Nubi people



The Nubi originated in the Sudan and spread to various East African countries due to their involvement with the British army.  Some also stayed when they escaped from slavers as they were being driven from their homes to the coast.

They are found mainly in urban centres such as Nairobi, Eldama-Ravine, and Bumbo (Uganda).  Nubi are also found in Uganda, though it is unclear if the two communities maintain contact now, or can understand each other's language.

The Ethnologue reports a higher population in Uganda, at a little less than 15,000, and only 10,000 in Kenya.   But other sources report over 16,000 as the population of the Nubi in Kenya (2001). One source (private communication) reports 20,000 in Kibera, the primary slum area of Nairobui where the Nubi live.



The history of the Nubi goes back to the late 1800s in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan.  In the last decades of the Ottoman Empire, the British administered "the Sudan" jointly with the virtually autonomous Ottoman Turkish province of Egypt.  A religious leader called the Mahdi led a rebellion against the British-Egyptian government.

After the British victory, Sudanese soldiers who had agreed to join the British forces were rewarded with land in Kibera, now a heavily-populated slum area in southwestern Nairobi.  They are still strongly associated with Kibera, though this crowded slum area now includes dense populations of people from virtually every tribe in Kenya.  Some Nubi also settled in Uganda.

The Ethnologue (2005) reports a population in Kibera of 3000 to 6000.  However, local researchers in 2004 estimated the Kibera population to be 20,000.



These Nubi people developed as a unique ethnicity, as individuals from various Sudan tribes melded together in the new settlements in Uganda and Kenya, marrying local women.  Nubi men continue to marry women of various tribes.  These new wives are expected to learn the Nubi language.

Some popular sources sometimes use the term Nubian for this ethnic group.  This seems to be partly due to confusion of these Nubi people, originally from Sudan (Nubia), with the cluster of ancient peoples called Nubian in northern Sudan and southern Egypt.  For comparative reference, the Registry of Peoples lists the primary groups of these Nilotic Nubian peoples with their unique codes Nubians as follows:

Nubian, Arabized     107494 (Arabic Mother Tongue)
Nubian, Kenuzi         104833
Nubian, Dongolawi  102707

The Sudanese troops that fought with the British likely did include soldiers of traditional Nubian ethnicity.  However, there is no current connection between the traditional Nubian peoples of the Sudan and these Nubi people.  There appears to be no contact between the Nubi groups and the Nubians who have descended directly from the ancient Nubians in various linguistic and cultural tribal descent in their home areas.

The Nubi are now estimated by some sources as 16,700 (2001) in Kenya and almost 15,000 in Uganda.  The Kenya Nubi still live primarily in Kibera, as a separate tribe, speaking the same Nubi Creole Arabic.  Today, the Nubi people work in both the private and public sectors.  The women specialize in unique handicraft and hairdressing.

This community faces a number of socio-economic and political problems that have reduced their self-esteem.  The people live mainly in the slum areas where the electricity, water and sanitary conditions are poor.

Families have difficulty paying school fees and this leads to school dropout and involvement in drug use.  This problem is made worse by the urban surroundings.  The Nubi people also face a problem where their land is being grabbed by the rich.  They find themselves threatened and depressed.



The Ethnologue lists their language under the name of the people, Nubi, with language code kcn.   The Ethnologue comments.  "Formerly a soldier language, which split off from Sudanese Pidgin Arabic about 1900." It is considered a Creole Arabic.

The Nubi's language is reported by some to be no longer intelligible with Sudan Creole Arabic (Juba Arabic).  An article in the Sunday Nation newspaper in Nairobi (written by a Nubi Catholic priest, "Father Kizito") says the Nubi in Nairobi cannot understand Sudan Arabic Creole speakers.  It is uncertain whether Nubi (Kenyan Creole Arabic) is intelligible with Ugandan Nubian Creole.  The Ethnologue reports them as the same language.  In the past, the language has also been referred to as Nubian Creole Arabic.

The people are called Nubi.  Their language is appropriately referred to as Nubi or Nubian Creole.  However, the term Kinubi commonly used for their language seems to indicate their bilingualism in Swahili and their association with Kenyan African society.

The Kenya Nubi use Swahili, however, to speak with the world, not any form of Arabic.  Creole Arabic (Nubian, or Kinubi, the Swahili name for their speech) is only a home language, and is not written.  Though educational levels are not high, they are literate in Swahili and English.  Everything related to learning, writing or contact with the outside world appears to be in Swahili (or English) and they seem totally bilingual in Swahili.

It is not certain whether Swahili is their primary decision-making language.  If not Swahili, then it would be Nubian Creole Arabic.  In Nairobi it appears that Swahili is becoming the mother tongue of the Nubi tribe.  The Ethnologue reports that the Kenya Nubi have a "stable bilingualism."

The Ethnologue reports that the Kenya Nubi have a literacy rate of below 1% in their own language.  There is no written literature in the Nubi language.  Literacy in Swahili is a bit higher, but still below 5%.


Political Situation

The Nubi came to Kenya in the 1800s due to their military service with the British in Sudan.  They were settled in Kibera before Nairobi was even a town.  There does not appear to be a strong political identity for the Nubi in Kenyan history.  They are not prominent in current politics. They have been accepted by other tribes and identify with Kenyan society at large.



The Nubi have steadfastly maintained their Sunni Islam while living in Kenya for a century.  In the Kibera neighborhood of Nairobi alone, there are eight mosques, all led by Nubis.



Traditional Marriages among the Nubian People


Although all Nubians are Moslems, the first bride has the option of demanding that the groom never takes on another wife.

A marriage in a Nubian setting is called the 'Nikah' (tying the knot) and it is conducted at a mosque or at the girl's home where it is presided over by a Sheikh (elder). It all begins with a boy and a girl agreeing to get married.

Ordinarily, it is the boy that initiates the relationship, before the couple informs their parents. However, some conservative families still choose suitors for their daughters, ignoring the daughters' preferences.

This is in relation to the Islamic belief that a parent should marry off their daughter in the best way they deem fit. This tradition is, however being challenged by western values which emphasize freedom of choice.

The boy's parents are supposed to get in touch with their counterparts on the girl's side to ask for her hand in the marriage on his behalf.

Then, a visit to the girl's family by the boy's parents, intended to sort out the formalities for their children's marriage, follows. It is then that deliberations on the related terms and conditions are made.

One of the items on the agenda of such a meeting is the gifts that will be received by the bride's family. Such items may include sugar, money, cooking oil, cloth and any other as may be demanded. In any Nubian marriage, the elderly are given priority in choosing gifts because they are highly respected and are believed to be capable of administering good luck.

Before the Nikah at the mosque, the groom gets a chance to talk to the bride. This session is known as the Mahare (bride gifting) and the groom is supposed to ask the bride what she would like him to give to her.

She can ask for such items as cars, houses or opt for nothing but love. The essence of this ceremony is to get the couple committed to marriage, for they get a feeling of being indebted to each other. Some Nubian girls use this opportunity to make the men commit themselves to a monogamous marriage by asking them not to marry other women as is allowed by Islamic tradition.

Because she has the liberty of choosing whatever items she deems necessary, the bride is expected to use this opportunity optimally and reach a consensus with the groom on the terms of fulfillment.

When a man fails to commit himself to the delivery of the girl's demands, the marriage can be halted. He, however, has the opportunity to pay in parts or pledge his commitment but in case a divorce happens afterwards, the girl's family is expected to pay back the items that were given by the man as mahare.

The Nikah climaxes with the couple tying the knot, which cements the couple as man and wife. This ceremony cannot be done if the bride is pregnant - she has to wait until she has given birth. It is blessed by a Sheikh in the presence of witnesses.

However, the bride does not make an appearance there and she is expected to stay in hiding until she is ready to go to the groom's home. She is represented at the Mosque by her brother or father, depending on who in her family has the right of giving her away.

She does not appear before the people at the Nikah because there is a need to protect her from temptations in case she sees other men who might easily lure her out of committing her life to the groom.

The groom can take the bride home after theNikah has been performed but she will be wrapped up, to ensure that no other person sees her until she has reached his home.

The first obligation a bride is expected to perform when she reaches her new home is to prepare a meal for her new family.

It is referred to as 'testing the hand of the bride' and it is done to confirm her potential to make a responsible wife who can fend for her family. It is by this test that the family takes their impressions of the new bride.