January 30, 2023 remains poignant for Hamisi Makame.
After years of living stateless at Kichakamkwaju village in Lunga Lunga, Kwale County, Makame’s Pemba community was officially recognised as a Kenyan ethnic group.
President William Ruto, in a special Gazette notice, said Kenyans of Pemba heritage will be issued with relevant identification in accordance with the Constitution. They are now identified as part of the 16 dialects of the Swahili of Kenya.
The President took the step following recommendations of the National Assembly, which in 2020 was considering a petition to have the Pemba recognised as citizens of Kenya.
“It is a big relief. We have been pushing for this for many years, with hopes that we can finally be identified as Kenyans. Some of our tribulations are going to end,” says Makame, who is also the chairman of the Pemba community living in Kenya.
A person may be stateless as a result of discrimination based on ethnicity, religion or gender, the transfer of territory between states, or conflicting nationality laws.
Stateless people often lack documentation necessary to attend school, open a bank account, get a job, passport or mobile phone number, or enter government buildings, according to the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).
The official recognition of the Pemba as Kenyans ends tribulations for more than 7,000 residents of Kwale, Kilifi and Mombasa counties.
Lacking official identification cards or documents for the members of the community who moved into Kenya from Tanzania meant that they did not have access to most public facilities and services.
It also meant that their women could not get access to the Linda Mama programme, which allowed women to give birth in public hospitals for free.
Now the community has fresh hopes of being “normal” Kenyans, since in a few months, they will have Kenyan ID cards.
The Pemba say they have faced widespread discrimination.
As a community that predominantly depends on fishing, diving and seafaring as the main source of income, Makame says many of them were arrested in the Indian Ocean, because authorities would consider them foreigners.
This made it difficult for them to catch sufficient fish, sell and feed their families. This explains the high levels of poverty among them.
“There are special licences that fishermen have and this is given when they have ID cards. Unfortunately, all of our fishermen did not have them. They kept arresting us and we were always on the run. We were saved by Beach Management Unit members. Also, without identification documents, (we) cannot secure a good job, own property or access critical government services,” Makame says.
Once all the fishermen register for the identification and get it, they'll be able to freely fish for long hours and on any part of the Kenyan waters without fear.
There are more than 100,000 Pemba community people according to Makame, but only 7, 123 are registered since the rest have hidden their identities for lacking citizenship. It is believed they came to Kenya from Zanzibar in Tanzania during World War II.
A larger population of the community is found along the coastal strip, with the majority living in Kwale followed by Kilifi and Mombasa.
Others are found in Nakuru, Homa Bay and Kisumu.
In Kwale, they are mainly found in the small villages of Kichakamkwaju, Shimoni, Gazi, Vanga and Mangwei.
Their challenge was not only in land ownership, for most women, but they also failed to join empowerment groups and get access to loans.
Amina Hamisi, who was born in Kichakamkwaju in 1969 says that getting citizenship and ID cards will enable the community’s women to join groups that will allow them to access loans.
“This is a big relief. We were hoping that women will now be able to get into entrepreneurship and other small businesses to fight poverty,” she says.
She explains that women were experiencing challenges such as having to pay hefty hospital bills to give birth for lacking ID cards that will allow them to enrol in the Linda Mama initiative.
Some mothers have lost their babies during birth because they could not access proper maternal health services and had to rely on traditional midwives.
For Mwalimu Mkasha, this is a moment of freedom. He has always lived a life akin to being on the run for fear of being arrested.
The community's organising secretary, Mkasha says his being born and living in Kenya will finally make sense once he can secure documents for the land he lives on.
“I have always been living in fear that one day I will be ejected from my land for lacking a title and documentation to show that it belongs to my parents and that I legally own it,” he says.
Being Kenyans will reduce illiteracy among the Pembas, allowing their children to further their studies both within and outside the countries.
According to him, this was impossible earlier, because most of the learners would only get to Standard Eight, or Form Four and resort to fishing. Having passports will also allow them to apply for jobs outside the country.
He feels good that in the next general election, the Pembas will vote and participate in national development.
In 2021, Kilifi North MP Owen Baya presented a petition in Parliament to recognise the community as Kenyans. It was passed and forwarded to the Executive. This was followed by a special committee formed to investigate the legitimacy of the Kenyan Pemba community.
During Jamhuri day in December last year, President Ruto promised that he would grant the community citizenship.
This development comes six years after the Makonde, who also live in Kwale County, were granted citizenship by President Uhuru Kenyatta in 2018.
In 2016 both Pembas and Makonde marched together to the State House, fighting for recognition, but only the Makonde were granted citizenship. Hindus and Shonas were also considered by the government.
The Makonde community can now access bursary services, vie for leadership positions, and be attended to in public hospitals, among other benefits that they lacked before they got citizenship.