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Agony of community that has been stateless in Kenya for 60 years

The Makonde at Makongeni camp in Msambweni, Kwale County. The community has stagnated due to lack of IDs. [PHOTOS: TOBIAS CHANJI/STANDARD]

Dahili Joakim, 20, has received a call-up for professional football in Sweden but that opportunity is slipping away.

Masera Punda, 78, has to rely on friends, at a fee, to do mobile money transfers.

Esther Thomas, 19, desired to pursue secondary education but couldn't.

And Sauti Limeta, 80, has given up and now only awaits death.

They have all been condemned to suffer the same fate, but which has manifested itself in various spheres of their lives and which has spanned two generations.

The four, like 40,000 ethnic Makonde, whose ancestry is Mozambique but have lived in Kenya's coastal areas since colonial times, cannot be registered as Kenyan citizens.

They are stateless.

Last week, The Standard published the story of Mr Dahili, a resident of Kwale County, who has been invited to play professional football in Sweden but is unable to complete travel arrangements for lack of a Kenyan Identity card.

Dahili's case is legally complex, for he travelled to Sweden as an underage on a Kenyan passport yet cannot acquire an ID. He represents the plight of the approximately 40,000 ethnic Makonde, who have lived in Kenya's coastal region since colonial times.

Four years ago, Dahili did trials with Djurgarden IF Club after a Swedish scout visiting Diani was impressed with his game at Gombato FC and arranged his travel and passport.

The Swede convinced Kenyan authorities to give Dahili a Kenyan passport for the trip, which he still holds.

In February he was recalled to Sweden to play for Ope If in Ostersund, but has not reported to date.

As a professional, he needs to obtain a personal identification number (PIN) to pay taxes. But to qualify for PIN, he needs a Kenyan ID which he cannot get because his deceased parents had no Kenyan papers or birth documents, a plight that affects the majority of his people, including the few that have managed to acquire higher education.

Like all ethnic Makonde, Dahili lives in some kind of legal limbo and a vicious cycle, wondering why the Government that gave him a passport cannot offer him an ID card.

Ms Thomas, who lives in Kwale town, says she was unable to continue with secondary school education because she lacked a birth certificate, which is requirement for enrolment.

Punda, 78, who says she was born in colonial Mozambique in 1938 and came to Kenya in 1955, says her major problem was accessing M-Pesa services.

"I use my friend's M-Pesa account to get money from my children, sometimes at a fee," says Punda.

The older generation of Makonde can speak their tribal dialect while the younger ones, like Dahili, speak either Digo, Duruma, Taita, Kiswahili or English languages spoken by local tribes in Kwale, Taita Taveta and Kilifi where the Makonde live in scattered and impoverished communities without land rights.

Most Makonde are Christian and engage in petty trades, including wine tapping, hairdressing and share-cropping.

There are varying tales about the Makonde and how they ended up on the Kenyan coast. Community elders say they came to Kenya during the colonial period to work in sugar and sisal plantations.

After independence, the Makonde did not return to their motherland, which was still under Portuguese rule.

Meanwhile, the sugar and sisal plantations in Kwale, Kilifi and Taita Taveta areas collapsed, and the Makonde slipped into poverty, unable to send their children to school or buy land to settle.

Many are squatters on the plantations or empty land in areas such as Gazi, Makongeni, Vanga, Lungalunga, Mangwei and Kanana, all in Kwale, while the Wapemba—another stateless community—live in parts of Kwale and Mombasa's Old Town and Majengo.

Because they are not Kenyan citizens, the Makonde and Wapemba also cannot get Kenyan IDs easily, and a couple of years ago the Kenyan government declared them stateless.

Lawyer Yusuf Abubakar, a native of Msambweni in Kwale where some of the Makonde live, says many of them may be classified as refugees or victims of war who came to Kenya during Mozambique's independence struggle against the Portuguese.

"When they settled in Kwale, they became a source of cheap labour because of their plight and did not return to their country thereafter," says Abubakar, who also argues that before independence Kenya did not have clear laws to register these so-called stateless people.

"They were neither registered as refugees, asylum seekers or resident workers," according to Abubakar, who says hundreds or thousands of other people born in Kenya with roots in Zanzibar, mainland Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda fall in the same legal limbo as the Makonde.

Abubakar says he has encountered several people who came from Rwanda in the 1950s, or other East African nations, either as victims of war or after marriage but failed to register their parents.

Says Abubakar: "There is no legal record to show how they came."

Most wanted to be Kenyan citizens but a spanner was thrown in the works by Mozambique's consulate in Mombasa when it registered several thousands to participate in that country's election.

According to Kwale County Commissioner Evans Achoki at that time, the move by some Makonde to participate in the Mozambican polls "has made the Government to step back and rethink its earlier promise to given them IDs."

"It is very unfortunate that their loyalty is now in question. If they expected Kenya to give them citizenship, then they should know that the first step is to denounce Mozambican nationality and then the Kenyan government can declare them stateless," said Achoki.

According to the lawyer, the Makonde have legal options available to them but under international law, Kenya cannot expel them.

He says they can apply for political asylum, resident visas or other refugee status, which he says is a pathway to applying for citizenship.

"They can be repatriated or be assisted to go back to their country if there is peace and they are willing," he says, but adds that most of these people were unwilling to leave.

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