By Radha Govil
KILIFI, Kenya – Tourists who visit Kenya’s coastal areas of Kwale and Kilifi often go home with intricate ebony carvings. Many of the talented artists who carve and sell these souvenirs are Makonde, an ethnic group who, until recently, were stateless and excluded from Kenya’s formal job market.
“We were the first carvers to sell on the beach, but they would come and arrest us, saying that we did not have a license to access the area,” said Thomas Nguli, the 60-year-old chairman of the Makonde community. “It was a public beach! Still, we paid middlemen who would give us permits, but then they would run and tell the police who would come and confiscate our meagre earnings.”
The Makonde came to Kenya from northern Mozambique as labourers during the British colonial period and later, as the descendants of exiled freedom fighters and refugees during Mozambique’s civil war. But despite many Makonde families having been in Kenya since before independence in 1963, they were not recognized as citizens. Without national IDs, not only did they struggle to earn a living, they could not travel, own property or obtain birth and marriage certificates. Their statelessness was passed from one generation to the next and Makonde children could not graduate from school or be considered for scholarships.