In the 1960s, about 100 Shona missionaries arrived in Kenya from Zimbabwe and Zambia to establish the Gospel of God Church. The move was accepted and welcomed by Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, but his successors have not done much to integrate the Shona.
The descendants of these missionaries are stateless in Kenya. Despite living and being born in the country, they are not recognized by the law and have been demonstrating in recent weeks to end decades of statelessness.
Most of the missionaries settled in the Kiambu area just on the outskirts of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. Under the first post-independence constitution, people who are not of Kenyan descent cannot be registered as citizens.
Due to this, about 5,000 Shona people living in Kenya have been rendered stateless because of this outdated law and it is affecting their daily lives.
Nationality laws in most African states operate on the concept of jus soli, or ‘rights to soil’ and jus sanguinis, or ‘right of blood.’ With the jus soli concept, a person can obtain citizenship if they are born in a specific country while with jus sanguinis, a person gains citizenship by virtue of the origin of their parents.
The issue now is, countries that base their citizenship laws on ‘rights to soil’ hinder people who are away from their ‘historic’ homeland rights to citizenship of their ‘new’ country, and unfortunately, they are also denied nationality of their new country of residence because of laws based on ‘right of blood,” according to a report by DW.
Thus, the Shona, without proper recognition, are stateless, meaning, they cannot hold Kenyan citizenship or identify as Kenyan nationals. Their ties in Zimbabwe or Zambia have been severed as well, hence, they cannot identify with those countries as well.
In international law, a stateless person is someone who is “not considered as a national by any state under the operation of its law.”
“They are in limbo because they are not protected by the citizenship of their new country and at the same time they are not protected by their country of origin because they are no longer citizens,” Cristiano d’Orsi, a research fellow and lecturer in Refugee and Migration Law at the University of Johannesburg told DW.
The Shona in Kenya do not have access to identity cards, passports or driver’s license and are hindered from accessing good jobs because they cannot be employed formally. Subject to informal streams of income, they cannot also open bank accounts or buy houses. They sometimes cannot get legally married or even travel abroad.
Mike Moyo, a carpenter in nearby Kiambu County, has 10 children and 7 grandchildren who were all born in Kenya but are stateless and do not have birth certificates or identity cards. Moyo’s eldest son laments on the dreadful effect of their statelessness.
“We can’t enjoy services that nationals enjoy. We don’t have mobile banking and going to the hospital is also a challenge.
“Birth certificate are needed for class 8 registration for our children who are in primary school so sometimes we are forced to ‘buy’ parents so that our children can continue with education. We cannot even save money.”
In recent weeks, some hundreds of Shona people have been going on peaceful marches in the streets of Kenya to draw the attention of the government to their statelessness; they simply want to be recognized.
Although they have fully integrated with the Kenyan way of life, they will not truly belong unless they are recognized formally as citizens.
Members of the Kenyan Shona community have presented a petition to the Kiambu county calling for recognition. The Assembly’s speaker, Stephen Ndichu, told VOA that it’s now up to the government to process the petition as they have handed it over for fast track processing.
There have been efforts by the Kenyan government to resolve the statelessness of the Shona people and in August 2019, 600 citizenships were offered to some of them although there is more work to be done. Some 2,000 people have applied for birth certificates recently and they are yet to be processed.
According to a UNHCR report, there are about 19,000 stateless people in Kenya and approximately 12 million in the world of which 715,000 are in Africa. Statelessness is seen as a major problem in Africa, however, there are ongoing works to tackle the issue across the continent by individual governments and the African Union.