The plight of 'lost' Rwandans in Kenya

Saturday June 24 2017

Elizabeth Nyaribatware, 93, the oldest Rwandan

Elizabeth Nyaribatware, 93, the oldest Rwandan national living in Kericho, Kenya. She has lived in Kenya for 72 years and is registered as an alien. PHOTO | TOM MATOKE | NMG 

By TOM MATOKE

Elizabeth Nyirabatware, 93, recalls her arrival in Kenya from Rwanda in 1945, accompanied by her now deceased husband Joseph Rwasa Nyabenda.

Nyabenda and Nyirabatware, then 21 years old, newly married and still childless, were excited and hoped for better prospects in the “foreign” land. They had been recruited to travel to Kenya by Belgium colonialists to work in the expansive tea plantations in Kericho and Bomet owned by white settlers.

Nyirabatware describes Kenya back then as a “land of milk and honey” for her young family and explains that she and her husband got “a rewarding job experience working for the colonialists,” who paid “attractive salaries and other benefits.

“We received other incentives including promotions, free rations of grain and blankets from the colonialists for our services,” she recalls with a smile. She describes the work as having been difficult but rewarding. She used to pick over 30 kilogrammes of tea leaf a day in the tea estates in Kericho and Bomet.

Now in her sunset years and currently living in Kiropket Village in Nandi County, she has reservations about the “manner” in which subsequent post-Independence Kenyan governments have treated the families of over 1,000 Rwandan nationals who took the trip with her in the 1930s and 40s.

Nyirabatware says she is the oldest surviving Rwandan national brought to Kenya to work at the tea plantations in colonial times, but laments Kenya’s reluctance “to recognise us as citizens” despite “spending our entire lives in service to the government.”

She chronicles the sufferings of the Rwandan national at the hands of Kenyan police officers for lacking identity cards; their rejection by their own government in Kigali, which has been noncommittal on their repatriation and resettlement.

Aliens cards issued to Rwandan nationals in

Aliens cards issued to Rwandan nationals in Kenya. PHOTO | COURTESY

End of colonialism, beginning of problems

In fluent Kinyarwanda and broken Kiswahili, Nyirabatware makes an appeal to Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta and his government to recognise her and the rest of the Rwandan community. “Before I die, I appeal to President Kenyatta and his government to provide me and other Rwandan nationals with ID cards,” she says through a translator.

Kenya’s constitution stipulates that every citizen, born or naturalised, has to be registered and issued with a national identity card as proof of citizenship. The identity card is used in transacting every civil and economic matter in the country. Lack of it is considered a civil crime.

Nyirabatware, now a great grandmother, has vivid memories of her entire 72 years in Kenya as a guest worker. She says the end of colonialism was the beginning of a series of problems for the Rwandan nationals in Kenya as they were “abandoned without direction to where or how they would live.” She is currently under the care of her fourth-born daughter, Anna Nyabenda, a mother of six, widowed over 10 years ago.  

“My daughter’s children are all married, I am a great grandmother; there is just the two of us in this house,” she says.

Nyirabatware says that she has no desire to go back to her native country, terming Kenya the “only home she knows.”

“One of my sons returned to Rwanda in 1994, and he was killed in the genocide; Kenya is the only home I know,” she said.

Civil court

She speaks of her community’s humiliation and suffering as they struggled to survive in Kenya after Independence without national identity cards. She lists frequent unlawful arrests and detention arising from lack o