buyers. Such empty and open graves serve as bed rooms for the boys.
This reporter spoke with one of them, Etim Ekpenyong, not more than 30. He had bruises on his face and arms. He held a bottle of dry gin under his armpit and at the same time wrapping some dry leaves, suspected to be marijuana, and powdery substance in a thin white sheet. He was quarrelling with another fellow for trespassing his territory within the cemetery.
“I am one of the grave diggers here. We stay here because people come to bury their corpses. We must help to dig the graves or if they need special ones like this one where I sleep in, we negotiate special price. Some of us help to lower the coffins. We have no other jobs. The government has rejected us.
“We are happy here. You are asking if I am not afraid to sleep in the cemetery. What is there to be afraid of? It is you people who are strangers that are afraid.
“There are a few of us who sleep here in case people come to bury in the night. Also, there are funny people who come to perpetuate some evil acts.”
Ekpe Akpan, who is quite elderly, said he has been working in the cemetery for nearly 25 years and has seen a lot. He did not see anything weird about living in the cemetery.
“We are used to life here. We do not see ghosts. It is our own town. There are roads here. People come to sell drinks and foods to us. You can see that people pass here to their businesses. But it is true that one can speak to the dead.
He did not however explain how it is possible for a living person to communicate with the dead.
A 75-year-old man who claimed to have dug more than 4000 graves in over 40 years at another big cemetery on Goldie Street in Calabar Municipality, is Mr Okokon Okon Bassey.
He is from Ikot Ndarake in Akpabuyo Local Government Area of the state.
In a chat, he said he started digging graves way before 1987 when the Calabar Municipality Council officially engaged him as a grave digger for Goldie Cemetery. He is now the chief grave digger.
He said he is married to only one wife and the woman knows the type of work he does and has no qualms about it. “She knows that I enjoy this job much. It gives me time. It gives me money, apart from my official salary from the Calabar Municipality, my employers. I am happy doing it.
“I love this job. In a good week, I can dig up to 15 graves, or help construct others. I don’t think I can do any other job at this age.”
But what have been his experiences over these four decades as a grave digger? Has he at any time encountered ghosts as is popularly bandied that dead people are usually seen in and around cemeteries?
That is not true, Okokon said. “I have never encountered or seen any ghosts since I began to work as a grave digger here in this cemetery. I doubt that such thing exists. Otherwise, I would have seen one because I sleep here. It is in people’s minds.”
When this reporter refused to sit beside him on an old grave to conduct this interview, he said it is people like him that harbour the belief that ghosts come out from the graves to harm. “If you do not indulge in diabolical things or plan harm against another, you do not need to be afraid of a cemetery.”
He confirmed however that people other than professional grave diggers like him do sleep in the cemetery. He was short of agreeing that cultists or bad boys do turn some grave yards to their homes.
Some time ago, there were reports that the police uncovered graves in the same cemetery where bad boys hid assorted arms.
In some nearby cemeteries, this is believed to be the practise, especially as such are usually allowed to be overgrown with wild and tall weeds, making them ready habitations for vermin who turn the serene and once peaceful city into a dreadful place.
But the septuagenarian doubted that ritualists or dregs of the society have turned his cemetery into their home or buy corpses or parts of human bodies from workers of the cemetery.
When digging any graves do they meet remains of corpses? Yes! He agreed. “We do meet old bones or skulls. We would collect all of them together, and rebury them. We do not sell them as you think. If we do that, don’t you think when we, too, die, our bones would also be scattered and sold?”
But are there stubborn corpses, as people claim, that would refuse to be buried? “That is not also correct, my friend. I have never seen such here in this cemetery where I have worked for so long.”
Okokon agrees that due to space in the expansive cemetery, it is possible that particular spots where corpses must have been buried before could be dug again.
Nevertheless, what should be the lifespan of a given grave in a cemetery? According to Okokon, it is seven years but there are others that are made to be in perpetuity.
“Not only because of space constraints but some graves are not to last for too long. However, there are some that are constructed to last many decades. Such are dug at special order and with payment of N70,000 only. We will design it and cover it with concrete slabs. Others are supposed to last seven years or less.”
If given another opportunity, will Okokon love to do this job over again? “Why not? I told you I love this work,” he stressed.
A concerned resident, Imoh Brownson, who lives next to Hawkins Cemetery, said it is common sight to see boys go in and out, play football and hold meetings in the cemetery.
He advised that security agencies should be interested in what goes on in many cemeteries in the state.
Chairman of Calabar South LGA, Mrs Esther Bassey, said they will soon begin to modernise the Hawkins Cemetery.