Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Nowhere People

Sitting outside the door of his battered family house in the Makina sector of the sprawling Kibera slums, Hussain gazes at the setting sun as he ponders what the future holds for him. Unlike the fading sunshine that’s guaranteed of gracing the skies over the world famous shantytown the next day, 25 year-old’s tomorrow is clouded in uncertainties.

With no identity card to quantify his citizenship, college certificate or a godfather in high places the young man’s destiny looks as gloomy as the rapidly approaching darkness. Like Hussain, the fate of thousands of Nubian youths residing in Kibera and other places across the country hangs precariously in the ethnic balance.

“When I went to apply (for the ID) the third time I applied in Luo land because I speak Luo fluently. After giving them my school certificate and photocopy of my parents IDs, they asked me to present a death certificate for my grandfather,” he says. “I dint know my grandfather. When he died I wasn’t even born. Back then when people died, people just died…someone asking me for something that I can never find…they are also trying to tell me in some other way, that I am not a Kenya”.

Without an identity card in Kenya one is virtually a non-entity because they cannot get employment, buy property or transact any official business.

Nubian youths usually have to go through a process called “vetting” where they are required to prove their connections to Kenya through documents like grand parents birth certificates before they could get an ID. Until recently, the whole process used to be supervised by a “vetting committee” in the registrar of persons office.

“At the age of 18, your life as someone from Kenya stops,” one youth from Kibera laments. “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”.

The process can take up to three years and still end up with one being denied the vital document. But after getting the ID card Nubian youths like Hussain find it difficult to get any meaningful work outside the squalid slum that they call home.

“In Kenya, honestly you have to have someone on top, as in someone in management for you to get a job and Nubians, we have no one,” the haggard-looking young man observes. “No one in politics. We have no one in government. No one in the big big places…so you find most of the Nubians just walking around. They are just seated everywhere, because they don’t know where to go”.

But the Nubians’ quest to change their status from “nowhere people”, a term used to refer to stateless communities, to recognition recently received a major boost after American freelance photographer Greg Constantine compiled a pictorial book entitled Kenya’s Nubians then & now. Published in conjunction with United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the book documents the community’s history in photos, personal testimonies and a recount of important dates.

“My motivation for compiling this book was because very little is known about the Nubians despite the fact that the area that they live in has been heavily documented,” Constantine explained during the book launch at Lord Errol in Runda last week. “The project also helped me in pushing the agenda of stateless people in Africa”.

The book, expect to be in bookstores across Kenya by January next year, was part of his bigger project called the Nowhere People where he highlights the plight of stateless people in Africa and Asia through photography. The publication joins a rank of initiatives put forth by individuals and lobby groups to advocate for the rights of this marginalized community.

Nubians were brought to Kenya and of Uganda, then known as the East African British Protectorate, in the early 1890s to serve as soldiers in the British Army. Although they gave their all to the empire under the Kings African Rifles (KAR) during the building of the railway line and later in the first and second world wars, their relationship with the colonial masters was never smooth as evidenced by the bloody Uganda Mutiny in 1897.

“After the completion of the Kenya-Uganda railway in first decade of the twentieth century Nubian soldiers and their dependants started settling throughout the country, with the biggest settlement being at “Kibra”, Nubi word for forest, in the soon to be founded town of Nairobi,” explains Mr. Abdul Faraj, Chairman of the Nubian Council of Elders (NCE) and an authority in Nubian history.

Members of the Maasai community used the land for grazing, but they had already signed it over to the British through the 1904 Maasai Agreements. The colonial government consented the settlement of Nubians in Kibra in 1912, affirmed by the fact the Kibera Muslim Cemetery, where the community bury their dead to date, was established in the same year.

After Kibra was surveyed at 4197.4 acres in 1917, notes Australian scholar Samantha Balaton-Chrimes in Kenya’s Nubians then & now, “Ex-soldiers of more than 12 years service and their dependents are given permission to live on a plot in the area, build a structures, graze a limited amount of cattle, and grow food as long as they have a “shamba” pass issued by the military”.

Mr. Faraj says this was a sign of appreciation by the British monarchy for the community’s gallant service to the crown in places like Mozambique and Burma. The colonial government also erected a statue of Nubian soldiers along Kenyatta Avenue and established Kibera Primary School which was inaugurated by Queen Elizabeth in 1953.

“Actually Nubians were willing to go back to Sudan after the World War I but the British government lied to them that the Sudanese government, also British, did not want them to return. The colonialists even produced a letter purportedly meant to block the Nubians’ return to Sudan which left the community no option but to stay”.

But while the piece of land they moved into in the early nineteenth century was awash with vegetation, clean streams and a serene upcountry aura, today it has been reduced to one of the biggest slums in third world. From a total area of more than 4000 in 1917, Kibera has now been whittled down to a dilapidated corridor of less than 500 acres where an estimated 170,000 (according to 2009 census) people are squeezed in a dense jungle of rusty shanties.

“The land was very beautiful…there were streams throughout the year with clean water…as boys we learnt to swim in the rivers that ran through Kibera,” an elder named Yusuf recalls nostalgically while seated outside his family house, which though was once surrounded by mango trees is now buried in a maze of shacks. “Every time it rained the quantity of water in streams increased and that would be a very beautiful time to swim, even do a bit of fishing at the extreme end of Kibera where there was the Nairobi Dam”.

To those who have been in Kibera in this century such tales rings with the fantasy of bedtime stories. But though hard to conceptualize, Mr. Faraj claims that this was the case and goes on to add that in his childhood there was also a lot of wildlife in Kibera with small game like antelopes, hares and rabbits being common.

How then did such a paradise turn into the chaotic shantytown that is Kibera today?

“The slum came about as a result of the government’s failure to establish who are the rightful owners of the land called Kibra,” says the NCE chairman. “Instead the state condoned the questionable land allocation deals that gradually eroded the place to a slum”.

As rural folks flooded in Kibera in search of cheap housing over the years, the community found their carefully crafted traditional houses drowned in a sea of shacks. But one can easily pick the Nubian houses from their distinct architecture and the slanting debe roofing style that stands out distinctively from the riff-raff rusted tin rooftops.

Both the colonial government and the independent Kenya, through National Housing Corporation, hived off huge chunks of Kibera to establish middle class estates like Ayany and Karanja, evicting many Nubian families in the process.

“Most of the areas in Kibera once had Nubian names, but they have been changed. The original name of this land was Kibra. That’s a Nubian name,” says a woman who gives her name as Zam. “Now they say Kibera, which is a Kikuyu name. We had Lomle. Now it is Ayany Estates. We had Sarang’ombe. Now it is called Jamhuri. We had Salama. Now it is Karanja”.

Although Nubians are now concentrated around Makina area of Kibera there are other areas which still bear Nubian names as a reminder of their original residents. Toi, which means…..Laini Saba, which translates into “firing range” since this is where KAR soldiers trained, Gatwekera, a corruption of Nubian word Kathirkher which means “plenty of blessings”.

Apart from Kibera Nubians have also played a significant role in the history of various Kenyan towns. Naivasha for instance comes from the Nubian word neipasha that means deputy general and was named after Nubian commander Selim Bey died there mysteriously in the 1890s.

The huge number of impoverished people concentrated in a tiny place has often led to frustrations that sometimes exploded into bloody violence. Rent related skirmishes broke out in the year 2001 after prominent politicians issued statements that are said to have incited tenants not to pay rent. Many deaths and injuries were reported with a lot of Nubians losing their livelihoods after their rental properties were forcefully occupied or destroyed.

“Every region of Kenya is associated with a certain ethnic group who sees it as their source of identity,” points out the NCE chairman. “Due to our ancestral connection to Kibra, Nubians would like to be recognized as among the natives of Nairobi County which would guarantee them consideration whenever opportunities arise”.

Having filled the rank and file of the colonial armed forces, there has been a perception that the Nubian community was alienated by the independent Kenya government due to their role in the colonization of Kenya. But Nubian Council of Elders, whose members were youths during the freedom struggle, greatly dispute this.

“When the state of emergency was declared by the colonial government, Nubian soldiers refused to enact the emergency rules despite being put under intense pressure, including stage managed assassination of their leaders by purported Mau Mau operatives,” insists Faraj. “Nubians were on the side of the nationalists, going as far as providing safe houses where top leaders like Jomo Kenyatta would meet without running the risk of being caught”.

Nubian sympathizers in the army facilitated such clandestine meetings since colonial officers never suspected that leaders of the freedom struggle would dare set foot in Kibra, then a highly militarized zone. Nyumba Kubwa (big house), where Nubians once hid Jomo Kenyatta and other prominent freedom fighters, still stands as one of the oldest houses in Kibera today.

“We demand, not beg, for our rights because we contributed as much to the freedom struggle of this nation as any other community,” the Nubian community leaders say. “We were on the right side of history hence we should have our rightful place in society”.

Nubians elders say that a strong cultural bond cemented by age-old traditions have been the key to maintaining their identity in a society where they are overwhelmingly outnumbered. They still roof their houses in the slanting debe style, and women wearing Gurbaba still dance to the doluka during traditional weddings.

“It was assumed that we would be assimilated but the strong Nubian culture, dating back to the Egyptian Pharaohs, has been the immunity against this,” Abdul Faraj concludes. “Our resilience lies in the strength of our tightly knit culture where one man’s problem is his neighbour’s

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The African Gladiators

The highly excited crowd seems unfazed by the August morning chill in Nairobi’s Kibera slums as they cheer for the two men locked in a tight struggle at the centre of the sanded sisal ring. Their bodies dotted with paints of different hues, the duo desperately twist, turn, push and press forward, each trying to gain territory and maneuvering space to grab the opponent’s leg and bring them down.

The struggle is obviously taxing and testing the young men’s breaking points, for despite the mildly chilly day, a thin sweat glistens over their ebony skins. Then suddenly, the young man with facial tribal markings hooks his elbow on the bigger man’s upper thigh and with one mighty lunge, both fly across the mattress of sand. The judge declares the contestant whose forehead is adorned with tribal incisions the winner as he has landed on top of his opponent.

His jubilant colleagues storm the contest area and lift him shoulder high in a lap of honour around the ring, with the traditional Nubian drumbeats drowning the excited shouts of the tiny throng of spectators.

“I am here for Nuba and Sudan,” says 20 year-old Zachary Nabil, the jubilant winner. “Although I have lived in Kenya for the last five years, my commitment and love for my motherland runs deep,” adds the high school student.

Nabil has travelled all the way from Nuba Mountains in central Sudan in the company of 10 colleagues to take part in the Kibera Traditional Wrestling Tournament, the first of its kind to be held in the sprawling slums for decades. All the other participating teams, Kakamega, Kibera and Riruta, are from Kenya. But the Sudanese stand out not only for their jet black complexion and the facial tribal markings but also their skill and tact.

Organised by the Kibera Nubian Wrestlers in conjunction with Sports for Youth Development Initiative (SYDI), the tournament is a series of similar events that were launched several months ago to promotes unity in the shantytown.

“We held our inaugural wrestling tournament in March and the enthusiasm with which it was received encouraged us to organise the second one,” says SYDI Press Officer Phillip Emase. “Before launching these events we acted a movie called Nuba in December featuring all our wrestlers.”

Popularly known as menge in the Nubian language, traditional wrestling has been part of many African cultures since ancient times. The sport was immensely popular in Egypt, Upper Nile region and West Africa before almost being eroded to extinction by colonization.

However, in the mountainous terrains of Central Sudan the game faltered and staggered its way into modern times. Boys in this region encounter the sport at a very tender age hence by the time they reach their teenage years their skills are highly polished. Perhaps this explains why the youthful team from Nuba Mountains easily scooped top honours in the Kibera tournament.

“In Sudan the players wrestle on bare rocky ground unlike in this ring where there is a thick cushion of sand,” says Ali, the Nuban team trainer. “The problem with Kenyan wrestlers is that they think muscle and size is everything. But traditional wrestling, unlike the western version, is more of skill and tact than strength.”

The sport was a popular past time activity of the earlier generation of Nubians who settled in Kenya, from Sudan, in the 19th century. However it died out as these immigrants settled and got absorbed in the Kenya culture.

“Our intent of reviving this ancient sport now is to see it grow into a status where we can represent Kenya in major international wrestling tournaments,” explains Amani Salim, chairman of the Kibera Nubian Association (KNA) and the event’s general overseer. Although they are yet to get any sponsors, Mr Salim believes repeated media publicity will popularize the game enough to attract the interest of corporate organizations.

“If properly managed and developed across the continent, traditional wrestling could be the first African game to be incorporated in the Olympic Games,” adds the optimistic Salim who grew up in Kibera and participated in wrestling events as a youth.

The same sentiment is echoed by Musa Tai, a 31 year-old local wrestling hero who believes there is more in the game than just the muscle.

“If the government assists in putting the right mechanisms in place this game, just like football, can be a source of income for the youth and a means to lasting peace among different communities,” he says.

The Kibera Academy, where the tournament was held, is a popular Nubian community centre where various cultural and social activities take place. Hence as the young men contested for supremacy and honour over the sand, large canvases of vintage photos telling the Nubian tale since their arrival in Kenya more than a 100 years ago were on display a few meters away.

The open gallery is a walled wealth of history, from the first Nubian soldiers that served in the Kings African Rifles through the pioneer Nubian settlements in the forested Kibera in the early 1930s to the recent generation of descendants.

Although the historical display gets me gaga, screams from the ringside snaps me back to the ringside where the crowd is now pressing tightly around the sanded centre.

Two tall young men are circling around the sisal rope enclosure like dark gladiators, each waiting for an opportunity, that chink in the armour, to pounce. None presents. I am convinced that this particular pair's contest, if not restrained, might easily spill past the rules. They stand and size each, much to the chagrin of the crowd that is by now baying for bruise or blood.

“They are wasting time. If they can’t do it let them get out of the ring and let those who can do it do it,” fumes an agitated fan.

Then without a warning the two challengers lunge at each other, muscle taught and tight as they toss and turn in a desperate attempt to trip or not to be tripped. Ultimately, one man prevails as his opponent fails. The winner is whisked away shoulder high by his excited mates while the loser walks out crest fallen. Like the rest of the crowd, I chose the winner.

“It’s Ugali, githeri (mixture of maize and beans) and rabuon (sweet potatoes) energy,” brags the heavily panting victor as he answers my questions between gulps of water and air. “Traditional foods are an integral part of my diet and I believe that’s where I derive my immense power. I have only lost one game since I started wrestling competitively.”

The tournament is over and the master of ceremony has announced the wrestlers from Nuba Mountains as the overall winners, having floored all their ten opponents but two. Judging from the way members from the various teams are embracing and greeting each other, it’s obvious the muscular men have been here for more than just the physical contest.

“Today the wrestling ring and the overall event have been a historic meeting point and re-union between the Kenyan Nubians and their cousins the Sudanese Nubans,” says Mr Emasse.

As part of its campaign to use sports as a creative avenue to address the numerous problems facing Kenyan youth in marginalised places like Kibera, SYDI plans to register a national association of traditional wrestling in the country. The organisation is already running successful football, boxing and tae Kwon do teams.

“The reason for organising the tournaments now is to popularise the sport, re-unite the two Nuba communities and lobby for the creation of a national wrestling league,” he concludes.