AND THEN IT VANISHED
“All Nubians look at Kibera as the homeland of the Nubians. Having come here more than perhaps 120 or 130 years ago, we lost all connection with the original country, which is Sudan,” says sixty-year-old Yusuf. A cabinet across the room holds a large collection of dishware used when special guests arrive, or for breaking the daily fast during Ramadan. Beyond the walls of Yusuf’s home live hundreds of thousands of people, crammed into a small piece of land outside Nairobi. All are considered squatters, including Yusuf and thousands of other Nubians. Yet the cabinet of dishware, the couches, the clean rugs and the family photos on the wall, along with the sense of generosity and peace in Yusuf’s family dwelling, show they have made a home there for generations.
“There is no other place we consider home than Kibera. But now, the unfortunate thing is that everybody who has anything to do with Kibera looks at it as one huge slum, and the history of the original community tends to get lost in the process.”
In the late 1880s, Nubian soldiers from Sudan were incorporated into the British Army to fight in East Africa. In 1902, they formed the King’s African Rifles, fought for the British in WWI and WWII and played a vital role in the development of Kenya and East Africa. In 1915, the colonial government began categorizing Kenyan tribes and settling them on “Native Reserves.” The British intentionally classed the Nubians as a tribe not native to Kenya. Denied a Native Reserve and unable to return to Sudan, the Nubians had nowhere to go. In 1917, the British designated 4,197 acres of land outside of Nairobi for the Nubians to settle on, which the Nubians named Kibra, or “land of forest” in Nubian.
After World War II, the British no longer needed the Nubians, yet little was done to safeguard their future. Prior to Kenyan independence in 1963, no efforts were made by the British to legitimize the Nubians as a recognized community in Kenya, and land rights to Kibra were not secured. Upon independence, most Nubians became stateless. In 1950, three thousand people lived in Kibra. After independence, Nubian claims to land went unrecognized and the Kenyan government changed Kibra’s status to an “unauthorized settlement,” rendering the Nubians squatters. Since then, hundreds of thousands of Kenyans have moved from the countryside into Nairobi, and politicians encouraged them to settle in Kibra. Trees disappeared, and sewage and trash turned the streams into veins of toxic black liquid. By 2000, the population had reached almost eight hundred thousand, and Kibra would become Kibera, the largest slum in Africa.
“At the age of 18, your life as someone from Kenya stops. When you apply for a National ID, that is when a Nubian finds out this country doesn’t want him and the previous 18 years all of a sudden don’t mean anything.”
Today, tens of thousands of Nubians live in Kenya. Even in Kibera, they are radically outnumbered, but they command respect and their vibrant and unique cultural identity dominates entire areas. Politically speaking, however, they are a voiceless minority. Up until 2009, they were not included as a tribe on the Kenyan census, but were instead considered “Other Kenyans,” or simply “Others.” For years, Nubians faced challenges obtaining National ID cards, which are required for nearly every aspect of daily life in Kenya. Like all youth, at the age of eighteen, they must apply for a National ID card. But unlike almost every other tribe in Kenya, Nubian youth are put through an identity verification process called vetting, where they must prove their connection to Kenya. Nubians often had to wait years for their IDs and missed opportunities at a vital time in life. While a National ID might be the legal representation of Kenyan citizenship, wider acceptance of Kenyan nationality is closely tied to the recognition of one’s tribe and the origin of the tribe’s rural homeland in Kenya. To most Kenyans, the Nubians are “foreigners” living on borrowed land, a legacy from colonial days that has been perpetuated by the complex tribal politics of the country.
"When you are asked, 'can you name which tribe of kenya you fall in?' You say you are a nubian. And they say, 'which one is that one?' It manes that your tribe has been so marginalized that people don't even know who you are. that you have been pushed down to the lowest levels, that you are not even known. you are just there. people take that question to mean you are not a kenyan."
For decades, the Nubian community has fought for its right to recognition. In the 2009 census, Nubians were listed as a tribe for the first time. In 2010, provisions in Kenya’s new Constitution promised several hoped-for changes. However, for most Nubians, these provisions are still empty words. Waiting times for National IDs have been greatly reduced, but Nubians are still required to go through the vetting process, which has become even more rigorous in recent years. Many cases relating to citizenship and statelessness remain unresolved. Nubians are still not represented in mainstream Kenyan politics and unanswered claims to land still rest at the heart of the Nubian struggle for acceptance.
Yusuf pours a glass of water. He describes how the Nubians continue to be left behind as the rest of Kenya forges ahead. There is a disappointed tone in his voice, yet an underlying optimism that life will eventually change for the younger generation. “To feel always discriminated against, or to be reminded that you came from Sudan, is not a very good thing for young people growing up, who want to feel they belong to this country,” Yusuf continues. “Having to live in an area or a place that is considered a slum, one that does not even appear on maps as a settled area, creates a problem. If this were not the case, I think we would have had a chance to advance our cultural identity even more. And that would have been a big boost to the community."