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The Nubi of Kenya and Uganda

Population:     Kenya  16,700 (2001); Uganda  14,739 (1991 census)
Religion:        Islam
Registry of Peoples code   Nubi   104847
Registry of Languages code (Ethnologue)   Nubi   kcn

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 Nairobi 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 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 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%.

The Nubi culture is strongly valued, demonstrated by their wedding ceremonies and special dress for women.  Intermarriage with other tribes is uncommon and it is even less common to marry outside the Muslim religion.  Preservation of culture is strong and training begins very young.  Respect for the elders is strictly observed by the young ones.  The culture is passed on through daily attendance at the Muslim religious schools, the madrassa.  Many Nubis attend madrassa rather than formal school education.  Less than 40% has completed class eight.

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 over a century.  In the Kibera neighborhood of Nairobi alone, there are eight mosques, all led by Nubis.

The community is less than 1 percent Christian.  Islam predominates.  The few Nubi Christians mix in with other tribes in the many Christian churches available but there is no Nubi church.  The Nubis do not have a Bible or even portions of the scripture in their mother tongue.

The only available Bible is in Arabic and is purportedly understood by the Nubi.  I would think understandability is questionable, since about 80 percent of the Nubi population speak Nubi in their daily interactions.

For more on The Nubi People of Kenya
The Nubi Language -- Wikipedia
The Nubi Language — Ethnologue

Orville Boyd Jenkins
First written August 1996
Posted August 2000
Rewritten June 2006
Last revised 9 January 2014

Copyright © 2000, 2006 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

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