After 50 years, stateless Shona still trapped in Kenya's shadows

NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In a village on the outskirts of Kenya’s capital Nairobi, 53-year-old Margaret Maposa embroiders seat covers for a customer, sitting with her niece Elizabeth Moyo, who is weaving a multi-colored basket.

Both women wear white headscarves, subtle markers of their membership of the 2,000-strong stateless Zimbabwean Shona community who have been living invisibly among Kenyans for more than 50 years.

Maposa moved to Kenya as a two-year-old with her parents in 1963. Her family stayed on after war broke out in Zimbabwe, then Rhodesia, in 1964 and continued until 1980.

“I do not know whether I’m Kenyan or Zimbabwean,” said the mother of five, in Kiambaa village. “I have lived, married and raised a family here but still I do not have any papers.”

Stateless people are denied the rights and benefits most people take for granted. These “legal ghosts” often live in poverty and are at high risk of detention and exploitation.

Few in the Shona community have a Kenyan birth certificate or identity card, necessary to attend school or university, open a bank account, get a job, passport or mobile phone, or enter government buildings, the women said.

Without citizenship of either country, the Shona are in limbo: unable to travel back to Zimbabwe or buy land in Kenya.

“Maybe in Zimbabwe they have land for people like me,” said Moyo, 37, a mother of three, who has lost all contact with her parents’ homeland.


Kenya is home to some 100,000 stateless people from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Rwanda, Burundi, Sudan, Somalia and Asia, according to the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC), many of whom were brought to work on Kenya’s highland tea and coffee estates in colonial times.

“The fact that Kenya does not have a department of stateless people has made it hard to establish numbers or have them registered as Kenyans,” said Diana Gichengo, a program officer with KHRC.

The United Nations refugee agency last year said it wanted to end statelessness -- affecting an estimated 10 million people worldwide -- by 2024.

Kenya has regularly promised to issue the Shona with Kenyan identity cards, but they are still waiting, said Maposa.

There are some positive signs. In February, the government started registering thousands of stateless Makonde, whose parents came from Mozambique to work on colonial plantations on the Kenyan coast.

Many of the 1,500 to 2,000 Shona who live in the villages of Kiambaa, Nderi and Zambezi -- named after the Zimbabwean river -- were born in Kenya, area chief Joseph Kinyanjui told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Some young members of the community are now receiving identity cards when they turn 18, while the demands of older community members are being “looked into”, he said.

Meanwhile, the Shona in Kenya keep themselves to themselves, bonded by their faith and meeting regularly at the Gospel of God church, brought to Kenya by their parents and grandparents.

“They are a bit isolated, preferring close relations with fellow Shona people,” Kinyanjui said.

The church was founded in 1932 by Johane Masowe, a Shona prophet who believed he was a reincarnation of John the Baptist and traveled the continent spreading the word.

Its members remain loyal to traditional cultural practices, like polygamy, which is common among their close-knit community. Girls usually marry as teenagers and greet men by getting down on one knee in the traditional way.

“We do intermarry with local people, but only with those who have joined our church,” said Maposa.


The community is proud of its heritage. Young children often speak in Shona, as well as Kenya’s Swahili.

“You do not hear of our youth getting in trouble with the law,” said Maposa. “We are strict disciplinarians.”

Most of the Shona community make a living from traditional crafts. Men are carpenters, masons and builders while women weave baskets and mats.

“The kind of trades we engage in for a living can only provide food, clothing and basic education,” said Moyo.

The older generation pass their skills on to their children so that they too can make a living from their hands, but only Kenyan identity cards would allow the Shona to further their education and start businesses.

“All I want is a Kenyan ID card for me and my children,” said Maposa, a crochet needle embedded in the tablecloth she was stitching. “I know no other home apart from here.”