Kenya: Kibra/Kibera, Nubian/Kenyan

Nairobi — Kibera. The infamous Nairobi slum is home to poverty, crime, disease and about 170,000 residents. They live without running water and electricity, and with the threat of crime and disease. Most of the homes are one-room shacks 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 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 masters 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.

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.

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 slums 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

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 sewage 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 rubbish pits. 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 multi-ethnic 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.

When I finally get to Shaffi's office, I'm thinking that the government's project of upgrading slums in Kenya is good news for the people living there. Shaffi, however, does not share the same thought. Being Nubian, he is also Muslim, but unlike many who I saw on my way in kanzus, he is donning a grey suit. His office is a tiny room. A small table surrounded by four chairs takes up one corner, next to it is a wooden cabinet holding a tiny coloured television that has been switched on but is muted. "After slum upgrading, the city council is going to own these houses. This is one way in which we are being pushed out." And it is also one of the reasons the community has taken the Kenyan government to court. Shaffi's voice is big and resonates around the room when he speaks of the Nubian community's Vision 2030, which involves turning Kibera's shacks into permanent buildings. He says they'll seek help from donors who'll develop the slum. Then every Nubian from the age of 18 years will get a five storey building - two storeys to pay the donor's debt, one for the owner's residence and the other two storeys or his source of income as he'll rent them out. "So taking away Kibera now and doing upgrading is like killing the Nubian," he says shifting in his chair.

But KENSUP's plan is to have improved the lives of 100 million slum dwellers living in urban areas like Kibera by 2020, so the government will have to weigh the greater good against the Nubians' heritage.

When asked which village he comes from, Mustafa, without missing a beat, says Kibera. In response, he's usually told that Kibera is a slum and not a village. "But when we get the tenure, I will say I come from the Nubian village that is Kibera. If I don't fight for the land as a youth, my children and grandchildren are the ones who will suffer," he says with a conviction that seems older than his 25 years.

In 1917, Kibera was surveyed and gazetted at 4,197 acres. Currently it has shrunk to 780 acres, with the difference having been absorbed into neighbouring counties. The Nubians don't care. They want the original piece of land that was gazetted. "What will happen to those who reside in the built up areas who are not Nubian?" I ask Abdulfaraj. "They will remain as lease old tenants of the Nubians," he replies. "The remaining 780 acres we will build it, develop it at our own time. That is my community's land, the entire 4,197 acres."

A Look into the Future

But the tide is turning, albeit not as fast as the Nubians would like. Another milestone came in 2011, when the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child found Kenya in violation of the rights of Nubian children to non-discrimination, nationality and protection against statelessness. When these violations are taken into consideration, the Nubian children will finally be recognised as Kenyan citizens. The committee also recommended that Kenya should implement its birth registration system in a non-discriminatory manner and put plans in motion that will allow every Nubian child access to health facilities and education equal to that of children in the other 42 communities in Kenya.

Shaffi believes that the predicament of the Nubian child will be over in a year's time as the Nubian Council is pushing the government to implement the policy changes. At the moment, their case concerning the land in Kibera is being heard by one judge, but the community has requested for a three-bench judge - a full court - raising their chances of winning the case. "Right now, I'm trying to put a permanent foundation for my three kids. I want [life] to be easy for them," Shaffi says with an easy smile, standing as the mu'addin calls out the adhan. It's 1 o'clock, time for him to go to the mosque for prayer.

The Nubian journey, like any other, began with a single step. With the new constitution on its side, the community has made two huge strides. Now, the government has to decide if this is the end of their quest for acceptance or if they're still owed more.

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