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Walking through Kibra’s Nubian Culture

Nubians settled in Kibra, about five kilometres from the Nairobi City Centre, starting from about 1911, then again in 1917-18. They were originally reserve troops in 17 garrisons aiding the British imperial campaign. Collectively called “Nubians”, they comprise groups such as the Dinka, Muru, Kotoria, Bari, Kuku and Lendu. The Lendu trace their origins to the Congo while the rest, to Sudan.

The winding tarmac road snakes through rusty tin-roofed houses in Nairobi’s Kibra neighbourhood, five kilometers south of the City Centre. It is one of the largest slums in Africa, known for sprawling expanses of tin and mud shacks. One can still find tiny, neat compounds with avocado trees. A grey iron gate to the right opens into Yahya Sebit’s compound. It is a hot, dusty January afternoon. Further up the road stands Makina Mosque.

Sebit is a dark, portly 87-year-old man. A lifetime’s collection of photographs graces his sitting room walls; Arabic and English literature choke his bookshelves. Sebit’s father, Sebit Salim, was part of the King’s African Rifles (KAR). He died in the 1970s. Since colonial days, Sebit and other Nubians have clung to their history and culture, and call Kibra home.

Recently, the Kenyan government began Kibra’s slum upgrading program to eradicate shacks, congestion and poor drainage. Latrines are constructed where they previously did not exist and drainage systems unblocked. Some of the mud and tin shacks are gradually getting replaced by high-rise concrete dwellings. The process has been met with some resistance where land is concerned, especially by Nubians who fear losing their land to newcomers.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Through the Nubian Rights Forum (NRF), members of the Nubian community stated that unless they were awarded land title deeds, they would not allow government plans to proceed. However, the plan, spearheaded by the National Youth Service, has proceeded to initiate several projects, among them cleanup exercises.

Photo: Nick Kozak.
Photo: Nick Kozak.
 Photo: Nick Kozak.
Photo: Nick Kozak.

Who exactly are Nubians and what is their significance in Nairobi’s history?

Nubians settled in Kibra, about five kilometres from the Nairobi City Centre, starting from about 1911, then again in 1917-18. They were originally reserve troops in 17 garrisons aiding the British imperial campaign. Collectively called “Nubians”, they comprise groups such as the Dinka, Muru, Kotoria, Bari, Kuku and Lendu. The Lendu trace their origins to the Congo while the rest, to Sudan.

In his research article, “Kibra is our Blood”: The Sudanese Military Legacy in Nairobi’s Kibera Location, 1908-1968, published in the International Journal of African Historical Studies, Timothy Parsons states that “by 1912, KAR officially permitted 291 Sudanese to live in what came to be known as ‘the KAR shambas.’” By 1919, these askaris had been moved to the 4,198-acre ‘Reserve Shamba’, which is now known as Kibra.

“The entire area used to be full of trees, not the way it looks nowadays,” Sebit says of the now crowded, squalid slum settlement. “We hardly fell ill or went to hospital. Now it has all changed,” says Sebit, who joined the colonial military in 1946, a year after World War II ended.

For Sebit, Nubian identity includes shared values, mannerisms and customs. Whenever a young person greets their elders, for instance, he clasps their hands, placing them on the chin and then their forehead, signifying respect. In his childhood, adults could discipline any mischievous child. Sebit and his age mates also made their own pens and ink using bamboo pipes and dye, obtained from crushed weeds.

His first son, Jamaldin Yahya, who lives across the road, was born in 1954. Yahya asserts that most Nubian children still speak Ki-Nubi, reading and writing in English, Swahili and Arabic. They also attend madrassas, Islamic religious classes. Yahya can recount Nubian heritage from the Ottoman Turk era, Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, the collapse of the Imperial British East Africa Company, to the formation of the East African Protectorate.

“They differed from local African communities as they were regarded ‘urbane’ following many years’ exposure to Europeans,” observes Yahya. He says Nubian distrust for Europeans was evident, given that, despite almost 200 years of contact, they never joined Christianity.

In Kibra, Nubians live closely knit, mainly on hilly sections. I ask why. “Location is important,” Dr Mary Wainda, history professor at the University of Nairobi responds. “The physical location of a people such as Nubians creates the warmth and closeness of a culture. Small human societies that find themselves outnumbered in the midst of others know the maxim that ‘If they do not hang out together, they will be hanged separately’. Nubians seem to understand this very well.”

Wainda adds that Nubians constantly affirm their identity. “To Nubians, it is always about ‘us’ and ‘them.’ And through socialization, they remind their children who they are which transcends from physical, mental, to communal ‘Nubianness.’” She points out Jews as an example of a community that has adopted this strategy to avoid being ‘swallowed’ by larger cultural entities.

Kukubo Barasa, lecturer at the University of Nairobi, agrees: “I refer to this trait among Nubians as ‘positive self-protection,'” he says. “Instead of wholly embracing foreign cultural activities like other ‘educated’ Africans would do, Nubians have a way of adapting to change while finding a place for their culture.”

Photo: Open Society Foundations
Photo: Open Society Foundations
Photo: Open Society Foundations
Photo: Open Society Foundations

Tracing their roots

Hamida Malasen, a 37-year-old fifth generation Nubian, cultural ambassador, and activist, says her people trace their relations across Africa – mostly along former Trans-Atlantic Trade routes and back to ancient Nubians in Northern Sudan and Southern Egypt. Her claims echo studies linking Nubians to West African groups such as the Mandinka, Ashanti and Mande-speakers. However, other sources suggest that the connection between Kibra’s Nubians and ancient Nubians is narrow or absent.

Since colonial days, Nubians have lived off locally produced food. Kisira, a meal made from maize and wheat flour combined with fermented simsim paste, still features in their menu. Households also enjoy gurusa, their version of the Ethiopian anjera – a flat baked bread. Another delicacy is cornflakes, lebere, made of pounded maize. Grinding stones, murkaka, are still used.

In Malasen’s childhood in the 1980s and early 90s, Kibra had marks of an African village: rivers for swimming, maize gardens and playing fields. “We used to know each other back then,” quips Hassan Mohamed, a 30-year-old freelance journalist and filmmaker. “Now we hardly know each other.”

He points at century-old photographs of KAR soldiers, drawing attention to one dark, sturdy figure in military attire – his maternal great-great-great grandfather, only identified as Tandia. Between them are: Mohamed Tandia, Mansur Tandia, and then his mother, Fatuma Mohamed.

Women traditionally occupy an important place in Nubian society. In ancient Nubian kingdoms, queens led soldiers to battle. Even today, women, especially expectant ones, get special attention. “She’s prohibited from wandering in the dark lest enasheta umile (‘the evil eye’) causes a mishap or fogur,” explains Malasen. Midwives or maza taweledu anas were popular; today, free hospital maternity care has replaced them.

Nubian women still practice crafts such as basketry; making mats and food covers, birish, from papyrus reeds. They make red, yellow, green and black-patterned mats called fendezia. Women also made Nubian gin or ‘Arak’; a precursor for chang’aa brewing which brought reasonable prosperity in the settlement.

Girls aged 10-16 years were circumcised in groups, though the rite gradually faded through the 60s, 70s and 80s. Marriage was not compulsory thereafter. On the other hand, boys are circumcised when they are weeks, months or – at most – three years old.

Outnumbered but Undaunted

Prior to Kenyan independence, Nubians occupied sizeable civil service job slots thanks to higher literacy levels than other local communities. According to Jamaldin Yahya, Nubians also played neutral during the 1950s Mau Mau purge. “Many African freedom fighters found Kibra an ideal hiding place when colonial forces sought them,” he says. In 1963, Joseph Murumbi, the second vice president of Kenya, became Kibra’s first Member of Parliament.

In 1969, Yunis Ali – the first and only M.P of Nubian extraction to date, took over. Soon, other communities trooped to Kibra to seek employment in Nairobi, while others were allegedly “imported” to bolster tribal voting blocs. By the mid-70s, Yahya recalls, Nubians had been outmuscled in land and political representation.

Nubians in the 21st Century

Down the road, Nubian women in colourful gurubaba attire along with henna, jewellery and sunglasses file into the street. It is hot and sunny. Zainab Abdalla is getting married to Suleiman Abubakar. The two have just exchanged vows, nikah, at the Masjid Makina. The wedding procession will head to the groom’s home for another reception and more traditional food; gurusa, layu, kisira, pilau and beef.

Nubian weddings take three days: one for paying brideprice, selah; two for the nikah; and three for the reception where the groom is adorned with derira – decoration made of cloves and claws of a wild animal, dufur. Tonight, guests will participate in the customary dance, doluka.

Meanwhile, a funeral service for a truck driver killed in an accident the previous night takes place at the mosque. In a short while, his body is whisked from the mosque and down to the wooded Nubian Cemetery next to Kibra Primary School.

As Muslims, Nubians bury their dead within 24 hours, but the graves of males differ from those of females. The former are left bare mounds of earth while the latter have a small tree, flower or shrub in the middle of the mound. Women do not attend to burials, but can visit afterwards.

Kibra’s Nubians have not been spared from urbanization and socio-economic challenges. Jamaldin Yahya and Malasen agree that most Nubians working in government service retired in the late 1980s. By then, the younger generation had not replicated the educational advantages their fore bearers enjoyed over other Kenyan communities.

“We began having crises where our old men were no longer able to educate their children through to high school,” Malasen explains. “A few were able to carry on with contributions from the society and scholarships.” In a country in which employment is perceivably skewed to favour larger communities, smaller communities suffer.

Many Nubians also lack identity cards needed for voting and accessing government services. The Nubian community lacks political representation, so their voice cannot be heard in parliament. Their only avenue to air their grievances remains human rights groups. Through organizations such as the Nubian Human Rights Forum, the community has sought to be recognized as one of Kenya’s over 40 tribes. Their relatively small number prevents them from electing representatives of their own. Therefore, it is easier for them to be sidelined.

Their imperial past in quelling revolts by other communities against the British also played a major role. Up until independence, Nubians regarded themselves more highly than other communities, especially in terms of literacy levels. They also considered themselves more cultured than other Kenyans, due to long exposure to the white man.

Nubian communities in Kenya, Uganda and Sudan also hold annual cultural festivals. Last year, the Kenyan chapter hosted the event at the nearby Kibra Primary School last year.

As the tropical sun sinks, gates of the Nubian Cemetery are chained shut, locking in the whispering eucalyptus and jacaranda trees. Dusk edges closer as doluka dancers gather at the parking lot to complete the final part of the wedding ceremony; life must go on. Down the street, Yahya and his elderly peers know life as Nubian people continues full cycle: and their culture has a future. He says: “Be yourself, don’t just pick anything you come across, and respect your elders.”


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