Over 18,000 stateless people in Kenya struggle to access basic services as they lack official identity documents. A young woman has made history as the first stateless Shona woman to make it to university.
Stateless Shona woman, Nosizi Reuben (front-centre) poses with her family as she holds up her recently-issued birth certificate at home in Kinoo, Kenya. © UNHCR/Anthony Karumba
Now in her first semester as an economics student at the University of Nairobi – one of the country’s largest higher learning institutions – she is making history as the very first Shona woman to make it this far.
“When I found out that I got into university, it was the most joyful experience of my life. As a stateless girl, it’s been a challenging but great journey to get to where I am,” says the soft-spoken 20-year-old.
The Shona people arrived in Kenya from what was then Rhodesia – now Zimbabwe – as Christian missionaries in the 1960s. They carried Rhodesian passports and were registered as British subjects. After Kenya’s independence in 1963, they had a two-year window to register as Kenyan citizens, which many missed because they either did not know about or did not have access to the processes, rendering them stateless.
“It’s like you are a ghost … You don’t exist.”
“It’s like you are a ghost in the country that you are living in. You don’t exist,” explains Nosizi.
Wanja Munaita, an Assistant Protection Officer for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency in Kenya, highlights the difficulties that stateless people experience due to lack of identity documents.
“Without proof of nationality, the Shona and other stateless communities are not able to fully access basic services like education and health”, she says. “They cannot travel, own property, be formally employed or access financial services, among other rights that Kenyan citizens enjoy.”
Stateless people often face political and economic marginalization and discrimination, making them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.
Stateless Shona woman, Nosizi Reuben, attends a virtual lecture at the Kenya Human Rights Commission office in Nairobi, Kenya. © UNHCR/Anthony Karumba
Twenty-year-old stateless Shona woman, Nosizi Reuben (right), talks to her mother Angeline outside their home in Kinoo, Kenya. © UNHCR/Anthony Karumba
Nosizi Reuben leaves the Kenya Human Rights Commission office in Nairobi, where she is allowed free use of their wi-fi to study online. © UNHCR/Anthony Karumba
Twenty-year-old stateless Shona woman, Nosizi Reuben, revises on her laptop at home in Kinoo, Kenya. © UNHCR/Anthony Karumba
Nosizi Reuben (second from left), assists her sisters with their studies, outside their home in Kinoo, Kenya. © UNHCR/Anthony Karumba
Most Shona women of Nosizi’s age are already mothers.
“I want to break the norm and end the single story that Shona women have to marry young,” she explains. “I want all Shona girls to see that they can be anything they want. I want to be a role model for my younger sisters.”
The fourth born in a family of eight children, Nosizi recalls how she became stateless and describes the hurdles that being undocumented placed in her path.
“I want to break the norm and end the single story that Shona women have to marry young.”
“Like most Shona children, I was born at home, so I did not have a birth notification,” she explains, adding that her mother managed to get an antenatal clinic card, which she used in place of a birth certificate to persuade her primary school to enrol her.
Towards the end of her primary education, Nosizi once again found that she needed a birth certificate, this time to register for the national exams and continue on to high school.
“I was so determined to go to high school that I opted to repeat my final grade, hoping that by the end of that year I would have the certificate,” she recalls.
Nosizi performed very well in the exams but she still did not have a birth certificate to advance to high school. Her mother, armed with nothing but sheer conviction, persuaded the school to admit her using the clinic card.
“My mother is truly my greatest inspiration because she is not easily defeated,” she says with a smile.
Last year, following continued advocacy by UNHCR and the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC), the Government issued Shona children with birth certificates.
Just a year shy of completing her secondary education, Nosizi finally got what she needed.
With her birth certificate in hand, she registered for the final exams which would allow her to allow her to enter university. She went on to perform very well, gaining admission to the University of Nairobi, where a national identity card is a prerequisite for registration. UNHCR and KHRC intervened again and the university exceptionally allowed her to enrol using her birth certificate.
“This was the most fantastic day of my life! It has become a source of motivation for my younger siblings,” she adds.
While global data is hard to obtain as stateless populations are not always accounted for or included in national censuses, some 4.2 million stateless people are reported by UNHCR in 76 countries. The actual number could however be substantially higher.
As UNHCR marks the sixth anniversary of the #IBelong Campaign, aimed at ending statelessness by 2024, world leaders are urged to include and protect stateless populations and make bold and swift moves to eradicate statelessness.
In Kenya, there are an estimated 18,000 stateless people, including different groups of stateless people of Pemba and Shona origin and groups of people of Burundian, Congolese, Indian and Rwandan descent.
The COVID-19 pandemic has further worsened the economic situation for some stateless communities like the Shona, who rely on sales from handcrafts like baskets and carvings to get by.
“Our families are struggling to put food on the table. Sometimes I lack fare to go for my classes,” adds Nosizi.
“You have to be bold and courageous so that you can achieve what you want in life.”
Nosizi’s classes are taking place online due to the pandemic, but without internet at home, she commutes to the KHRC offices, some 20 kilometres away, where she has a work space and connectivity.
Despite the challenges, the budding economist is grateful for the support she has received so far and hopes to one day be legally recognized as a citizen.
Nosizi continues to draw strength from her mother’s resilience.
“My mother really inspires me because she’s so focused. You have to be bold and courageous so that you can achieve what you want in life,” she says.