These glorious Nubian mats adorn my kitchen. They decorate our every day, their colours radiating like mini-suns however dull the weather. It is hard to imagine, then, that there is a dark tale behind their creation, a tale of statelessness and discrimination.
The makers of the mats are women from the Nubian community of Kibera, in Nairobi (Kenya). They, their parents and grandparents before them, were born in this quarter of the city suburbs. This has been the case since the early 1900s, when British colonial authorities gazetted an area of land for settlement by Sudanese Nubian soldiers of the British Army, men who had first been recruited during the 1890s when Britain was trying to establish control over the peoples and territories of East Africa.
This next photo thus shows another form of decoration – a Nubian KAR officer’s chest adorned with medals that attest to years of brave service in the cause of the British Empire.
Copyright Kenya Nubian Council of Elders
This photo was taken in 1956, during the British colonial era. The officer is showing his invitation to a garden party at Nairobi’s Government House. The gathering was in honour of the visit to Kenya by HRH Princess Margaret of England (Kenya’s Nubians: Then and Now, Open Society Foundations).
The Nubian people (also known in the distant past as Kushites) have a long, long history, their homeland once stretching along the upper reaches of the River Nile in North Sudan and into southern Egypt. Much of their territory was taken in the 1960s for the building of the Aswan Dam by the Egyptians, and this was another cause of displacement. But way back in time, the Nubians were a people to be reckoned with. The earliest evidence of a metropolitan culture (the Kingdom of Kerma) has a date contemporary with neighbouring Ancient Egypt. Nubia was the gateway to the African hinterland, and a great trading nexus.
Dr Stuart Tyson Smith (University of California, Santa Barbara) says the Kerma culture “evolved out of the Neolithic around 2400 BC. The Kushite rulers of Kerma profited from the trading such luxury goods as gold, ivory, ebony, incense, and even live animals to the Egyptian Pharaohs. By 1650 BC, Kerma had become a densely occupied urban center overseeing a centralized state stretching from at least the 1st Cataract to the 4th, rivaling ancient Egypt. Kerma was sacked in c. 1500 BC, when the entire region was incorporated into the Egyptian New Kingdom empire.”
The Nubians and Egyptians traded, intermarried and warred with one another over many centuries, the Nubians finally ruling Egypt for half a century during the 25th dynasty (c. 750–655 B.C.E.) And though it may be a big surprise for some people to know this, there were Nubian, black African pharaohs, Nubian pyramids, and a Nubian form of hieroglyphics that were later developed into a 23-letter alphabet (yet to be deciphered). Clearly as time went on, Nubian culture was influenced by Ancient Egypt (though why not the other way around?), yet it also evolved in its own very characteristic ways.
The strikingly tall Nubian pyramids below were built at the time when Britain was a land of Iron Age farmers who lived in thatched round houses and constructed hill forts of earthen banks and ditches.
Fabrizio Demartis Creative Commons
The Nubian Meriotic kingdom developed from the 25th Dynasty when Nubia ruled Ancient Egypt. It is named after its capital Meroë (begun c 800 BCE). Over 255 pyramids belonging to the Meroitic period have so far been discovered.
But back to more recent times, and the story behind my lovely mats. In World War 1, Sudanese Nubian forces were deployed in defence of British-ruled Kenya along the border with German controlled Tanganyika. This East African campaign was a brutal affair, fought over waterless, disease-ridden bush, as British forces attempted to thwart Count Von Lettow-Vorbeck’s ingenious guerrilla tactics, carried out by other Africans – the Count’s highly trained askaris from German East Africa (now Tanzania).
The British Army, with a few exceptions late in the war, did not allow the native peoples of Kenya to carry arms at this time, so it was the Nubians who were the main combatants. Kenyans were instead conscripted into the Carrier Corps to transport army provisions since mules and horses could not survive in tsetse infested bush country. Tens of thousands of young men died of starvation and disease in the British cause, their families often never hearing what had happened to their sons. They simply never returned from the war with Jerimani.
(For a vivid fictional version of this conflict see William Boyd’s An Ice-cream War).
In 1912 the British colonial administration in Nairobi gazetted 4,197 acres near the city for the settlement of Nubian soldiers and their families who could not be repatriated to Sudan. The Nubians called this place Kibra, the forest land.
Nubian Family c1940s, photographer unknown. Copyright Kenya Nubian Council of Elders. For more wonderful photos see Kenya’s Nubians: Then and Now, Open Society Foundations
By this time, all British East African (Kenyan) tribes had been categorized, and the land they occupied, at the point of British incursion, designated as native reserves. Africans were not allowed to have title deeds to their own and and, in theory, European settlers (who did have title to vast acreages) were not allowed to encroach on the reserves.
The Nubians, however, were specifically categorized by colonial authorities as ‘Detribalized Natives’, and non-natives of British East Africa. This meant they could not claim any rights to have their land made into a reserve, nor could they build permanent structures on the land. The community, however, continued to provide further generations of soldiers who would serve in the King’s African Rifles.
During WW2 Nubian soldiers fought for Britain, alongside other black Kenyan recruits, in Somalia, Abyssinia and in the terrifying war against the Japanese in the jungles of Burma. It is another little remembered fact that the African troops of the King’s African Rifles played a determining role in the winning of the Burma campaign.
By 1955 the Nubian community of Kibra numbered 3,000. Back then it was an attractive rural village, the houses surrounded by large gardens. But in successive decades as Nairobi grew into a city, hundreds of thousands of rural Kenyans, seeking work, invaded Kibra, putting up shanty dwellings. Kibera, as it is currently known, is now one of the biggest slums in Africa.
A cropped image of Kibera, Nairobi. Photo CC 2014 Schreibkraft
Photo: CC Blazej Mikula
During colonial times, Kibra land remained the property of the British Crown. At Independence in 1963, ownership of Crown Land passed to the new government, and so became state-owned land. The new state also inherited an administration that was still largely operating under State of Emergency regulations from the 1950s Mau Mau uprising. Being able to prove who your tribe was and the associated right to domicile were essential proofs of citizenship. The Nubians’ former colonial categorization denied them on both fronts.
From 1963 until 2009, when the Nubian community in Kenya was finally accorded official existence as a Kenyan tribe, the Nubians of Kibera and elsewhere in Kenya had been stateless. While the colonial generation did have identity cards, the post-independence generations could only acquire them, if at all, with great difficulty, and after many years of persistence.
This meant they could not be formally employed, open bank accounts, acquire title deeds, participate in the affairs of their country of birth, vote, or even leave their own homes safely, since to be caught without an identity card is a criminal offence. The only opportunities to earn a living were in the informal sector, and for women, this included/still includes making baskets for sale through non-governmental trading operations, and Nairobi’s tourist curio shops. Hopefully now, with official recognition, the fortunes of the Nubian people will change for the better, but there is still much ground to make up, and in all senses. For more of these people’s story see the excellent short videos below, and also the full length BBC programme about Ancient Nubia at the end.
In the meantime, back to the beautiful baskets, and a Nubian woman at work. The method of construction involves coiling lengths of papyrus stems or dried grasses then wrapping them round with coloured and natural palm leaf strips. Truly great works of decorative art, and not only that, but life-enhancingly useful too. Expressions of spirit undaunted despite lives of grave hardship unimaginable to most of us?
Article on Nubians of Uganda: Flavia Lanyero 2011 Daily Monitor
text copyright 2014 Tish Farrell
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23 thoughts on “Basket case? Tales of bravery and betrayal”
The fascinating read apart, you have no idea how such stories cause such a gut wrench.
One wonders if the day will ever arrive where we treat each other simply as people.
Imagine that, Tish?
It is something to imagine, isn’t it, Ark. Why is it so difficult to effect – this treating of each other as people. All the stumbling blocks are either a product of historical malpractice and ignorance, or due to some concocted notion that could just as easily be rescinded/unthought/disinvented for the sake of some true humanity. Hey ho. One day…
Great post. So much history of which I was unaware. Lovely baskets.
Thanks, Marie. They are splendid creations aren’t they.
Simply amazing work in coiling Tish, I am always fascinated by basketry in all of its forms from all over the world, and the various techniques used in each style. GREAT PHOTOGRAPHY.
Hi Mitchell, I had a feeling you’d like this work. You’ve reminded me that I could do a similar post on the Tonga of Zambia/Zimbabwe at some point.
Your posts are so interesting Tish, and your photography is great!
I learn so much from your posts. The beauty and colour of the mats is simply inspiring….and yes, I wonder if the day will ever come when human kind will show mutual respect for one another and celebrate differences rather than oppose them. Wishing you a lovely week ahead:)
It is splendid work, isn’t it, Janet. Glad you found the history interesting.
Tish, your knowledge of history is truly astounding.
In my view, Kenyatta was the worst president for the young republic. Nothing changed when he came to power except the colour of who sat on the throne. His administration did little to improve the lives of the citizens as had been the aspirations of those who fought for independence and the Nubians found themselves in this mess.
Thank you for such a great read.
Thanks, Noel. As to Kenyatta, according to what I read, the Nubian community in Kibera sheltered him from the British during the Emergency crackdowns in Nairobi. There’s a pic of the house on the Greg Constantine slide show. Also the Nubian women used to gather to greet him whenever he returned to Nairobi. As to his ‘achievements’ as President – I agree with you. But one factor outside his control (I think) was that the British Government made the new State pay off all the white farmers who wanted to sell their farms. Kenya began with a BIG debt, and thus the means by which foreign powers could manipulate affairs thereafter. Also he’d been in prison for 8 years, and quite wrongfully accused. That trial was a disgraceful stitch-up. It showed the British at their conniving worst. I’m not excusing Kenyatta’s later behaviour, but his treatment was bound to make anyone cynical. And perhaps also feel ‘owed’?
Those who were with Kenyatta in prison think he was a stooge for the colonial government. In all the years at the prison he wasn’t doing any hard labour besides he wasn’t really a part of the struggle for independence. This is especially so given his treatment of those who had put their lives on the line in the fight for freedom.
The Kenyatta family amassed so much land in the country. There are people everywhere squatters on their land. They were thieves and land grabbers to put it politely.
I hope someday there will be a courageous leader at the helm to face these inequalities and do something about them.
Yes, I read that some thought Kenyatta was a stooge at Kapenguria. Certainly something must have happened between the demonizing that got him jailed and his being made President. And yes, all that land grabbing – clearly following a colonial model !
The land grabbing cannot even be spoken about. I think it bordered on insanity.
Thanks again, Tish, for a wonderful history lesson! I had some knowledge, although very spotty. I have a collection of these baskets and mats as well, most of them bought in Uganda.
I like knowing that we have similar baskets and mats, Tiny. I’m amazed how well they have worn, or indeed hardly worn, or even lost their colour much.
They are amazing! Ours are now exactly 20 years old and the colors are still bright.
Yes, ours are getting on a bit too, but the colours are only a little faded on one mat.
hi Tish, that are long roots: “Kerma culture evolved out of the Neolithic around 2400 BC. The Kushite rulers of Kerma profited from the trading such luxury goods as gold, ivory, ebony, incense, and even live animals to the Egyptian Pharaohs…” Sorry to read, that Germany also here caused much pain…
I did reply to this, Frizz, but think it disappeared. Anyway, as for Germany causing pain, Von Lettow-Vorbeck was considered one big hero by British forces in the East Africa campaign. He was respected for his strategy, and tenacity, and also his ability to disappear all over East Africa. And he trained his African troops really well, having faith in their abilities to carry out daring guerrilla attacks, a regard for Africans that was rather rare at the time. Altho you could rightly argue what the devil were Tanganyika people on the one hand, and Sudanese Nubians on the other doing fighting each other over German-British issues, matters of which they would have absolutely no knowledge. It was a mad war all round.
mad wars are a never ending problem, it seems: