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Kwale stateless communities seek official
recognition amid feeling of exclusion

by Christine Lagat KWALE (Xinhua) -- Jaffari Kombo has an emotional attachment to the serene and idyllic Kickakamkwanju village in Kenya’s south coast where his ancestors settled in the first quarter of the 20th century after relocating from the Indian Ocean islands of Zanzibar and Pemba.

The 50-year-old village elder is a descendant of Pemba fishermen who defied geographical barriers and hostile tribes as they sailed north of the Indian Ocean in search of freedom and economic opportunities.

Kombo’s Pemba tribesmen, whose total population in Kenya is estimated to be around 4,000, have lived in their adopted home for close to a century but are yet to be granted citizenship.

During a recent interview with Xinhua, the sharp-witted village elder decried the lack of official recognition of the Pemba people as Kenyan citizens, hence their growing feeling of exclusion.

"The last batch of elders from the Pemba community settled here in the south coast 70 years ago, but we have always been considered aliens with no proper identification documents," said Kombo during an open air forum at Kichakamkwanju village located in Kenya’s south coastal county of Kwale.

He is among dozens of grassroots leaders who have joined a campaign to push for the recognition of the Pemba as Kenyan citizens.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Kenyan office and its local partners have lobbied authorities to grant the Pemba citizenship after decades of statelessness.

   Pemba community attends the community meeting in Kwale PHOTO - UNHCR M. NDUBI | Coastweek

KWALE -- A man from the Pemba community attends the community meeting in Kwale while wearing a t-shirt with a powerful message ‘Citizenship for All’. The Pemba are among the stateless communities living in the coast. Their forefathers hail from Zanzibar. Despite being born in Kenya, they are still stateless. PHOTO - UNHCR: M. NDUBI
Wanja Munaita, the Assistant Protection Officer in charge of Statelessness at UNHCR Kenyan Office, said recognizing the Pemba as citizens of their adopted country is both a moral and legal imperative.

"The people of Pemba descent should be granted citizenship status as a matter of urgency.

"They have been part and parcel of this nation’s fabric since pre-colonial days," Munaita said.

According to the UNHCR, the Pemba comprises the largest group of stateless people in Kenya followed by Shona who trace their ancestry to Zimbabwe.

There are also pockets of Burundians and Rwandese who settled in Kenya during colonial days but are yet to be recognized as citizens of their adopted country.

Munaita said his push to grant citizenship to the Pemba is in line with UNHCR ten-year global plan to end statelessness that is considered a human rights violation.

"We need to step up pressure on the government to recognize and register stateless people," Munaita remarked, adding the recognition of the Makonde who trace their ancestry to Mozambique as Kenyan citizens was a milestone in ending statelessness.

The quest for the Pemba community to be granted Kenyan citizenship has gathered steam thanks to grassroots advocacy and fervent appeals from the international community.

Shaame Hamisi Makame, the Chairman of Pemba community in Kenya, said his kinsmen desire to be recognized as citizens of their adopted nation in order to contribute fully to its socio-economic progress.

"Our ancestors came here to conduct fishing and trade but successive generations have been denied education, jobs and voting rights due to lack of citizenship," said Makame.

He noted that the Pemba have made an immense contribution to the development of post-independent Kenya through their renowned entrepreneurial spirit and rich culture.

"The Pemba living along the vast Kenyan coastline are a valuable resource that should be tapped to develop this country. We pay taxes, have built schools and our cultural heritage can be showcased to attract tourists," Makame remarked.

Lack of citizenship has also taken a toll on the youth from the Pemba community who worried about an uncertain future unless their plight was addressed.

Hamisi Hassan, a 22-year-old high school graduate, said lack of a birth certificate almost denied him a chance to sit for his final exams in both primary and secondary schools.

The affable community organizer said that his quest for college education was almost cut off prematurely because of lack of a national identification card.

"Obtaining formal education has been a herculean task and were it not for the intervention from local administrators, I was almost giving up on primary and high school education," Hassan said.

He revealed that statelessness has denied the Pemba youth a chance to pursue white collar jobs and start families.

The elders from Pemba community have emboldened its quest to be granted Kenyan citizenship through quiet diplomacy.

Mohamed Ahmed Mohamed, a Pemba elder from Takaungu village in Kenyan northern coastal county of Kilifi, said his community will employ peaceful means in its quest for recognition as citizens of the East African nation.

"The journey in our quest for citizenship in this country has been laborious but dialogue with authorities is key to gaining victory," said Mohamed.


The Makonde: From Statelessness to Citizenship in Kenya



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