Elijah Mwanga Achija is a man in grey old age. I find him beating grotesque scrap metals to shape. The sun is shining on his mottled scalp.
‘This is where money is,’ he tells me as he wipes creeping rivulets of sweat down his chin.
‘It is one dollar a day!’ He mourns with dry strain of voice.
Two dollars when lady luck deals him a favor. Since old age started undermining his bones, he no longer hammers enough scraps to earn enough to feed his family.
Elijah is a member of Shona community, a community closely knitted by sadness. They arrived in Kenya from Zimbabwe before Kenya’s independence in 1963. Fifty-six years later the communities live like outcasts, forgotten by each passing regime but yearning still for Kenyan citizenship.
Elijah has arranged my meeting with a chunk of his community members. Before the shadows of twilight fall, we arrive in Kiambaa. Messy shops are sprouting from every nook and cranny. Motorbike riders in heavy jackets are vrooming in and out.
We walk to the town’s eastern peripherals where mournful hums lead us to a derelict stone structure, it is darkened by time. I fear the building will soon heed to the beckoning call of gravity. The roof is caving in.
Elijah hunches inside and totter behind him.
They are no more than four dozen people in the shack, all of them in white flowing dresses and white headscarves around their heads. Young women with pallid porcelain faces and older women with withering faces and wisps of white hair sprouting from sides of their scarves
They sing dirges as they weave. Their sorrowful voices echo on the walls.
‘The days of our earthly pilgrimage will be over and in the Lord we shall rest,’ they sing. Elijah interprets.
The young weave with strained energy, the elderly languidly. Every long or thin strand of nylon passes through the eye of a needle with clinical precision. The glorious tapestry goes on; a thread leans against another, and numerous others over and below creating patterns on top of patterns, in and out. Soon a young woman completes her basket of awe.
The humming dies, there is such solemn silence floating in the room, and sadness splashed all over their faces.
Despite their mastery in weaving deluxe African bags, these women are head, shoulders submerged into poverty. Despite the skill, hard work and time it takes to weave a single basket, they usually sell for pittance because they are deemed illegals.That’s not all. They cannot open a bank account, and generation upon generation have not had access to education. They are Shona Community in Kenya, and they are stateless.
Regime after regime has failed to recognize them as Kenyans.
Elijah’s memory journeys to a misty day in 1960’s, when his fathers left Zimbabwe in a caravan destined to Kenya.
‘There rose a prophet in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). His name was Yohana. The seer proclaimed that he had been sent from heaven to deliver an urgent oracle. He required of us immediately leave Rhodesia and journey east promised Kenya, our promised land and live in holy city of Nairobi.’
For many days they traversed a country after another begging their way. They dared raging rivers, cutting through labyrinth of thorny primal lands; stopping to nurse aching limbs. Elderly men, youths, and women with sore feet and their clueless babies straddled on backs. Their only earthly being desiccated sleeping mats and cooking utensils which were more like artifacts. Some fell ill on the way; others were stuck by accidents of nature-their health deteriorating faster than their shoes, and death killed many.
At last their road brought the weary souls to Kenya in the dawn of her independence in 1960. Kenya’s founding President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta received the pilgrims with pleasure and virtue of hospitality.
The community then built a church at Upper hill, Nairobi and christened it ‘the Church of God’. It still stands today albeit with the fact that the land it sits on being drawn into controversy.
Until baton wielding Kenya’s second president, dictator Daniel Arap Moi had ascended to power, the Shona had blended with Kikuyu neighbors and even intermarried .Their merry days ended when Moi started throwing the Shona into prison.
‘We would get rounded up by police because we were regarded as aliens,’ says Elijah Jack Mwanga Achija.
From then, their days have been engulfed by a thick shadow of dark cloud.
‘The harassment ceased after Moi left power yet we still we have no identity papers. We cannot open bank accounts, do mobile money transactions, own property or travel at will. Our children also do not go beyond primary school because we their parents are not recognized as citizens,’ says Elijah Jack Mwanga Achija.
At 23, Rufalo Kapota is a mother of two. Her lips are arid and cracked. Gloom sweeps across her face and tears well her eyes. Fragmented images seem to conjure in her mind.
‘I was seven when mother died. I helped my father to look after my younger siblings as he scraped in menial jobs as carpenter,’ she says amid sobs.
Kapota like many other Shona girls and children have no access to education because they do not have a Kenyan birth certificate, and their future is a gamble. This silent lethargy stresses her, this waiting; she is trapped like her two children.
Shona women do not deliver in public hospitals. They mostly deliver at home with all the risks it comes with because they do not have Kenyan identification, and because private hospitals are beyond their means.
A whole generation of Shona women is utterly hopeless, and their multitude of economic problems continues to fester. There is no telling when the Kenyan government will heed to their cries. So are men like Elijah. They get menial jobs that do not require identification, and are short-changed by their hissing masters.
According to the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC), there are about 4000 members of Shona community scattered in Zambezi, Kiambaa, Kinoo and Githurai, about 15 km in the outskirts of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi.
As I leave, their dirges seep from the walls of the precarious building, and disappear into oblivion, just like their pleas to the Kenyan government.