Stateless people living in Kenya vow to reclaim shattered dreams

Kenyan Coat of arms
Coat of arms

When she was born 24 years ago in a farming village on the outskirts of the Kenyan capital Nairobi, Happiness Kapota, in her aptly comprehensible toddler innocence, knew that her home is the only domicile she could proudly identify with.

Her late paternal grandparents, Kephas Kapota and Gloria Nyati Kapota, entered Kenya from Zimbabwe during the colonial era and sought employment from the British settlers’ lands in central Kenyan county of Kiambu as well as running errands for the Christian missionaries.

Kapota’s grandparents died in the early 1950s, leaving behind children who were unidentified since they had not registered them as Kenyans.

Back then, the custom laws were lenient and would from time to time permit individuals to pass through the porous borders with negligence of armed guards.

In this state of affairs, the Kapotas were rendered stateless, and three generations down the line have no recognition of the Kapota names in the registrar of persons.

The Kapota lineage is among thousands of stateless people living in Kenya who live in fear and deprivation since they can’t access basic services like education and healthcare.

“Being stateless means we lack recognition of nationality and that has got very devastating effect on respect for our rights as human beings,” said Kapota who currently lives with maternal grandparents Dickson Ncube and Lagina Sibindi.

She narrated the harrowing story of how her mother died while giving birth through the help of a mid-wife.

“My mother died when I was 16 years old, she could not have gone to the hospital for lack of identity documents, so she gave birth in a nearby house with help of village midwives,” Kapota recalled.

She reckoned that without a proof that a person is a national of the country where they live – or of any other country – a person finds it very difficult to live in that society.

“Such a person is unable to work, to access healthcare and education, to hold secure rights to land and other property, or to enforce any of these claims in court, and we go through that each day,” said Kapota.

She said that stateless people live a life of great deprivation and hardship and remain marginalized economically, socially, politically and culturally.

Just like any other child, Kapota was bouncing on her mother’s hands until the day she got old enough to have the reality dawn on her that together with her four siblings they were treated as stateless persons.

“The moment my mother revealed to me that my siblings and I were stateless persons, I could not understand what that meant,” said Kapota.

She recalled that whenever she got into a tiff with the other young playmates in the village, she was in trouble.

“I was made to understand that as a stateless person, that meant that I was not supposed to for example talk freely, shout, play with other children and go outside our compound at will, whenever another child did injustice to me, it was not a big deal but when we were on the wrong, it was treated as a heinous crime,” said Kapota.

However, Kapota’s resolve to become a human rights defender could not allow her to keep quiet and suffer in silence, instead she would shout, but the more she shouted, the more trouble she attracted, at the end of the day her voices remained unheard; she was literally muzzled.

“All my other siblings lived in fear since we were told that if they talked openly, they would be chased away and so they had nothing to be proud of,” said Kapota.

“As I grew up, I admired strong-willed women in Kenya and dreamt to join their league,” said Kapota.

At 24, she is now married and a mother of three but could not attain her dream since the highest level of education she got was elementary, and being the first born, she had to drop out of school to work and fend for her younger siblings after the mother died.

“I was employed as a domestic worker for a Zimbabwean immigrant who worked for an NGO on a contract, then I would earn 6, 000 shillings (60 U.S. dollars) per month, money that went to buying food for the family, my father too worked for a prominent farmer in Kiambu and his proceeds would pay for our house rent,” said Kapota.

Currently, she weaves multicolored baskets and jewelries from plastics which she sells to brokers at a throw away price. She gets her raw materials from Nairobi’s industrial area.

“With fear to be exposed, I usually sell the baskets to middlemen at one dollar but they make a kill by selling them at between nine dollars to 10 dollars making almost a hundred percent profit, “said Kapota

“The baskets have however enabled me to put food on the table for my family”, she added.

Lisa Wanja Munaita, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) assistant protection officer, said there is need to recognize the stateless individuals to enable them realize their potential.

“Given an opportunity, there are great talents among the stateless persons, they are equally talented if not better,” said Munaita.

She said that stateless people are a discriminated lot while their efforts to seek employment or to join saving groups remained an exercise in futility.

“As a stateless person, one can’t achieve the aspiration of living as true citizens enjoying all the rights and freedoms, citizenship is therefore a crucial element in enjoyment of the rights of individuals and communities and therefore all those that qualify for it should be granted,” said Munaita.

Participants at a recent ministerial conference on the eradication of statelessness in the African Great Lakes region which took place in Nairobi urged governments to enhance protection of this vulnerable group.

On its part, Kenya reaffirmed its commitment towards devising interventions to assist the stateless people.

Such interventions include the oncoming national census which will help classify the stateless people as a special category, making it easier to identify their needs.

“The Kenya government has resolved to factor in number of stateless during the oncoming census as a step to take stock the persons so as to profile and register their security and social concerns,” said Patrick Ole Ntutu, chief administrative secretary of Kenya’s Ministry of Interior and Coordination of National Government. Enditem

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