Democratic Republic of Congo

No Freedom to Mourn: Funeral Customs Pit IDP Tenants Against Local Landlords in DRC

In Kirumba, Democratic Republic of Congo, the number of internally displaced people is rising. Local people have rented out their homes, but as people continue to arrive, tensions are high, manifesting in clashes over differing customs – in this case, funeral rites.

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No Freedom to Mourn: Funeral Customs Pit IDP Tenants Against Local Landlords in DRC

Merveille Kavira Luneghe, GPJ DRC

Naomi Kanyere Ndele lives in two small rooms she rents in Kirumba, Democratic Republic of Congo. She was forced to leave her previous rented home after her child died. It’s common for landlords in Kirumba to force tenants out after a tenant’s family member dies, to ensure the home isn’t stigmatized.

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KIRUMBA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — In rural North Kivu, a largely agricultural area, land ownership is a sign of belonging. Many people whose families are from this town are landowners.

When new people come to town, they’re often forced to rent. Naomi Kanyere Ndele is among them. She arrived in 2018, leaving behind violent conflict in her hometown. Local armed groups known as Mai Mai are often fighting for control of villages in this province, or battling government soldiers.

Now, Ndele, far from home and without a way to earn the money she’d need to buy land, pays $6,530 Congolese francs (about $4) a month to rent two rooms in her landlord’s house. The rooms are cramped, with a curtain separating the sleeping area from the coal-burning stove and dining room, which is filled with food storage, kitchen tools, bags of coal and other supplies.

It’s not a comfortable arrangement, Ndele says.

“Time and again, we fail to live in harmony with our landlord,” Ndele says.

But for Ndele and other renters like her, there are few options. Landlords evict tenants frequently here, often shortly after a member of the tenant family dies.

Ndele says that’s already happened to her since she came to Kirumba. Her child died in 2018 and her landlord immediately kicked Ndele and her family out, forcing them to carry the dead body with them.

“He exhibited a ruthless attitude which rose to the top,” she says.

Funeral customs in some parts of DRC are so sacred that they’ve become a major hurdle to Ebola Response Teams that work to curb the spread of the deadly virus. (Read our story here.)

In the rural areas of North Kivu province, where many people are pushed toward Kirumba and other towns when there is violence in their home villages, funerals tend to be multi-day events that feature drinking, physical fighting and head-shaving. The body of the deceased is kept in the home until the time comes to bury it.

Time and again, we fail to live in harmony with our landlord.

In Kirumba, on the other hand, funerals are usually shorter and less active, and bodies are moved to burial grounds more quickly.

These types of conflicts, rooted in funeral customs, are becoming more common in North Kivu province as communities that have been isolated for generations are now pushed together. Conflict in the region has brought thousands of new residents to Kirumba in recent years. Landowners are sharing their homes and property, but that hospitality is tested when displaced people show no sign of returning to their homes.

When traditions clash, tensions boil over.

“It’s said that a house in which a dead body was once kept falls prey to a curse,” Ndele says.

That belief poses a problem for landlords who have a tenant die in the homes they own.

“What I can never accept is allowing people to organize a funeral on my property,” says Muhindo Lukwamisa, a 50-year-old property owner. “If the funeral is organized on my property, potential tenants will shy away from occupying my house because they’ll think that the house is already a hotbed of bad luck.”

There are signs that this practice might be changing. Salomon Kakule Kaniki, the spokesman for a local human rights organization called Cercle International pour la Défense des Droits de l’Homme, la Paix et l’Environnement, says his organization is working to educate people in Kirumba about the traditions of the newcomers. He says that, based on his organization’s research, three out of 10 landlords are now convinced that they should allow their tenants to grieve deaths in the ways they did in their hometowns.

“If my tenant loses a family member of his, he has the right to organize a funeral in this house,” says Mumbere Bayunda, a farmer and landlord. “The house belongs to him as long as he pays rent.”

Ndahayo Sylvestre translated this story from French.