After half a century of statelessness, Shona People finally cast their first vote in Kenya.Tirus Wainaina
As the Kenya’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission tallies the electoral votes in Nairobi, the numbers include votes from the Shona Community, who voted for the first time since their arrival more than half a century ago. Shonas are now full citizens of Kenya.
They arrived in Kenya in 1960 and lived as stateless people for nearly six decades until, on July 28, 2021, they were recognized as the the44th Community of Kenya. Fully armed with all the required documents, they registered to vote, and finally, on Tuesday, August 9, 2022- the Shona people, initially from Zimbabwe, voted for the first time as Kenyan citizens.
“It was a long journey for us as a people. Without a birth certificate and a national identity card, it isn’t easy to operate in a country. We are so grateful to the Government of Kenya for recognizing us as a community,” said Benjamin Muregerera, Community leader of the Shona people. He became a full citizen of Kenya when President Uhuru Kenyatta recognized them as the 44th Community of the country.
The Shona people arrived in Kenya from Zimbabwe as Christian missionaries in the 1960s. They carried British passports and were registered as British subjects.
After Kenya’s independence in 1964, the Shona had a two-year window to register as Kenyans, which many missed. Also, they could not register there because they were no longer citizens of their countries of birth, thus rendering them stateless.
Statelessness is not an enviable classification to live under. Ideally, it denies one access to what citizens consider birth rights. Lack of the national identity card, the single most important document that any citizen must have to access services, is a severe handicap.
Asked what challenges they confronted before Recognition Muregerera, commonly known by the Community as ‘Mhofu’ (clan name) said almost every business venture requires a national ID which his Community did not have. It was difficult for the Community when stopped by police because they had no national ID. Some were arrested for not having an ID, and an attempt to deport them inadvertently helped them meet with United Nations High Commission for Refugees, who helped them resolve their statelessness status until their recognition in 2021.
Members of the Shona Community could only attend school up to high school but found challenges entering tertiary education where identity documents are a must. The recognition of their Community as part of Kenya has now eliminated this huddle.
The Gospel of God Church is the Shona people’s missionary church which Baba Joanne established. Mr. Muregerera, born in Kenya, is the first generation of Shona people, and he is thrilled to be carrying a national Identity card that bears his father’s name. “I can’t tell you how that feels for our community and me.”
Kenya’s recognition of the Shona is in keeping with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) undertaking to end statelessness by 2024. The resolution was adopted at the 1961 UNHCR Convention in New York, USA.
Since their recognition, at least 5,000 members of the Shona community have applied for and received Kenyan identity cards as entire nations of the country 1,649 members of the Shona community, who had been stateless, have been presented with citizenship certificates.
One young man born in 1990, Chinyanga said these IDs were an essential tool for their legacy because their children will know where they came from because they will be carrying their original Zimbabwean name.
The Shonas have lived side by side with the locals, and they speak their Shona fluently and local languages, including Kiswahili. They picked the language from school and their neighbours. They said they never faced hostility from the local population and have intermarried with Kenyans who have joined their faith.
There are more than 5,000 Shona people spread across Kenya resident in Kiambu, Meru, Embu, Laikipia, Kericho, Narok, Kajiado, Mombasa and Malindi.