HomeAfricaNubians In Kenya A Fascinating Journey

Nubians In Kenya A Fascinating Journey

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Kenyan Identity

But that recognition as a tribe didn’t make a real difference when it came to acquiring national identity cards – a process that usually takes about a month. When I meet 25-year-old Mustafa Mahmoud, he’s in a black kanzu and straight from the mosque for his midday prayers. Mustafa applied for his ID card in January 2007 and got it that December. He had all the documents but had to swear an affidavit and go through the vetting process. “These are hurdles put along the way so that you don’t get an ID,” he says, ” and you see at 19 if you don’t have one, you will be locked out of advancing your education.” Lack of IDs is the stated reason why most youths in poor neighbourhoods don’t seek formal employment, and Mustafa conveys that those of Nubian descent in Kibera often give up on the IDs as the process is usually long and hard. “Vetting is supposed to be done for the people at the borders whose nationality is questionable. I am not a border person, I’m at the centre of Nairobi, 30 shillings from town,” he argues, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose.

The process of vetting, which usually takes three to four months, is done to ensure that the government doesn’t issue non Kenyans with identification cards. Shaffi Ali Hussein, chairman of the Nubian Human Rights Group, applied for and got his ID while in school. However, he witnessed the vetting process last month in Nyayo House where about 200 Nubian and Somali youth had gone for vetting. “Two Nubian children had their birth certificates, their parents’ and grandparents’. Five birth certificates. But [they] had been sent for vetting. Here is the thing,” he explicates woefully, “When you are sent for vetting from the district registration, when they give you that letter, they are not telling you to report there tomorrow or next week. They give you a date three months later. That is wasting the youth’s time.”

Seventy-year-old Ibrahim Said has lived in Kibera all his life. He lost his ID in 1997, after retiring from the Central Bank of Kenya where he’d worked for 27 years. He had to wait for three years for a new one. Said had to go to court to swear an affidavit to be given a duplicate. “If you don’t have an ID in Kenya you don’t exist,” he explains, breaking into a slow smile that doesn’t quite reach the eyes. “There is nothing as shaming as swearing an affidavit for an old man like me.”

My Own Eyes

I went to Nyayo house to see for myself. The 27-storey brown ochre structure in the heart of Nairobi’s Central Business District looms over surrounding buildings. The lobby is dark. Dozens of people are waiting for the elevators lining opposite sides of the wall, two of which aren’t working. I grow impatient and end up walking 17 floors to the Population of Kenya offices. The first floor’s north wing, which is the department of immigration, is full of people in long, winding queues. The second floor is nearly as busy but with people milling in and out of the offices. Moving up, activity on the floors grows less and less, and by the time I get to the 17th floor there are only two or so people darting in and out of the offices.

I have come to see McDonald Obutho, Director of Population in Kenya. I slump in a chair and ask his personal assistant for a glass of water as I wait. Finally, after almost an hour, Obutho takes a break from his meetings and ushers me into his office. “In 2009, the Nubian community officially became a recognised Kenyan tribe,” he says, taking a seat behind his expansive desk. “We gave them a code, 220, just like the rest of the Kenyan communities.”

At 15,000, the Nubian community is one of the smallest. But Obutho doesn’t think they should have a problem with being a recognised tribe in Kenya. “I think the problem the community has is not being stateless, but with the land in Kibera,” he explains. “Of course they deserve the land,” says Obutho and with simple logic, “Everyone in this country came from somewhere, I believe they have as much right as any of us.” Even though the government doesn’t accept the claims that Kibera is Nubian land, it plans to issue the community with 300 acres for settlement. The Nubians, however, are asking for all the land promised after the First World War. All 4,197 acres.

Kibra, the Lost Jungle

Nubians in Kenya
Nubian officers helped to defend Kenya against German terrorism

Kibera is a corrupted Nubian word, Kibra, which means forest or jungle. Shaffi asked me to meet him in his office in Kibera, and as I make my way there I can’t see any remote resemblance to the jungle that it might have been at one point. I weave my way past shops and shacks with tiny wooden windows, jump over stagnant water and stop twice to ask if I am on the correct path. Grocers and colliers line the dirt road, fighting for space with motorists and men pushing hand carts as they try to sell their goods to passersby. Barefoot children are playing on the road, some in the narrow alleys between the shacks that have been turned into garbage dumps. Residents here survive on less than a dollar a day.

Things hadn’t always been like this though. In the early twentieth century, Kibera had been a dense forest, which the British government turned into a military camp for soldiers and their families after the First World War. Africans who migrated from rural areas to Nairobi in search of employment needed cheap housing, so they formed cheap African settlements. Apart from Kibera, most of these settlements were demolished. But as years went by, more and more people moved to Kibera turning it into a huge slum.

The new constitution dictates that every Kenyan citizen has a right to a clean and healthy environment, accessible and adequate housing, and reasonable standards of sanitation. These are challenges faced by slum residents every day that the government, through the Kenya Slum Upgrading Project (KENSUP), is trying to address. “We have buildings which have leaking roofs…sewers that are causing health hazards and therefore there is a need to address all those issues so that we live in a clean environment,” said Cyprian Riungi, a government building surveyor, in an official statement.

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