The story goes that in the past Nubian girls never married much out of their community. According to some people, they were too expensive (dowry and bride price) compared to girls from other communities, and too difficult to maintain: they were somehow spoilt, used to a high standard of living compared to other girls, and they ‘need’ for Nubian food.
The Nubian community in Kenya, is largely concentrated in the Kibra area in Nairobi. The history of Kibra (formerly called Kibera), labelled ‘the largest slum of Africa’, is closely connected with the history of the Nubians.
Khadija, the bride of the day and one of my former students at NairoBits, works as multimedia designer these days for a digital agency and earns a salary of her own. She and her husband-to-be Abby marry out of love and chose each other out of free will. It might be the most important day in her adult life so far. A day of saying farewell to one life and commencing another.
From the outlook, the marriage looks like a wedding guided by age old rituals, rituals most likely not changed for hundreds of years. But nothing is what it seems. As in many places in the world, the old traditions and the new times mix without mercy.
Khadija asked me to document the wedding from a Nubian woman’s perspective, knowing that her own kids might not experience a wedding like this anymore. As the rituals for men & women are strictly separated, I realized the big honour and trust I was given. Being neither female nor Muslim, I was allowed to document something which was not so long ago ‘haram’ (forbidden) to see for anybody who was not female and/or not Muslim.
The history of the Nubians in Kenya
The story of the Nubians in Kibra, reflects the contemporary history of Africa. Nubia, roughly the area around the Nile between Aswan (1st cataract) and Khartoum, was famous for its high caliber soldiers, who were either part of tribute paid to Egypt by the Christian Nubian kingdoms, or traded with ivory and gold in exchange for Egyptian grain.
In ancient Egypt these black slave soldiers were all identified as ‘Nubian’. The term ‘Nubi’/’Nuba’ was used to refer to anyone coming from the Sudan, and was almost synonymous with ‘slave’; it was later used to refer to Sudanese slave soldiers in Egyptian service.
20th Century – Warriors of the Empire
At the beginning of the 20th century, all the armies of the regional British Protectorates were organized into battalions of one colonial army. On the 1st of January 1902 the ‘King’s African Rifles’ (KAR) was born. The East Africa Rifles army became the 3rd battalion KAR, consisting mainly of soldiers of Sudanese origin. Notwithstanding a certain degree of doubt regarding the loyalty of the Sudanese, they formed the backbone of the early KAR: many made their career in the KAR and served for long periods of time, some up to 30 years.
There was enough to do in those early years for the Sudanese soldiers, as British rule met resistance in almost every corner of the Protectorates. There were punitive actions against the Nandi (1895-1906), the Kikuyu and Embu (1904-1907), and in 1909-10 in Somaliland against the ‘Mad Mullah’. Much of the work concerned securing the Uganda Road (from Mombasa to Nairobi to Kampala) for trade caravans, escorting mail and food caravans, and protection of the Uganda Railway construction. There were also military actions against the Giriama, Taita, Kamba, Kisii and Elgeyo tribes.
The regiment played later also a major role in operations against the insurgents during the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya.
Locally recruited soldiers usually returned to their rural home after leaving active service, but in East Africa, the Sudanese ‘detribalised’ veterans had nowhere to go. They could not go back to their original communities in Sudan. Being so inextricably tied to the military culture and life, soldiers for life, they settled permanently near to the forts, stations or barracks with their families. Sudanese or Nubi(an) as they were called alternatively, villages were established in Uganda, Somalia and Kenya, wherever the KAR had more permanent bases.
Initially the army barracks for the King’s African Rifles were established just north of the Nairobi River. Around 1903 the barracks were moved to Ngong Road, a few kilometres outside the city center, roughly on the location of the present Kenyatta Hospital. In 1904 the adjacent area of 4197.9 acres was allocated to the army as military exercise grounds. The Kibra area was surveyed by the Government in 1917, and gazetted as ‘Nairobi Military Area’ in 1918. It was in this area that the retired Sudanese soldiers would be allowed to settle, a place that they would call ‘Kibra’: in Nubian language meaning ‘a bushy place, a forest’, only visited by occasional Masai herders and wild animals.
Kibra in Nairobi, became the main Nubian settlement in Kenya, being next to the main KAR barracks. Most of the Sudanese soldiers that served in the KAR in those days, would, at some point, have passed through Nairobi, based for a short or longer time at the KAR barracks. Many of them would ultimately settle in Kibra, after retirement or demobilization.
Kibra was probably the first legal African settlement in Nairobi, albeit for a limited group of people, the retired and demobilized soldiers of the KAR. The founding history of Kibra is in essence the history of these Nubian ex-soldiers and their families.
When the British left Kenya, they left their loyal colonial soldiers to the mercy of whatever would come after them. Due to having served the colonial masters in securing the colony and suppressing other Africans, the Kenyan Government denied them after Independence many social, civil and economic rights.
Up to today, the Nubian community is not a formally recognized tribe of Kenya, they are considered as ‘Others’ or if at all, ‘ Other Kenyans’. In Kenya, Nubians need to be vetted to prove their link with Kenya before they receive an ID card. Nubian youth often have to wait years before they are issued an ID card, if at all. Many Nubians have also no ID at all, rendering them effectively stateless, while being in Kenya for more then hundred years.
Kibra was a ‘rural area’ dominated by Nubians, until the 1970’s and 1980’s, when many non-Nubians moved into Kibra, looking for cheap accommodation and supported by the Kenyan Government for doing so. Nowadays, Kibra is a sprawling slum with hundreds of thousands of people packed in an area of 550 acres and the Nubians are a marginalized community in one of the biggest slums of Africa.
Whereas the older people found it hard to relinquish their special ties with Sudan, a connection they were proud of, the younger generation felt they had nothing to do with the Sudan; born and raised in Kenya, they felt Kenyan. When, shortly after Kenya’s Independence the Sudanese ambassador commented, in a speech commemorating Sudan’s Independence, that the Nubians were after all Sudanese, some young men stood up and protested that they were Kenyans, and not Sudanese.
Pledging loyalty was one thing, but to be accepted as ‘real’ Kenyans proved to be another.
21st century – Memories of the past
As much with many people who don’t have a ‘homeland’, the Nubians compensated the lack of land with clinging to their culture. Though, as culture is never carved into stone, also the Nubian culture experiences many changes. Being nowadays a minority in Kibra, Nubians battle to preserve their traditions and cultural identity.
Nubian weddings are one of the few opportunities to celebrate the remnants of fading cultural traditions.
In the past, traditional dances like the ‘Dholuka’ would be danced almost every weekend, nowadays only at special occasions; the musical instruments used for Dholuka (mainly drums) were traditionally played by women, who also sang most of the songs; nowadays it is mainly men. Though still undertaken, both the Dholuka and the wedding ceremonies have experienced even more changes.
The weddings (with ceremonies and parties), in the past lasting 4 – 7 days, are now often squeezed into one single day, or maybe two days if the family has the financial resources.
The Gurbaba, a large colourful cloth, worn as a skirt under the dress, used to be the everyday dress; nowadays it is only used at special occasions, like weddings and Dholukas, when all Nubian women turn out in their best Gurbaba. Nubian men usually wear European type dresses or the Muslim Kanzu dress, especially when going to the mosque or for other religious functions.
Nubian girls used to have a special way of plaiting the hair, which was done every Saturday by someone in the family; these days all sorts of hairstyles can be found, including wigs made in China. All Nubian girls would get a Kipini, a nose pin, when they were around seven years old. The Kipini later became a global fashion and is no longer something typically Nubian either. Nowadays, only few Nubian girls can be seen with a Kipini.
Nubian girls also had their lips tattooed to make them black, a custom which has been replaced by lipstick and not necessarily in black.
But some things have not yet changed. Most of the wedding activities are centered around the bride’s place. The groom first comes to offer the bride price to his future in-laws. The bride’s hair is plaited especially for the day at the groom’s expense. The groom must also buy cultural wedding ornaments and outfits that include a white sheet that the bride wraps around her body during the Nikah — the Islamic wedding ritual.
After this, she dresses up in another traditional outfit, also bought by the groom. The ornaments and clothing are colourful, capturing attention. It is imperative that her nose is pierced and her hair is plaited.
At dusk, the bride must carry a special dish of meat balls —served with Kisra or Gurusa (yeast pancakes made from a mixture of wheat and maize flour)— for her groom, cooked from her home, a mat for her father in-law, a traditional tray (Tabaga) and a food cover (Kuta).
At night, people from all over Kibra are drawn to the Nubian weddings. As much as the official part ends when the Bride and groom leave, the party continues!
At least for the duration of the wedding night, all problems of Kibra are to be forgotten.