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.
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.
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 of IDs, and the subsequent inability to own property or get access to government services.
She recalled an incident in 1977 when two Rwandan nationals lied to government officials that they were from the Luhya and Kisii communities in a bid to acquire IDs. It landed them in civil court. She said this forced “many Rwandan nationals to flee to Uganda to avoid further suffering.”
Nyirabatware’s is ne of over 600 other Rwandan nationals who have been living in Kericho and Bomet Counties.
In a recent interview with The EastAfrican at Kericho, the Rwandans expressed their wish to be recognised as Kenyans after the community living in the country for almost 70 years.
“We prefer to get Kenyan identity cards since we have lost touch with our Rwandan roots and have no family relations there. And we face hostility every time we attempt to go back home,” they claimed.
The Rwandans are seeking to be registered as Kenya’s 44th tribe and to enjoy the same constitutional rights and privileges as Kenyan citizens and be issued with Kenyan identity cards.
The Makonde community from the Kenyan Coast, was the first among the stateless communities in Kenya to be recognised as Kenyan citizens in 2016, after President Kenyatta directed that the over 10,000 Makonde people be registered as citizens and issued with national identity cards.
The Rwandans are seeking similar treatment considering they too are now third-generation residents. They say without basic government documents such as identity cards and birth certificates, their lives are in limbo as they cannot get access to basic constitutional and government services such as education, health and good jobs for lack of proof of citizenship. Over the years they have been branded “foreigners” “aliens” or “refugees” and have faced hostility.
On the other hand, Rwandan authorities order them to “return to their home country Kenya” whenever they attempt to return to Rwanda.
The EastAfrican visited Kericho and the hope of the community was that the process to have them naturalised would begin before the country holds the general election in August.
As if it were not bad enough for the community to “lose” its identity, death offers no peace either as the dead are buried in public cemeteries for lack of ancestral burial grounds. Intermarriage with local communities also means children are being assimilated into other cultures.
Gerald Ndagijimana Senkomo, who is the chairman of the Kenyan Rwandese Association, says his parents came to work in Kenya in the 1930s. Now 67 years old, he was born in Kericho and recognises only Kenya as his home and claims no attachment to his ancestral home of Rwanda.
“I don’t have a Kenyan birth certificate, identity card, bank account or any other necessary documentation and neither do I receive public services or own property — even if I had money — for lack of key documents,” he said.
Most of the Rwandan nationals in Kericho and Bomet originated from Kitalam, Butare and Gisenyi in Rwanda, but cannot trace their kin after their decades-long stay in Kenya.
Mr Senkomo says the colonial government had issued special identity cards to all Africans, and these automatically expired after Independence. “Our colonial identity cards were then confiscated in 1977 by the government of Kenya and our temporary work permits were not renewed by President Jomo Kenyatta’s regime and other subsequent governments,” he said.
The community became stateless and “stranded” in Kenya, and the families have had to use “creative” ways to survive without the support of the Kenyan and Rwandan governments.
The guest workers
The first group of Rwandan nationals arrived in Kenya in 1930, the second group in 1945, and the final group in 1957 through Lake Victoria from the Tanzanian border and resettled in settler camps. To date, there are camps in Kericho and Kisii counties that are known as “Kambi Nyarwanda.”
Rwanda refugees’ chairperson Gabriel Harelimana (68) recalls their suffering during the Moi Regime.
“We were frequently arrested and transported in lorries to the Busia border but were detained by Ugandan authorities who declined to allow us passage to Rwanda,” he recalls.
Harelimana, who has chaired the Rwandan nationals’ group since 1982, says that the first generation of Rwandans who were brought to work in Kenyan tea plantation by the colonial government between 1930 and 1947 have all died except for Nyaribatware.
He recalls a hunger strike by the Rwandan nationals in 1992 when they were being held at the Nandi Hills police cells. They were protesting yet another unlawful detention. He says they had to learn several local languages and intermarry with other communities just to survive.
“Most of us speak more than one local language; the Kikuyu, Kisii, Luo, Luhya and Kalenjin — fluently as we try to fit in,” he said.
Government officials in Kericho, Bomet and Nandi and political leaders too are aware of the existence of the Rwandan nationals but say they have no say over granting of citizenship since it is a function of the central government.
An official at the Rwandan embassy in Nairobi however claimed that the embassy has written to the Kenyan Cabinet Secretary for Foreign Affairs Amina Mohammed, requesting a meeting between Rwandan and Kenyan government officials to discuss the issue of the Rwandan nationals and their possible resettlement. The official further explained that the Rwandan government’s efforts to assist its nationals were made difficult by the lack of documentation.
The community had a glimmer of hope when in February this year, Rwandan ambassador to Kenya James Kimonyo visited them in Kericho and Bomet Counties and promised to bring their plight to the attention of both Nairobi and Kigali governments.
Around the same time, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees had commenced a programme that would see willing Rwandan refugees receive incentives, including a one-year medical care and $250 and $150 payout for adults and children respectively as an incentives to be repatriated. This however targets about 20,000 refugees from the 1994 genocide.
The Kericho and Bomet Rwandan nationals however want President Kenyatta to grant them citizenship, which will allow them to enjoy the rights accorded to other Kenyan communities.