Stateless Pemba women struggle for maternity services

Over 7,123 Pemba people were born in Kenya but are considered stateless.

In Summary

• Makame is worried  about her future and that of her baby and other women her in the Pemba community. She can't get an ID.

•She is envious of her neighbour,only three-month pregnant and assured of free maternity cover, which stateless women may never enjoy.


Pemba women attend a meeting at Kichakamkwaju village in Lunga Lunga, Kwale county, in January.
STATELESS: Pemba women attend a meeting at Kichakamkwaju village in Lunga Lunga, Kwale county, in January.

Sada Hamisi Makame, is one of a vocal Pemba community womn living in Kichakamkwaju village in Kwale.

She is stateless.

During an interview with Makame, she tries to be composed, but her face reveals pain.

More than 7,123 people from the Pemba community were born in Kenya, however, they are yet to be recognised as citizens.

They have been pushing the government for recognition. 

In 2017, the national government recognised the Makonde, another community in Kwale County, whose great grandparents came to Kenya in the 1940s to work on sugar and sisal plantations at the Coast. .

For the first time in their lives, many were able to vote in the 2017 general election

To date, 5,000 Makonde community members have national identity cards.

Makame is concerned about her future and that of other women in the Pemba Community.


Other Kenyan women in her area have access to Linda Mama, a free health insurance cover that targets pregnant women in slums and rural areas.

Pemba are not eligible.

Only three months' pregnant, she is already assured of free maternal cover, a privilege Makame and other stateless women cannot enjoy.

The Linda Mama programme is part of the government's efforts in achieving Universal Health Coverage. It was introduced in 2016, officially launched in 2018.

Pemba community midwife Mekombo Abdallah explains how women suffer while trying to access accessing maternal health services during a community meeting in Lunga Lunga, Kwale county, in January
MIDWIFE: Pemba community midwife Mekombo Abdallah explains how women suffer while trying to access accessing maternal health services during a community meeting in Lunga Lunga, Kwale county, in January

However, the stateless women of Kwale cannot be treated because they lack national identity cards.

Every time they go to prenatal and delivery services, they are forced to pay the bills.

“Giving birth at home is very risky. However, most of us cannot access hospital services because we do not have money,” Makame said.

She said the worst scenario is when a woman faces complications during delivery and is required to undergo a caesarean section.

“That means a huge bill, which  we cannot settle unless we do a fundraiser,” she explained.

"Death is inevitable if complications arise, women lose a lot of blood and at home, we lack advanced equipment to save them 
Midwife Mekombo Abdalla

Makame said women have died while giving birth at home.

The Pembas originally were renounced seafarers, divers and fishermen. They came from Zanzibar in Tanzania.

However, Kenya's new fishing regulations require them to have proper identification documents to fish in deep waters.

“Our husbands cannot obtain fishing licenses because they lack of ID cards. They are often arrested by the Kenya Coast Guard officers while in the ocean,” Makame said.

The Coast Guard Service was launched in 2018 by President Uhuru Kenyatta to enhance maritime safety within and along the borders of the Kenyan water bodies.

Statelessness has stunted the Pemba community’s growth. They have been forced to live in poverty along the shores of Kwale county.

They are concentrated in Shimoni, Mwangwei and Gazi, among other areas.

Their houses are mostly mud-walled structures with roofs thatched with makuti, or dried leaves of coconut palms.

Most of them depend on natural herbs because they cannot access medical services in hospitals.


Women depend on midwives during birth are later taken to health facilities for post-natal examination.

Mekombo Abdalla, 65, is a traditional Pemba midwife.

She said most of her clients do not have money for transport to health facilities when in labour and cannot pay hospital bills due to poverty.

“I’m always called in when the baby is about to pop out. I help them deliver the child, through the knowledge I have acquired over the years,” she said.

After the birth, she usually accompanies the mother and the baby to the nearest health facility for post-natal check-ups and scheduled clinics for the child.

She inherited the midwifery skills from her mother and since then she has been helping her community

She advises women to seek medical services from health facilities during pregnancy.

Mekombo said midwives perform best during normal deliveries but they cannot always handle complications.

"Death becomes inevitable when complications arise, women lose a lot of blood and at home, we do not have advanced equipment to save the situation. Therefore, we end up losing our people," she said.


On December 21, 2021, the Huduma Bill 2021, an attempt to legalise the operation of the Huduma Namba, was tabled in Parliament.

The Huduma Namba gives every citizen a unique identification number required when seeking government services. It has been challenged  in court for not  properly protecting personal data.

Stateless communities are now more than worried they will neveraccess government services if the Huduma Namba becomes operational.

According to Kilifi North MP Owen Baya, the Bill will lock out stateless persons from accessing government services because they do not even have IDs to register for the Huduma Namba.

“The Huduma Bill is excluding some Kenyan citizens from accessing quality services from the government. It will even be worse for the stateless communities,” Baya said.

Pemba community organising Secretary Mwalimu Ali Mkasha said the Huduma Bill will shatter the dreams of Pemba women to get Universal Healthcare services.

“How will the community be able to get the Huduma cards if we do not have the identity cards in the first place?” he asked.

Most of the stateless community members of Kwale depend on casual jobs for survival. They cannot be formally employed for lack of ID cards and formal education.

They cannot own property, open bank accounts and run formal businesses. They cannot process birth, death or even marriage certificates.

Mkasha said they usually organise traditional marriages but do not have legal documents to affirm the union.

“Our marriages are not recognised in law due to lack of documents,” he said.

He said they cannot access bursaries and most of their children are forced to drop out of school due to lack of fees.


The national government is in the process of recognising the Pemba community after many years of push and pull.

Last month, Kilifi North MP Baya said the National Assembly had written to the State Department of Interior to review the status of the Pemba community for citizenship recommendation.

"After reviewing the report from the National Assembly's Security and Administration committee, the assembly ruled out that Pembas are the indigenous people of Kenya and should be given their citizenship rights," he said in Lunga Lunga.

The milestone achievement has been made possible by rights organisations, civil societies and local leaders.

The Kenya Human Rights Commission which has been at the forefront in fighting for an end to statelessness last year. It worked with Baya and Lunga Lunga MP Khatib Mwashetani to petition the government for recognition.

The government later sent the National Assembly's Security and Administration committee to collect data about the Pembas to push for their recognition.

Baya urged the government to swiftly end their statelessness.

(Edited by V. Graham)

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