NAIROBI - Members of the ethnic Shona community in Kenya are celebrating their new status as Kenyan citizens after decades of being stateless.

Nazizi Dube gazes at what is now her most prized possession - a document declaring her a citizen of Kenya.

Dube is one of almost 1,700 ethnic Shona, and 1,300 ethnic Rwandans, who gained legal status this month after decades of being stateless.

On December 12th, as Kenya marked its 57th independence anniversary, Nazizi, and other members of the Shona community in Kenya were recognized as citizens, following a decree by the country’s President Uhuru Kenyatta. 

“All the challenges that we went through with the statelessness status, we were very excited knowing that all has come to an end, it was a new beginning,” said Dube.

A beginning that they hope will open new opportunities.  Diana Gichengo, of the Kenyan Human Rights Commission, says that decades of statelessness left the community marginalized.

“When they were stateless all their rights were violated, their freedom of movement was violated, they couldn’t leave the country, the few who managed to travel were forced to acquire fake or irregular identities to travel, they couldn’t access education,” said Gichengo.

Ishmael Dlamini has run his carpentry workshop just outside the capital Nairobi for nearly 20 years without identification documents. As a Shona, his earnings were limited because he could not use banks or borrow, the way Kenyan citizens can.

That has changed.

Dlamini says, we will have the certificate of citizenship.  He says it will enable me to go to a bank or any other lending institution and get a loan to allow me to do more business.

The Shona began arriving in Kenya in the 1930s, primarily from what is now Zimbabwe, and more came in the early 1960s as missionaries. But when Kenya became independent from Britain in 1963, most missed the two-year window to become citizens, along with their children born in the country.

The push to have them recognized as Kenyans escalated over the past four years.

Wanja Munaita, with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, welcomes the decision to grant the Shona citizenship.

“Legal identity is really important especially now that Kenya is going into the digital identity because then they would have been left out of that system, because they didn’t have those documents," said Munaita.

Gichengo, of the Kenya Human Rights Commission, which was involved in the campaign to end statelessness, says more needs to be done to help the Shona community.

“We hope that they can be supported by both the national government and the county government just in terms of affirmative action, to catch up for the years of marginalization,” said Gichengo.

An estimated 1,300 Shona have yet to apply for citizenship but, those waiting for their certificate say they are ready to prove their worth.

‘’We want to show that we are not just a burden to the country - we are birds with bright feathers," said Dube. "We are unworthy to be caged. We now want to fly and showcase our bright feathers.’’

The U.N.’s refugee agency says Kenya is home to about 18,000 stateless people, most of them ethnic minorities.