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Kenya's ostracized Nubians

By David McKenzie, CNN
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'Stateless' Nubians face discrimination
  • Nubians in Kenya often cannot get officially recognized as Kenyan citizens
  • They were given land near Nairobi as a reward for fighting with the British in both world wars
  • They arrived in Kenya from Sudan after signing up with the British Army

Kibera, Kenya (CNN) -- Sixty-eight year old Naima Shaban can't access health care, open a bank account, or even get a death certificate in Kenya. Like thousands of Nubians living in Kenya, she is effectively stateless.

Shaban lost her national identity card 10 years ago. For most Kenyans it takes a few weeks to get a new one; she is still waiting. She has a faded copy that she has kept all this time.

"I don't know why they don't just give me my I.D.," Shaban told me, "I filled out the forms, I am angry."

She can't even improve her mud house. Most Nubians can't get land title to their plots. If they build a formal structure it will be torn down.

Nubians came to Kenya as an accident of history. The British Army began recruiting them out of modern day Sudan at the turn of the last century. They formed part of the King's African Rifles, a regiment raised from the British territories in Africa.

Nubians helped expand the empire and fought in both world wars. To reward veterans, the British government gave families land in a forest near Nairobi. They called it Kibr, now it is Kibera, Kenya's largest slum.

A recent photographic exhibition by Greg Constantine highlights their long history in Kenya.

Check out the online exhibition

Since Kenyan independence in 1964, Nubians have struggled to find a formal place in Kenyan society. Despite living in Kenya for three, sometimes four, generations, Nubian families often struggle to get recognized by the state as Kenyan citizens.

"Obtaining a passport or identity card as a Nubian," says Adam Hussein, a leading Nubian Advocate, "requires that you go through a different process than the rest of Kenyans."

Hussein should know. It took him ten years of struggle to get a passport. He was a member of a rugby team - he couldn't travel. He was a trained chemist - he couldn't get a job with the government.

Read Hussein's blog

According to the Open Society Foundations, there are some 15 million stateless globally. From Thailand's hill tribes to Dominicans of Haitian descent in the Caribbean, stateless people are not recognized by any country.

While some Nubians have become true Kenyans by virtue of luck or patience, in recent years the situation seems to be getting worse, not better.

A senior immigration official told me that the Kenyan government vets many Nubians, regardless of how long their families have been in the country. Immigration, home affairs, and even intelligence gets involved, I was told.

Nubians are even asked for their grandparents' birth certificates to get official I.D.

"Stringent measures aren't aimed at any particular community," the official said. "They have to prove they are Kenyan. Stringent measures need to be put in place to ensure that people are Kenyan."

Nubians do live in other countries in East Africa, but Kenya's Nubians are, in many ways, the first Africans settled in Nairobi. Still, many can't truly feel it is home.

Hussein said: "When a Nubian begins to say we have been here for four generations, this is almost a century plus we have been in this land. [And] the first question that comes from authority is 'are you a Kenyan'"?