Nubians In Kenya A Fascinating Journey

Nubian Community Kenya
Nubians have been living in Kenya for over a hundred years

AFRICANGLOBE – Kibera. The infamous Nairobi slum is home to poverty, depression and about 170,000 residents. They live without running water and electricity, and with the threat of crime and illness. Most of the homes are simple one-room dwellings with mud walls, rusted corrugated tin roofs, and dirt floors – concrete floors are a luxury.

It sits on a 780 acre piece of land, and is the second largest urban slum in Africa. Officially, it’s owned by the Kenyan government, but they’re not the only ones with claims to it. Kenya’s small Nubian community say it is theirs, and they may be right.

The Nubian Journey

The Nubians in Kenya started their journey here as soldiers, a very long time ago. In Sudan, they had been fighting for their own country when Fredrick Lugard, Captain of the Imperial British East African Company (IBEAC), arrived in 1890. He incorporated them into the IBEAC, and, with about 10,000 of their dependants, the Sudanese soldiers moved south to Uganda where they fought to help Captain Lugard strengthen the British Protectorate. In 1895 they became the Uganda Rifles and the East Africa Rifles, soldiers under the British rule.

In total, there were 17 Nubian Garrisons in Kenya, including Kisii, Iten, Kisumu, Kibos, Mazeras, Kibirigo, Migori, Bungoma, Katumo, Meru, Isiolo, Mogotio, Mombasa and Nairobi. In the Garrisons, the soldiers were separated from their wives and children and put in seclusion where they were taken through rigorous training. Between 1896 and 1901, during the construction of the Kenya-Uganda railway, the IBEAC employed their services, among other African solidiers, to guard those working on the Lunatic Express.

For Queen and Colony

In 1902, after construction of the railway was completed, the British government formed the first regular troops of soldiers by combining the East African Rifles, the Uganda Rifles and the Central African Regiment to form the King’s African Rifles. When the First World War broke out in 1914, Nubian soldiers from Kenya and Uganda, as part of the KARs, formed the Third and Fourth Battalions and fought against German troops in Mozambique and Northern Rhodesia.

I had always thought that after the war, Nubian soldiers asked to go back home and the British requested them to stay. But 73-year-old Issa Abdulfaraj, chairman of the Nubian Council of Elders, says I make it sound easy and comfortable for the imperialists. According to him, by 1936, Italians had overrun Ethiopia, forcing Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia, into exile, and colonialists were already rolling up their sleeves for the Second World War.

Nubians, who formed the core of the British fighting army, were being discriminated against and wanted to return to The Sudan, but since the entire eastern coast of Africa, from Sudan to South Africa, was under British rule their word was law. To make them stay they showed the soldiers a fake letter from The Sudanese government that said they had no place in The Sudan, so they might as well stay and defend Kenya. “But there was no Sudanese government and the British, the colonial invaders were just playing tricks on the Nubian soldiers,” Abdulfaraj says, rubbing his white beard.

His words are harsh and emotional, but accusations of tricks aside, it’s a historical fact that after fighting for the KARs in the Second World War, Nubians in the Third Battalion retired to Kibra, which the British government had gazetted in 1918 as a military reserve. The soldiers were issued with Shamba Passes, temporary land licences, for plots of land which they settled on with their dependants.

Nubian Soldiers
Statue of Nubian soldiers in Nairobi

Abdulfaraj is a third generation Kenyan Nubian born in 1939. He still sits ramrod straight and doesn’t look a day older than 60 years, but the white beard and hair beneath his white kufi gives away his age. His father fought in both World Wars, he tells me, and even the Three Soldiers statue on Kenyatta Avenue is of Nubian officers.

He also divulges that it’s not an accident that the writing on the statue is in Arabic, as military units back then used to be identified by classified Arabic numbers. “All these they inherited from the Nubians. The word Afande is Nubian for Sir, Line Saba here in Kibera was Line Shabaha, meaning ‘Point of Range,'” he explains, shifting to adjust his white kanzu. He doesn’t understand why, after more than a century in Kenya, Nubians are still considered outsiders.

Other Africans

Until the 2009 population census, Kenya had 42 registered communities while Nubians, who were not considered Kenyans, had been clustered under ‘Others’. The community’s battle for recognition began in 2003, when they went to the High Court seeking the judiciary’s interpretation of the Kenyan constitution regarding their right to becoming Kenyan citizens at birth. The government opposed the motion on grounds that the application was 40 years too late. They insisted that the Nubians’ right to apply for automatic citizenship ceased to exist on Dec. 12, 1963 with Kenya’s independence. To become citizens, Nubians would have had to renounce citizenship from their country of origin, which they hadn’t done officially according to the government.

Abdulfaraj insists, “We built this country. We contributed quite a lot. We fought in the First World War to prevent the Germans from over-running Kenya. Second World War we fought to protect Kenya from the Italians.”

In 2006, Nubians resolved to go back to court again, but this time they sought justice outside the country. With support from the Centre for Minority Rights Development, the community approached the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in The Gambia and sued the Kenyan State for violating their right to property, freedom of movement and freedom from discrimination; rights that are protected by the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the African Union’s principal Human Rights Treaty. Three years later, in 2009, the community made what it thought was its first breakthrough when, under the new constitution, Nubians became the 43rd tribe in Kenya.