Tuesday, October 06, 2009


Only about 300 acres of the original over 4,000 acres of settlement land granted to the Nubian community by the British in Nairobi remains. That is one of the claims made by Khamis Ramadhan’s 27 minutes long documentary The Nubian Question in Kenya. Premiering this Monday, at the Alliance Fran├žaise, “the film brings forth the plight of the Nubians who reside in Kibra (now known as Kibera). The production revisits history and discusses the origins of the community, the struggle to own land and their effort to preserve their identity and culture.”

Nairobi is the Aid industry capital of Eastern Africa and the Great Lakes region and at the heart of Nairobi lays the crown jewel of that industry, Kibera. Kibera- where poverty and deprivation are only spoken of in superlatives- where your humane purse is coaxed open, not by a voice or face, but by a statistic. Wherever you are in the world, Kibera will find you and demand that you take urgent action now to save Them. Them that live in the biggest slum in, depending on the Aid Agency’s penchant for grand statements, Africa; Africa outside South Africa or East and Central Africa. Kibera is always about size and numbers, never about a people and their way of life. It is no small wonder then that the troubled, warped and complex histories of Kibera remain blurred by the infamy, nay, notoriety of its present.

It is thus by focusing on a people, their culture and their origins that Ramadhan brings one of the few noteworthy cinematic expeditions into Kibera in recent times. This is no more-slum-shots-from-Fernando Mierelles or Nathan Collett saving Kibera one Red One at a time but engaging social commentary. I am not saying that there is no social consciousness in The Constant Gardener or Kibera Kid; just that its rhyme and reason is wasted on Kenyan’s. Kenyans see their lives their lives through politics and politics is what, in the end, Ramadhans film delivers.

And Ramadhan, through the voices of his interviewees, makes political statements that, while at times grand, are pertinently Kenyan. Central to his documentary is the one thing that Kenyan blood has been and will continue to be spilled for the most: Land. If poverty, tribal animosity, ignorance and disease are the demons that haunt us, then land, to borrow an Edgar Poe phrase, is their avatar and seal. Kenyans are land poor; Kenyans fight each other over so called ‘ancestral land’; Kenyans want to live in the blissful ignorance of a long gone subsistence agriculture and pastoral economy that access to land is the only way to livelihood; Kenyans lack proper health care because public land earmarked for health centers has shifted to private hands. And in Ramadhan’s Kibera, decent housing is not the issue, as one of his interviewees notes, it is not that we are unable to build permanent houses here we just do not do it here because we do not own title deeds to this land.

The question of land in Kenya is immutably tied in with those of ethnic identity and the British colonial adventure in this region. The Nubian question in Kenya, as the documentary suggests, is one that becomes a volatile mix of all these. The documentary argues that there are about 200,000 Nubians living in Kenya today with twenty per cent of them living in Kibera. Importantly, all these people are direct descendants of Imperial British soldiery.

This last claim, as we see it, is important in that it pre-emptively rules out the needs for a screening in case restitutions and reparations are made available in future. It is one of many, of an astute activist nature, that raise further interest in Ramadhan’s work. Work that seems to paints a portrait of a community that served both the British Empire and the people and people and government of post-independence Kenya. A community that was in the end ‘marginalised’ by both.

Take the Nubian contribution to the struggle for independence, for instance. During the Emergency years, Nubian elders were approached by the British and requested to lend their support to the war against Mau Mau. The Nubians, according to this film, refused. If the implied claim ‘if we weren’t against these freedom fighters, then we were for them’ does not suffice, then there is more. Did you know that many a times Jomo Kenyatta would hide out here? Yes, the documentary, casually mentions Jomo Kenyatta as having, at one time or other, been dressed up as a Nubian and disappearing into Kibera.

What about that cockerel in the KANU flag? Do you know where it comes from? According to Ramadhan’s film, Tom Mboya used to spend time in conference with Nubian elders who used to wear blazers (maybe as part of some regimental dress) with a cockerel on the breast pocket. Later on as Mboya went on to form the PCP and with the emergence of KANU, he took this symbol and incorporated it into their signage.

Originally from the Sudan, the Nubians arrived in Kenya as soldiers, guards and porters loyal to the British crown. Principally, recorded history has the Nubians as- having been recognised as formidable warriors by the British- being hired to support Britain’s East African campaign at the end of the 19th Century. In the early years of the 20th Century, they became a part of the regiment known as the King’s African Rifles (KAR) formed in 1902 to protect British interests in East Africa and beyond. These forces not only saw action in numerous wars of occupation and the gorier ones of ‘pacification’, all the way to Uganda, but also fought gallantry in the two World Wars. The film tells us that the British always maintained comprehensive records of all Nubian males of a fighting age and fitness, who they considered a reserve force, and called on them in times of war.

To brand them mercenaries is to use a far too broad brush-stroke, for many of them, the film claims, had been forcefully conscripted. One interviewee tells of how large tribal dances would be organized and in the middle of which loud whistles would be heard and shortly heavily armed soldiers would surround them and take them captive. They would then be forced to join the British colonial army and sent to serve in far off places. The film states that that today Nubians can be found in places as far off as Burma.

Those in Kenya, who served alongside the British, have documents acknowledging that service but nothing more to show for it. Though Europeans who served in the World Wars were well rewarded- with among other things, large tracts of lands in Kenya- the Nubians who served alongside them, as with all the other Africans, received very little by manner of gratitude and or compensation.

The film claims that part of what the Nubians got was the land that they called Kibra. That land stretched from Dagoretti Corner, all the way to Wilson Airport on one side and bounded by the National Park and the Department of Defence on the other side. The only problem is that the British never gave them title deeds to that land. Neither did the Kenyan government. Why not? is the real Nubian question in Kenya. Or as one old man puts it: if the Indians and the Europeans have acquired land and citizenship, why not the Nubians?

Whichever way, The Nubian Question in Kenya might invent and reinvent history; no matter how much I see this as yet another Royal cock-up for Kenyans to deal with, one thing remains clear to me, the Nubian question is ours to deal with. And no matter how few our options are, only those that are just; those that have Kenya- the modern state of Kenya- beginning on the same day for all of us, no matter the road that brought our ancestors here, should be considered.

Note: Apologies for lack of text formatting, they are Blogger's not mine!

*PCP here refers to Tom Mboya's Nairobi People's Convention Party, which even his perennial rival Oginga Odinga admits to have been the best organised political party in Nairobi, in the late fifties and before joining KANU at its formation in 1960. (See, Oginga's Not Yet Uhuru, Pg. 147, 161, 181, 183, 193, 203)

1 comment:

kerenw said...

Would have loved to see that film...