There is a little sleepy village tucked at the periphery of the bubbly Nairobi. It is called Kiambaa. A cluster of women are seated in an old dimly lit structure. They have covered their heads with clean white scarves. Their equally white dresses flow to the mats they are seated on. Their work is not obvious. With a flow of energy, harmony, speed they intertwine multi-coloured threads. Before long you see a marvelous multi-colored African themed baskets come into shape. I wonder how everyone became a weaver.
Among them is an elderly woman. She could be anyone’s grandmother. If you pick a number between seven and nine and add a digit after it, you could get her age. A web of lines on her face tell a tale of harsh living and resilience against odds. At her age she should not be struggling. She arrived in Kenya in the 1960s as a young woman. She has traveled through six decades in this land Kenya and so little has changed in her life. When I look deep into her weak eyes I know there is something she missed from her life. I can sense despair and deep hope. Then suddenly it strikes me. A sense of belonging.
As they weave on, one of them hums a song and breaks the poignant silence and soon other voices join in.
‘Though our fathers died in a quest to belong, they carried the cross to the finish line, we toll shall triumph if we hold on the cross.”
They are pious souls and this song helps them to cope with the world. They look defeated, secretive and untrusting all in a huddle, weaving and humming after a break of sad silence.
These women are stateless. For six decades they have crawled in dark seeking to be recognised as Kenyan citizens. They have been tortured by poverty. Things as simple as banking transaction is impossible for them. They cannot move freely in Kenya. Their children cannot access education like other Kenyans. A good health care is a far cry from reality. These women are the Shona community in Kenya and they have no identity.
Some of the Shona people living in Kenya arrived in 1960s as spiritual pilgrims while others worked on colonial plantations. When they set foot in Kenya in the dawn of Kenyan independence, they were warmly welcomed by the Kenya founding president Mzee Jomo Kenyatta. At the Church of God in Nairobi Hurligham where they congregate for prayers, they display a portrait they took with the president. This with the age old documents they have kept intact is a testament of their long history in Kenya.
Some like Rufalo Kapota are a third generation of Shona born in Kenya. Rufalo exudes brilliance, her large dark eyes have a gleam. She is twenty three years old. In another world she would have been doctor or an actor on a National stage or a teacher illuminating the minds of world’s children but Rufalo dropped out of school in class seven. All day, every day she works hard to weave a basket to supplement what her father gets from occasional masonry wages. Rufalo also helps take care of her siblings after her mother passed on. The weariness originating from the stress of life can be seen from a sad brow on her face. Her tight smile silently begging to be left alone and being a young woman, her look of innocence makes your stomach churn because of the sadness written all over her face as she narrates her ordeal. Rufalo is a stranger in the land of her fathers and without citizenship she is doomed to remain in a vicious circle of poverty. She hopes still.
“With identity I can use my talent as a spoken word artist and comedy. I can some day go back to school. I beg the Kenyan government to give us identity,” Rufalo pleads.
In a similar gathering of Shona in Kinoo, an old man rises weakly and hunches forward to speak about the plight of his community. He has a fringe of grey-white hair around his balding, mottled scalp and his dark face is wizened. He has the resigned look of one who life stopped giving and only took away. He had striven to get citizenship when he had some strength left and it earned him jail time at Industrial Jail during the Moi era. His name is Elijah Mwanga Achija.
“One fateful morning in 1996 we were rudely aroused from sleep by menacing police. They rounded us up and we were charged for being in the country illegally. We were arrested because we were regarded as aliens. Later we were acquitted but we lived in fear and our movement was restricted.”
About 4000 stateless Shona people live in rented shanties in Githurai, Kiambaa and Kinoo which are on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya. According to the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC), this number could be higher because among them are stateless people who came with the Shona and they originate from Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique.