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How statelessness condemned the Shona to poverty


Members of the Shona community attending the launch of a report about their community at The Gospel of God Church in Hurlinghum, Nairobi on October 1, 2020. PHOTO | NMG

For decades, the Shona community endured socio-economic challenges before President Uhuru Kenyatta recognised them as a Kenyan tribe on December 12, 2020.

This can be traced to between the 1950s and 1960s when their ancestors first came into the country from modern day Zimbabwe and Zambia.

In the formative years, the government registered them under the Alien Restriction Act. Upon changes to the Registration of Persons Act of 1978, registrations of stateless persons seized.

Lack of registrations meant that they could not be recognized as Kenyan citizens’ thus locked out from the job market as well as education.

This was compounded by the fact that they could not return back to their motherland as they had already lost their roots, meaning the above-mentioned countries could not recognise them.

Their woes are backed by a joint study by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the World Bank which established that more than half of the Shona population in the country lived in abject poverty.

The study further said that the Shona were 17 percentage points more likely to be poorer than the average Kenyan national.

"About 53 percent of the Shona population lives below the national poverty line of $59.95 (Sh6,566.9) per month, which is higher than the national average of 36 percent and national urban average of 29 percent," the study indicates.

The decision to recognise them came about in 2019, after the Kenyan government committed to the protection of stateless communities by this year at the Global Refugee Forum.

Similarly, in 2016, the Makonde community was recognised as Kenya’s 43rd tribe.

In the county level, the Shona community living in Nairobi is almost three times (49 percent) poorer than their national counterparts (17 percent).

"In Kiambu, 56 percent of them are poor compared to 25 percent of Kenyans living in that county," it shows.

Poverty gap

As a result of the higher poverty headcount, the report notes, the incidence and depth of poverty gap is greater for the Shona community than for nationals (17 percent vs. 10 percent).

The poverty gap is about two times the nationals’ level for those living in Kiambu.

"In this case, eradicating poverty among the Shona community would require a monthly transfer of Sh1,019 (2015/16) which is equivalent to an annual transfer of Sh12,230 ($122.30) to each person.

"Based on this estimate, it would cost about $197,636 (Sh21.7 million) per year to eradicate poverty for the entire group of Shona people considered in this report," it adds.

Interdependence among them is higher as almost a half of them are below 18 years. On average, Shona community household size is 4.9 compared to 3.3 in urban Kenya.

Larger households

“The Shona community households are larger in size and have two more members on average, and the working population bears more economic burden than urban Kenyans," it indicates.

"In addition to the larger size of Shona households, the larger number of dependants leads to the Shona working age population bearing more economic burden than urban nationals."

The study involved 2,084 Shona members out of a total 3,500 in Nairobi and Kiambu counties.

In terms of access to basic services, 62 percent of Shona people have access to housing, drinking water (88 percent), sanitation (83 percent), electricity (energy) (90 percent) and education for those above 15 years (89 percent).

Interestingly, the Shona population is four percentage points more likely to be employed than urban nationals.

While 73 percent of the population (working age) is employed, only 24 percent of them are outside the labour force (OLF). The remaining two-percent are considered unemployed.

Women are less likely to be employed than men (72 percent compared to 75 percent), it adds.

Among those who report being employed in the last seven days, 78 percent of the Shona population reported working for themselves or having a non-family business enterprise compared to 30 percent of nationals in urban areas.

According to the UNHCR, they (Shona) are more likely to earn a living by doing informal work such as basket weaving (mostly for women), and carpentry (mainly for men).

Lack of documents also forces Shona community businesses to sell their products below market value through middlemen and intermediaries.

"While there is no gender difference among the Shona population in terms of activity done in the last seven days, national women are more likely to be self-employed and working in agriculture than their male counterparts," it shows.

Only 24 percent of the Shona population reported working for wages compared to 58 percent of nationals in urban areas.

Covid-19 impact

The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, which affected the informal sector where most Shona people work, led to a sharp decline in employment rates, wage employment earnings, and household business revenues among them.

"The employment rates of the Shona have decreased sharply from 73 percent to 22 percent with only 11 percent of urban refugees employed, while the overall national employment rate fell from 72 to 53 percent (differences across groups)," it adds.

About 70 percent of Shona business owners and 63 percent of urban refugee business owners who are still operating reported a decrease in revenue.

"Even though only a few Shona were involved in wage employment prior to the pandemic, a decrease in the number of hours worked has translated into losses in income, as 88 percent report a decrease in their earnings," it indicates.