During the celebrations of the 57th anniversary of Kenya’s independence on December 12, President Uhuru Kenyatta pleasantly surprised members of a stateless Shona community by granting them full citizenship.
“Today is a very happy day because we didn’t expect it,” said an enthusiastic Oliver Muregerera, leader of Kenya’s 4,000-strong Shona tribe, after President Uhuru Kenyatta surprised them when he ended their stateless status by us Grant them full citizenship and make them Kenya’s 45th tribe. “We have lived in Kenya for many decades and have fought for it. We have been through a lot. Now we have managed to get citizenship. We thank God. Only God has guided us until today. “
Descendants of missionaries
Muregerera and thousands of other members of the Shona community in Kenya are descendants of around 100 Christian missionaries who came to the East African country from what was then Rhodesia – today’s Zimbabwe – in the early 1960s.
The missionaries carried Rhodesian passports and were registered as British subjects. After Kenya gained independence in 1963, they had two years to register as Kenyan citizens. This opportunity was ignored by the members of this migrant community because they did not understand its implications, only to feel stateless years later.
Over the next five decades, several generations of these people were born and lived their lives in Kenya without any documentation.
With the help of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), this Shona community had lobbied over the years asking the government to grant them citizenship.
A life on the edge
With no Kenyan birth certificates or ID cards – main documents needed to go to school or university, open a bank account, buy land, get a job, passport or cell phone, or even enter government buildings – these people led a spooky run Living in abject poverty.
According to a 2019 UNHCR report entitled “Understanding the Socio-Economic Profile of the Shona Community in Kenya,” UNHCR found that poverty was higher among the Shona population in Kenya. The report found that, on average, more than half of the Shona population lived below the national poverty line.
“Kenyans in urban areas are twice as likely to attend high school as their Shona counterparts. For secondary school-aged Shona children, the net secondary school attendance rate is 28 percent, compared to 50 percent for urban Kenyans, ”the report said.
Granting citizenship praised
UNHCR praised the Kenyan government’s decision to grant citizenship to this community.
“This is a life-changing development for thousands of people,” said Fathiaa Abdalla, UNHCR representative in Kenya. “We welcome the decision by the Kenyan government to grant them citizenship and ensure that they are fully incorporated into society. This will also set a precedent for other countries to address longstanding statelessness. “
Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa thanked his Kenyan counterpart for the goodwill gesture, saying that President Kenyatta’s move, expressed in the spirit of Pan-Africanism, ended the immeasurable suffering the community had suffered for decades would have.
The Kenyan standard newspaper also expressed its support for the move.
“Statelessness is not an enviable classification to live under […] it denies access to what citizens consider birthrights, ”the newspaper wrote in an editorial.
“The lack of a national identity card, the most important document that every citizen must have in order to have access to services, is a serious handicap. With the lifting of restrictions and the incorporation of the Shona into the assembly of Kenyan tribes, they can now participate fully in nation building and enjoy the full benefits of citizenship. “
Other stateless communities are also recognized
This is not the first time President Kenyatta has granted citizenship to a stateless person in Kenya. In 2017 he recognized the Makonde and the Hindus, making them Kenya’s 43rd and 44th tribes, respectively.
The Makonde came to Kenya from Mozambique in 1930 to work on sisal plantations on the coast of the Indian Ocean. After Kenya’s struggle for independence, most of these migrant workers chose to stay behind, and their descendants knew no other home than Kenya.
By the time the Shona was last recognized as a citizen, Kenya had an estimated 18,000 stateless persons, including various groups of people of Burundian, Congolese, Indian and Rwandan descent.
While global data are difficult to obtain because stateless populations are not always accounted for or included in national censuses, the UNHCR reported that there are approximately 4.2 million stateless people in 76 countries. However, the actual number could be significantly higher.
As UNHCR celebrated the sixth anniversary of the # ILelong campaign in November, which aims to end statelessness by 2024, world leaders were urged to involve and protect stateless populations and take bold and swift steps to eradicate statelessness to do.
Image by: Uhuru Kenyatta