Pastor Joseph Senjeri

Pastor Joseph Senjeri, a Rwandan whose parents worked in Kericho and who is married to a Kenyan woman.

| Toma Matoke | Nation Media Group

Rwandan refugees ask to be recognised as 44th Kenyan tribe

What you need to know:

  • More Rwandans came to Kenya as refugees after the 1994 genocide and are now all settled in multinational tea estates.

Rwandans whose parents came to Kenya to work as slaves for the British colonial government now want to be recognised as Kenya’s 44th tribe.

Their grandparents came to Kenya starting in the 1930s under the force of a colonial decree.

Even then, they said, they are still not recognised as Kenyan citizens, with no rights to acquire an identity card.

In an interview with Nation.Africa, descendants of the immigrants narrated how their great grandparents were forcibly transferred to Kenya by the colonial government in groups in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s.

They came under a deal between British colonialists and the government of Belgium, which ruled Rwanda at the time.

Pastor Joseph Senjeri, a Rwandan whose parents worked in Kericho, displays his Identity document.

Photo credit: Tom Matoke | Nation Media Group

More Rwandans came to Kenya as refugees after the 1994 genocide and are now all settled in multinational tea estates in Kericho, Nandi and Bomet, where colonialists had taken their compatriots by force to work on the plantations.

They say they have lived in Kenya long enough to deserve citizenship.

The Rwandans want to follow in the footsteps of the Makonde community, who in 2016 were recognised as Kenyan citizens, with 10,000 of them registered to receive identity cards.

Complaints of rejection

Statistics show that about 12,000 Rwandan nationals live in Kenya, spread across different towns.

The third generation of Rwandan nationals who came to Kenya in colonial days complain that they have suffered rejection from both the Kenyan and Rwandan governments.

Gerald Ndagijimana Senkomo, 70, the chairman of a Kenyan Rwandese Association, says the group recognises Kenya as its home.

“Now I’m just here, with no rights, no property. I do not own a Kenyan birth certificate, an identity card, a bank account or any other necessary document,” he said.

“I do not own property and I cannot even acquire it, even if I had the money.”

Gerald Senkomo

Gerald Senkomo, chairman of the Rwandan refugees' association in Kenya.

Photo credit: Tom Matoke | Nation Media Group

While many of the original Rwandans who came to Kenya traced their origins to Kitalam, Butare and Gisenyi villages in Rwanda, he said, he and others were unable to trace their kin after many decades living in Kenya.

The colonial government had issued special identity cards to all Africans at the time, he said, and those expired after independence.

“Our colonial identity cards were confiscated in 1977 by the Kenyan government. Our temporary work permits were also not renewed by President Jomo Kenyatta’s regime and subsequent administrations,” he lamented.

The group expressed confidence that the Kenyan and Rwandan governments would find an amicable solution to their predicament, hoping that President Uhuru Kenyatta would consider their suffering and grant them citizenship.

The first group of Rwandans, Mr Senkomo said, arrived in Kenya in 1930, the second in 1945 and the final in 1957. They came through Lake Victoria over the Tanzanian border and resettled in camps.

Even today, there are camps in Kericho and Kisii counties known as Kambi Nyarwanda that grew from this forced migration and resettlement.

Tough life

Mr Senkomo said their grandparents were transported in terrifying conditions inside containers in lorries at odd hours of the night and distributed to various tea estates and sisal farms to provide free labour.

John Ntuku,41, another Rwandan, said his children had been denied basic rights, including education, because they are viewed as foreigners though he is married to a Kenyan citizen.

“My children do not even have birth certificates and they cannot secure government employment and are worried for their future,” he said.

Pastor Joseph Senjeri, born in Kericho County in 1956, said many of his tribesmen were sacked in 2002 by multinational tea firms that had sustained their existence and had to seek refuge back home in Rwanda.

Alouse Sambanana, a shoe shiner in Kericho town streets, attending to his client.

Photo credit: Tom Matoke | Nation Media Group

To their disappointment and frustration, he said, they suffered frequent arrests by Rwandan police and immigration officials.

“We are faced with the hard reality that we are stateless. We are unrecognised in Kenya and rejected in Rwanda. We have nowhere to run to,” he said.

The 62-year-old pastor said many Rwandan settlers lived in extreme poverty, without housing, health services and education and could not take advantage of government support systems.

The group petitioned Rwanda President Paul Kagame and President Kenyatta to meet and find a way of resolving the question of their nationality.

In February 2017, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) launched a programme to repatriate willing Rwandan refugees with incentives including one-year medical care and $250 for every adult and $150 for a child.

Identification problem

UNHCR is targeting about 20,000 refugees who fled from Rwanda to different countries around the world during the genocide.

“We are incapacitated by our refugee classification and are unable to work on improving our living conditions,” said Redeemed Church Pastor Peter Gothongi Karisha, another Rwandan national.

Pastor Karisha recalled an injustice during President Daniel Moi’s regime when he said the government arrested Rwandans, packed them into lorries, dumped them on the Ugandan and Tanzanian borders and instructed them to go back home.

But Ugandan and Tanzanian border officials blocked their entry, citing lack of identification and passage documents. The refugees were detained for days before being returned to Kericho.

“We have been tossed about by both the colonial governments and African governments after independence,” said Pastor Karisha.

Maria Nyabusika, a Rwandan refugee married to a Kenyan, is pictured with her two children in Kericho County.

Photo credit: Tom Matoke | Nation Media Group

The refugees, however, saw some light at the end of the tunnel in February 2017, when Rwanda’s ambassador to Kenya, James Kimonyo, visited them in Kericho and Bomet counties and promised to raise their plight with both governments.

During the Moi regime, the Rwandans also tried a few times to seek compensation from the Kenyan government through lawyer Mirugi Kariuki (now deceased) but the cases failed to take off.

The refugees see hope in the Constitution Kenya adopted in 2010. They hope President Kenyatta will decree that they be recognised as Kenyan citizens as he did with the Makonde, who were originally from Mozambique.

A UNHCR report says that as of February 2017, some 492,761 refugees and asylum seekers lived in Kenya. Daadab hosted 170,833 while Kakuma had 164,571. The Nairobi area had 67,207.