Kenyan Nubians: Without Papers, Who Are You?

It is a simple identity card, in Swahili a kitambulisho: handwritten ink-pen letters, a registration number, a photo and fingerprint of the holder, a signature of the registration officer. Receive the kitambulisho, possess it, and you can place your child in a good school, obtain free health care, receive a passport perhaps, and enjoy all the other rights and benefits that citizenship in Kenya entails.

But lose the kitambulisho, let it drop from your pocket onto a dusty street, fail to notice fingers picking it from your handbag on the citi hoppa minibus that bounces from Kibera into central Nairobi, and, if you are a minority Nubian, you will for years confront glowering eyes and batteries of questions:

“Who are you?”
“Where do you hail from?”
“Where is your birth certificate?”
“What was your grandfather’s place of birth?”
“Where were your father and mother born?”
“Do you have their birth certificates?”
“Why not?”

Lose the kitambulisho and—if you are a Kenyan Nubian—you must fear arrest for loitering or worse. While other Kenyans who lose the card can readily secure a replacement, you cannot because the application form asks for your “tribe.” To declare your tribe is Nubian is to invite rejection, in view of the pervasive hostility toward Nubians in much of Kenya. Even your name is a likely giveaway, indicating to the clerk that you are not a “real” Kenyan, and hence do not deserve a new kitambulisho. Without it, you will not travel outside Kenya’s borders, because you cannot qualify for a passport. You will watch other parents send their children to the good schools and the free state hospital. You will hear that their children have received scholarships to study abroad while yours linger in Kibera.

Kenya’s Nubians, more than 100,000 of them, have descended from soldiers whom the British Empire transferred, in some instances over a century ago, from Sudan to Kenya. Many received permits to settle outside Nairobi on the hillside known as Kibera during the 1920s. Others arrived in Kibera in the 1950s, during Kenya’s rebellion against colonial rule, because the British considered them loyal. Kenya won independence in 1963. The British departed. And the Nubians’ small subsistence farming plots have been engulfed by the sprawling slum that Kibera has become—a warren of poverty where 600,000 of Nairobi’s three million residents reside.

Like almost all of Kenya’s Nubians, Abdalla Yasuf and Shafir Ali Hussein were born in Kenya. Yasuf, born in 1935, has been a life-long resident of Kibera. He has fathered seven children and has several grandchildren, all of them born in Kenya. He had a kitambulisho, acquired in 1951 and updated in 1980 and 1996; and he even received a one-year passport in January 2004. Soon afterward, however, Yasuf lost his identity card. On July 28, 2004, he applied for a replacement. He has yet to receive it.

“I cannot be employed,” Yasuf says. “I cannot use a bank. I can be arrested for not having the identity card. I have always done my civic duty and voted like a good citizen, but I could not vote during the 2005 referendum on the proposed constitution of Kenya. This was shocking to me. I had a passport but could not use it to vote. I was frustrated because I could not express my opinion on that constitution when it mattered, because the government was delaying giving me my ID. This delay has not been explained to me by any official, but I deem it selective, deliberate, and discriminatory toward me because I am a Nubian.”

Shafir Ali Hussein’s great-grandfather was a soldier in the King’s African Rifles when he was ordered to Kenya. Hussein’s grandfather, born in Kenya, also served in the King’s African Rifles. Hussein’s father was born in Kibera. And Hussein was born there in 1961. He has lived there almost ever since. His daughter was born there.

In about 1987, Hussein received a job offer from a friend of his aunt. The position was in Saudi Arabia, and the pay would have allowed him to move his family to a better house.

Hussein was excited. He went to apply for a passport. He submitted the completed passport application form and returned, as instructed, after a few weeks, and again after a few weeks more, and again, and again until, after five months of returning for a passport never issued, he saw the job in Saudi Arabia go to someone else. Hussein was angry. Gone was the good job—and with it the chance to move his family to a better place. About a year later, he returned to the immigration department. His passport application had disappeared. He returned, as instructed, in a week. He learned his file had been lost. His original birth certificate was inside. Fill out more forms. Come back . . . come back . . . come back. Hussein abandoned hope.

“Applying for a birth certificate is a headache and I do not want to go through it,” he says. “The reason that there are obstacles is because being a Muslim is a global headache and being a Nubian is a headache in Kenya. I feel as if there is no help for me. My feeling of patriotism is gone. Unless you have a friend who knows someone in government or who is in government, your problem cannot get solved.”

Kibera is far from a hospital. So Hussein’s daughter was born at home and he has had to apply for her birth certificate without the support of the hospital clerks.

“I was told to go to city hall,” he says. “At city hall, I was asked for my wife’s clinic card and my daughter’s clinic card. I brought both these cards back but I was told that they were not stamped. I had to return to the hospital and get them stamped. I took the stamped cards back to city hall but I could not find the person I was dealing with. After some visits, I found the officer and he told me to fill a form B3. The form asked for names of the child, the father, and the mother and the date of birth of the child. I filled out the form. I then had to take the form to the chief and the subchief for signatures. I returned the form to city hall on Tuesday, February 4, 2006.”

He is still waiting for a response. “The government has neglected us,” Hussein says. “This is because Nubians are a small percentage of the population here and so they have no political power. Kibera is neglected because Nubians have no political support. Development only happens where the people of a member of parliament are. I don’t think that anything will change.”

More than 11 million people around the globe are effectively stateless like Abdalla Yasuf and Shafir Ali Hussein. From Kenya to the Dominican Republic, national governments are manipulating citizenship laws to relegate members of entire ethnic groups—people born and raised inside their country’s borders—to statelessness, stripping them of the fundamental rights to political participation, freedom of movement, education, and employment. As never before, the right to citizenship is under threat.

Since the collapse of communism in Europe, ethnic nationalism has led to the exclusion of minorities from citizenship in a number of new or successor states. In Africa, ethnic tensions arising from decolonization and state-building, combined with the growing significance of political rights in emerging democracies, have driven armed conflict and forced racial and ethnic minorities to the margins of society. In Asia and the Middle East, discriminatory citizenship laws perpetuate the inequalities women suffer and disenfranchise minority ethnic groups.

Stateless people are subject to social exclusion, sexual and physical violence, and other human rights violations, and fall outside the protection and assistance of aid agencies and the United Nations citizenship policy.

In Botswana, Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, the Justice Initiative is working with local partners to document patterns of ethnic, racial, gender, and citizenship-based discrimination, identify opportunities for litigation to challenge discriminatory laws and practices, and advocate for comprehensive antidiscrimination protections based upon international and regional standards.

The Justice Initiative and several Soros foundations, including the Open Society Initiative for East Africa, are also working to help the stateless of Kenya, including the Nubians, to organize themselves, to campaign for access to citizenship, and to fight for their right to the simple card, the kitambulisho.

Add your voice