The Pemba, a stateless people trapped in legal limbo in Kenya

By Lucía Blanco Gracia 

Gazi, Kenya, Jan 13 (EFE).- Mize Hamisi Ali has lived in legal limbo for decades. Kenya is the only homeland she knows, but the country does not recognize her community, the Pemba people, as citizens. 

“We don’t know when we came here, we’ve been living here for as long as we could remember,” the elderly woman tells Efe. 

Wrapped in a flowered sarong, she sits on a mat on the porch of the house she and her husband, Mfaki Sharif Omar, built from clay and palm-leaf on a piece of land that they do not own in the village of Gazi, on the southern Kenyan coast.

Mize Hamisi Ali and her husband Mfaki Sharif Omar have known no other homeland than Kenya, but their community, the Pemba people, have lived for decades in legal limbo, unrecognized as full citizens by the country. EFE/ Lucía Blanco Gracia

Her husband pulls out the few identity documents he and his wife have from a crumpled envelope.  By their own count, their community in Kenya has more than 7,000 members, who have lived as stateless people since the country’s independence in 1963.

When Kenya became a republic in 1964 after decolonization, the Pembas were neither registered as an indigenous tribe nor recognized as Kenyan citizens, resulting in decades of marginalization and harassment by the authorities.

But there is hope that the situation could change after Kenyan president William Ruto in December announced the start of the process to finally grant them citizenship.

HISTORICAL MARGINALIZATION

The earliest indications of the presence of the Pembas in the territory that is now Kenya go back to the 14th and 15th centuries, according to political scientist Robert Waweru from the Kenya Human Rights Commission. 

“Successive regimes after independence were of the opinion that the Pembas in Kenya had come from the Pemba Island in Tanzania,” Waweru says. 

“When Kenya became independent they were not recognized as Kenyan citizens,” something that Waweru says has denied them rights, such as public health and education or land ownership.

Since 2017, a birth certificate is required for children to enroll in primary or secondary schools in Kenya, which can only be obtained with the parents’ identity card.

A majority of the Pembas are illiterate, because “after many years of harassment by the state, police crackdowns on what they would call illegal immigrants, and being deported, most of them just went under and hid,” says Waweru.

FORGING DOCUMENTS

The lack of documents also means that they cannot open a bank account or register a business, forcing many Pembas to forge their documents, pretending to be from other tribes that are recognized by the state.

Dressed in a gray chador —the majority of Pembas are Muslims — another member of the community, Fatuma Hamadi Juma, tells Efe that some people use the documents of their friends or neighbors, or get them on the black market. 

Ibrahim Ahmed Mohamed, a 33-year-old man who runs a small stall selling spices in the central market in Mombasa, says that he managed to study at university because his parents obtained papers in the 1990s through contacts in the administration.

“My family told us if you want to get an ID, you must hide your identity, don’t expose yourself and say that you are from the Pemba community,” tells Mohamed. 

“But I don’t want to hide it. I am proud. Why should I deny my tribe?” he adds. 

In 2021, a group of parliamentarians visited the traditional fishing community and concluded that they should be recognized as citizens of the country.

If president Ruto keeps his promise, the Pembas will no longer be on the list of roughly 18,500 stateless people who are settled in Kenya, according to the latest 2016 estimate by the UN Refugee Agency. EFE

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