The long wait for identity

They have been in Kenya for over seven decades but aren't recognized as Kenyans. They have suffered alienation in the land they call home and neither own land nor other essentials to make their lives worth looking forward to. This is the story of the Makonde people whose pursuit for recognition as Kenyan citizens has been elusive since the country attained independence in 1963. They were brought into the country by the British colonialists in the 1940s to work in the imperialists’ sisal and sugar plantations in Kilifi, Kwale and Taita Taveta counties along Kenya’s coastal strip. By the time Kenya attained independence in 1963, the Makonde people were not documented as one of Kenya’s 42 tribes, hence never ‘qualified’ for citizenship. They have since been living as ‘stateless’ forgotten by authorities despite their claim for recognition as nationals.

Before colonialism, Africa was a ‘country’; a massive piece of land ruled by kings and ancestral chiefs. But, the continent has never been the same since its scramble and partition. The more than 52 nations played by the colonialists’ rules to stay within 'artificial' borders that permanently demarcated them despite their ‘oneness’ as Africans and attempts to have one united Africa remain elusive.

And, the Makonde, a community from Mozambique, who were settled in Tanzania and Kenya, and many others endured the fate of being branded as 'outsiders', 'aliens' or 'squatters' in countries within their own continent. Like the Nubians, who are originally from the Sudan and Egypt but are now scattered across East Africa following their recruitment by the British military in the 1850s to fight for the colonialists, they have no claim to citizenship. They have no title deeds for the land they have stayed on for decades and are denied access to many entitlements that citizens enjoy. But, unlike the Makonde people, the Nubians who reside in Kibera, an informal settlement in Nairobi, were part of the Kings African Rifles that fought alongside the British when the colonialists were expanding their territory across East Africa. With a population of over 100,000, their struggle for identity still remains uncertain. They are part of an estimated 15 million people who are considered stateless globally.

Attempts to lure many of the Makonde back to Mozambique have failed, with many of them insisting they are more Kenyan than they are Mozambican since they have no relatives or kinship links they know of. But, their struggle for recognition has paid off with the government pledging to grant them citizenship before the end of this year. Kenya’s president Uhuru Kenyatta apologized on behalf of all Kenyans because the country had taken too long to consider them as “as our brothers and sisters”.

As proof of this apology, they will be issued with identification cards. While I think we should have gotten rid of IDs and borders long ago, and remained African as was before the scramble and partition of the continent, to many, it is a symbol of identity and belonging in a fractured world. These borders have divided families and communities that should otherwise remain united. But, for the Makonde, the IDs herald something more symbolic than just a piece of paper: a new beginning and identity as Kenyan Africans.

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