Stateless Shona Community Demand For Citizenship

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says at least 10 million people globally are stateless, and approximately 18,000 of them live in Kenya. In August, 2019, Kenya formed a taskforce to help end statelessness in the country by 2024. The struggles by the Shona, who have lived in Kenya since 1962, provides insight on challenges faced by stateless people.

On October 14th and 15th, 2020, members of the Shona community in Kenya presented petitions to the Kiambu County Assembly and the National Assembly respectively. They were protesting the delay to grant them Kenyan citizenship.

The Shonas have lived as stateless people in Kenya since 1962. They are descendants of the first followers of the itinerant Shona missionary Johane Masowe. He founded the Gospel of God Church in Zimbabwe in the 1930s.

Ten years before his death in Zambia in 1973, he instructed his followers to travel north to the “promised land” in Nairobi. That is where they would find a stone bearing inscriptions of the moon and stars, and settle there.

Nairobi Military Stone sits at the intersection of Koinange Street and Kenyatta Avenue in Nairobi. It was erected in 1939. Johane Masowe instructed his followers to trace and settle around it. Picture: Courtesy

In July, 2009 the AFP News Agency spoke with an elder of the church who explained that  the Galton-Fenzi Memorial monument commonly known as the Nairobi Military Stone was the landmark Masowe mentioned to his followers. The stone which sits at the intersection of Koinange Street and Kenyatta Avenue was erected in 1939.

It is from this stone that distances from Nairobi to the rest of Kenya are measured in miles. Engraved on the stone are distances to local and regional towns and cities.

A new study by the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC), titled African Missionaries in Identity Limbo, reveals 16 pilgrims and their families arrived in Kenya in 1962 and spread the sect. Now it is headquartered in Nairobi.

Support from Kiambu County Assembly

The descendants of the pilgrims have increased to around 5,000 people. They cannot return to modern day Zimbabwe because they claim they have no links there.

They speak Swahili, Kikuyu and Shona and mostly live around Kiambu County. In March, 2019, the County Assembly of Kiambu formally passed a motion asking President Uhuru Kenyatta’s government to recognize them as Kenya’s 44th tribe.

“That process is now with the [national] government and I am informed it is being fast tracked. Once it is done, they will achieve official status of being citizens,” said Stephen Ndichu, Speaker of the Kiambu County Assembly.

James Nyoro, the governor of Kiambu County told the Star Newspaper on October 14 that he supports recognition of the Shona.

“I agree and support that they should be given identity cards just like the 4,000 Makonde  community members were recognised .They have contributed a lot to the country,” he said.

According to Samuel Kimani, a Member of the County Assembly, Kinoo Ward, 85 per cent of the Kenyan Shonas are spread across Kinoo, Muguga, Gitaru and Githurai Wards.

Police harassment

“The Shonas have lived undignified lives and experience numerous challenges. This is due to the lack of legal identity documents such as birth certificates, identity cards or passports,” he said.

“This has exposed them to human rights violations like police harassment; impedes on their freedom of movement, and lack of access to government and private services. Further, they cannot register a business or enter the formal job market, own property, access education, healthcare, financial services, and relief supplies among others,” said Kimani.

He says the Shona children are only able to go through the Kenyan education system through informal adoption by Kenyans.

Kenyan well-wishers register them as their own children to access birth certificates, which are mandatory to access education and health care.

In 2019, the UNHCR published the 2019 Shona Socio-Economic Assessment Survey comparing the economic status of Shona households in Nairobi and Kiambu with that of  Kenyan citizens.

Poverty levels

The study shows stateless people are much poorer than citizens. The majority of Shona adults earn their living through weaving, carpentry and casual jobs.

“In Nairobi, almost three times as many Shona people are poor compared to their national counterparts. 49% of the Shona people are poorer compared to 17% of Kenyan citizens,” the study says.

“In Kiambu, more than twice as many Shona people are poor compared to the national population (56% compared to 24%),” it adds.

Although a profiling exercise still has to be conducted, the UNHCR estimates that approximately 18,000 people in Kenya are stateless. They include people from Pemba and those of Burundian, Congolese, Indian and Rwandese descent.

A stateless person is any person who is not considered as a national by any state through its nationality legislation or constitution. According to UNHCR, that adds up to approximately 12 million people around the world.

How to apply for citizenship

Section 15 of the Kenya Citizenship and Immigration Act, 2011 explains how a stateless person living in Kenya can apply for citizenship.

“A person who does not have an enforceable claim to the citizenship of any recognized state and has been living in Kenya for a continuous period since 12th December, 1963, shall be deemed to have been lawfully resident and may, on application, in the prescribed manner be eligible to be registered as a citizen of Kenya,” the Act says.

However, that person must have adequate knowledge of Kiswahili or a local dialect. The person must not have been convicted of an offence and sentenced to imprisonment for a term of three years or longer.

Upon registration as a citizen, they must intend to continue to permanently reside in Kenya or to maintain a close and continuing association with Kenya. Lastly, they must understand the rights and duties of a citizen.

Applications are made to the Department of Immigration through the eCitizen portal. Most Shona people in Kenya would tick all of the boxes, but they are still denied citizenship because a lengthy verification process is needed.

They came close to it last year when the Government issued 597 Shona children with birth certificates to enable them go to school.

Intermarriage with Kenyans

For the rest, intermarriages with Kenyans is a more direct ticket to citizenship but it is rare. According to a KHRC report, only 50 Shonas have intermarried with Kenyans.

Oliver Muregerera, the Secretary-General of the Shona community in Kenya, says they should not have to take that route.

“Our parents left Southern Rhodesia before Zimbabwe was born. They arrived here before Kenya became independent. We have lived here ever since and have gelled warmly with the rest of Kenyans. We deserve to be citizens,” he says.

On August, 23, 2019, the Kenyan government established a National Taskforce for the Identification and Registration of Eligible Stateless Persons as Kenyan Citizens.

The taskforce has a mandate of one year to develop vetting, verification and eligibility criteria for stateless persons.

It will also identify emerging international best practices in the management of stateless persons in the context of national security.

The move is hoped to help Kenya beat the UN goal to end statelessness by 2024. It is not clear how far the taskforce has gone since the one year mandate ended in August 2020.

What journalists should do

  1. Explore Kenyan laws relating to citizenship, how one can lose or gain citizenship. 
  1. Evaluate what has been achieved by the National Taskforce for the Identification and Registration of Eligible Stateless Persons as Kenyan Citizens. Its tenure ended in August 2020. 
  1. Investigate what the government is doing to achieve the UNHCR’s goal of ending statelessness by 2024. 
  1. Find out which other groups comprise the 18,000 stateless people in Kenya. 
  1. Investigate what life is like for other stateless groups in Kenya and how their situation can be solved.
  1. Investigate the main causes of statelessness and how that can be prevented in the future.
  1. Explore best practices from other countries in ending statelessness and what Kenya can learn from them.





On December 12, 2020, President Uhuru Kenyatta granted Kenyan Citizenship to the 1,670 members of the Shona community.




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