When Kamal Bilal was a young boy in the 1950s, Kirasa village on the outskirts of Masindi town was still decades away from being flooded by other tribes. The village was home only to the Nubians.
“Nubians used to live communally, usually occupying an entire village where no other ethnic groups lived,” said Bilal, now aged 69.
Indigenous to Malakal and Bari in South Sudan, Nubians arrived in colonial Uganda, and indeed Kenya and Tanzania, in the late 1880s as soldiers fighting alongside the British colonial army. Others were by then already fighting alongside Bunyoro kingdom’s army of King Chwa II Kabalega, according to Bilal.
When the British finally took control of Uganda in 1900, Nubian soldiers dominated the King’s African Riffles (KAR) — the British colonial army — and the majority of them went to live in Bombo, about 40 kilometres north of Kampala, where the army headquarters was located.
At the beginning of British colonial rule, Nubians accounted for more than 50 percent of the army, according to available records.
“By 1905, the Bombo army barracks had 1,052 soldiers, of which 675 were Nubians, 118 were Zanzibaris, 99 were Indians and 60 were Baganda,” says 72 year old Ismail Karim, the general secretary of the Nubian Consultative Forum, the umbrella organisation of the Nubian community in Uganda.
It’s because of the Nubians’ historical soldiering life, Mr Karim opines, that they developed the culture of living as a tight-knit community.
“Soldiers are security-conscious by training,” he says. “Nubians started living communally so that they could protect each other. In fact, this settlement pattern is the same with the Nubians of Kenya and Tanzania.”
However, Mr Bilal has a different opinion. To him, the culture of communal living among the Nubians developed after World War II when retired Nubian soldiers were “dumped” in one settlement.
In his own words: “After World War II, many Nubian soldiers had grown old and were retired from the army and settled in Kololo, Kampala, but some of them were resettled in Hoima (in Bunyoro, western Uganda) because Sir Tito Winyi, then King of Bunyoro, considered them his people because Nubians had fought alongside his father, King Kabalega.
“The king gave Nubians land in Hoima and they built a village which later came to be known — and is still known as — Kinubi (land of Nubians).
Since then we started living a communal life because we had been dumped in settlements together.” The same happened in Kenya, where Nubians ex-soldiers and their families were dumped in Laini Shaba (also known as Laini Saba) in Kibra (also known as Kibera) area of Nairobi; and in Majengo area in Mombasa. In Tanzania, however, they intermarried and disappeared as a homogenous group today.
Living together, Mr Bilal avers, meant that they could easily help each other in times of need and also keep their culture and traditions intact — and intact they remained for decades.
However, things have changed now, Mr Bilal says, modern times have forced Nubians to intermingle with other ethicities mainly because of land scarcity as population grow. His beloved Kirasa village is now occupied by people from all over Uganda, while many Nubians have since settled in different parts of the country.
Now numbering about 45,000 individuals and living in different urban centres across the country, Nubians have been assimilated into other communities — risking the dilution of their culture.
Their language, which is known colloquially as Kinubi and is also spoken by the Nubians of Kenya, has not only begun to fall into relative disuse, but has also been diluted as some Nubian communities incorporate ”foreign words” into the language.
“Nubians in Kampala, for instance, have now incorporated some Luganda words into the Kinubi they speak while those in Kenya have incorporated some Swahili words,” Mr Karim says.
Conversely, those who still live in Bombo, numbering an estimated 9,500 individuals according to Mr Karim, have led the way in keeping the Nubian culture and traditions alive.
Reviving culture and traditions
In 2001, Mr Karim and other Nubians from the older generation started the Nubian Consultative Forum, whose aim is to offer the younger generation a point of connection to their Nubian culture and traditions.
Located in Bombo town, Mr Karim’s organisation is a resource centre where young Nubians can learn about their customs, especially the making of their distinctive and colourful utilitarian and decorative handicrafts such as baskets and mats.
Talking of mats, Mr Karim says they are very important in the life of a Nubian because most of their traditional ceremonies — prayers, dua and weddings — are all performed on mats.
“Young Nubian women are taught how to make Nubian crafts from here, and then our office helps to market their handiwork. Any Nubian is free to make and sell their handicraft from here,” Mr Karim said, adding that currently, his office exports Nubian craft to European markets such as Austria.
For posterity, the organisation is currently in the process of publishing a book that details the history, culture, traditions and “the contributions of Nubians to the making of Uganda,” Mr Karim said, adding that Nubians arrived in Uganda long before the modern state of Uganda existed.
Today, the office of the Nubian Consultative Forum also doubles as the Nubian Tourism Development Centre and currently markets Nubian culture and traditions as touristic experiences.
The major draw is the authentic homestays, where tourists get to visit Nubian homesteads and learn about Nubian culture first-hand.
Also on the menu are live dance performances by a traditional Nubian dance troupe, which treats its audiences to doluka — the traditional Nubian dance — while foodies get to taste Nubian cuisine such as kirisa (a mixture of wheat, cassava and maize flour), kofta (deep-fried meat balls) or korofo gwanda (pasted cassava leaf stew), among others.
Like their grandparents, the majority of today’s Nubians shun school — save for a few like Moses Ali, Uganda’s former second deputy prime minister — which has relegated them to informal employment such as running small retail shops.
“In fact,” says Mr Bilal, “the Nubians are the ones who introduced kiosks in Uganda, a trade learnt when fighting in Somalia in the 1800s.
While most Nubian men are in informal business, the women’s livelihood is making handicraft because “this is all our parents taught us when we were young,” says Halima Twaha, a 40-year-old Nubian in Kirasa village.
In Uganda, Nubians are also famous for rearing turkeys, which they historically preferred because they were big enough to feed a typically large Muslim Nubian family.
Today, the birds as a source of income. Ms Twaha who is married with five children, rears the birds and sells one for up to Ush150,000 ($42.8).
Nubians were also historically good sportspeople, and in the 1960s, they dominated the national Uganda Cranes football team .
“Our parents placed a lot of emphasis on sports and education, and many Nubians back then excelled in disciplines such as athletics and football,” Mr Karim says.
Some of the most famous Nubian footballers to date include Ahmed Doka and Majid Mohammed, the duo who played for the national football team in the 1960s. Majid Mohammed even went on to coach Harambe Stars — the Kenyan national football team — in the 1980s.