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Identity and Dignity: Stories from Kenya

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Paralegals from the Nubian Rights Forum walk people through the often Kafkaesque process of obtaining identity documents.

 The Nubian People of Kenya

Nubian people have lived in Kenya for several generations, brought to their current location from Sudan under the British Empire. However, even after Kenya became independent in 1964, Nubian communities continued to struggle for legal recognition and citizenship rights – despite the fact that Kenyan citizenship law is based primarily on birthplace and descent. Today in Kenya, there are an estimated 100,000 Nubians, many of whom lack identity documents.

In 2011, the African Committee of Experts of the Rights and Welfare of the Child, which oversees the implementation of the Children’s Charter, found Kenya in violation of the rights of Nubian children to non-discrimination, nationality, and protection against statelessness. Implementation of this decision will require both domestic law reform and changes in practice; a strong base of evidence on the current situation may push these processes forward.

One person’s documentation often supports another’s application, so discrimination against one harms many.

Although some Nubian adults have a Kenyan national ID card, having successfully completed a multi-year government “vetting” process or otherwise paid bribes, this document is not secure. Should the card be lost, a replacement may be as difficult to obtain as the original. Possession of a national ID card is needed to enroll in school, get a job in the formal economy, and avoid detention when asked for identification by the police. However, even holding an ID card does not automatically mean a person can get a passport. Only eight per cent of Nubians have a Kenyan passport.

To obtain the documents that will allow them to access jobs, education and basic services, Nubian people often face Kafkaesque demands for  documents stretching back through the generations of their families. One person’s documentation often supports another’s application, so discrimination against one harms many. Yet that also means if one person succeeds in getting an ID card that helps them pass on citizenship rights to their children. In motivating people to apply for identity documents, enhancing their knowledge about the law and process, and walking hand-in-hand with them through each step, the community-based paralegals supported by Namati, the Open Society Justice Initiative, and Nubian Rights Forum are chipping away at discrimination and empowering the Nubian community.



Suleiman’s Story

Suleiman is 38 years old and lives in the Kambi Muru district of Kibera, Nairobi. He faced endless difficulties trying to find out how to apply for a second generation Kenyan national ID card. Without that ID, Suleiman knew he couldn’t be employed, couldn’t access a bank, or even use M-Pesa, the mobile-phone banking service.

Suleiman received his first generation ID in 1994, when his father was still alive to help him through the process. Since then, confusion about the application and illness caused him to lose hope. Suleiman never attempted to upgrade his ID.

After meeting a member of Nubian Rights Forum (NRF) Suleiman heard about the assistance paralegals can provide. The NRF member brought Suleiman to the office so that he could speak with the paralegals about his case. Impressed with their knowledge, Suleiman decided to start the application process for a second generation ID card.

On the day he planned to apply, Suleiman arrived at the office early. The paralegal in charge of his case, Fatma, explained the process in more detail and said she would accompany him to the Chief’s office to make an appointment. The appointment was scheduled for the next day. In the meantime, the paralegal helped Suleiman fill out the required forms. The following day, Suleiman and Fatma went together to the chief’s office. After reviewing Suleiman’s first generation ID card and birth certificate, the Chief signed the papers. The Chief recognized Suleiman and did not require him to bring his mother’s ID card, sometimes requested at this stage.

Precious and essential - a Kenyan ID card.

Precious and essential – a Kenyan ID card

Next, Suleiman had to appear in front of the vetting committee. In Swahili, the committee asked Suleiman about his place of birth, current residence, information about his parents, where he went to school schooling, and finally, his tribe. The vetting committee approved the application and the paralegal helped Suleiman go and submit the official application at the registrar’s office. Suleiman now had a waiting card – the document that proves he applied and allowed him to track his case. Fatma also had a copy of the waiting card and helped Suleiman keep track of any progress as the government processed the ID card application. Exchanging the waiting card for the finished ID was the last step in Suleiman’s case. Yet three months later, Suleiman was still waiting for his ID. The registrar’s office told him the machine for printing the ID cards was broken, causing the delay. Eventually he received his ID card in October 2012.

Suleiman feels the paralegal service must be encouraged to continue. He has heard about the project from others and knows it has helped many people. Suleiman himself has recommended the paralegals to three other people, who have since come to the NRF office for support. One of the three has already been issued an ID card. His own experience interacting with NRF also changed the way he thought about his situation. Before, he felt the government had forgotten about him.


Hamid’s Story

Hamid is of Somali origin, but was adopted by Kenyan Nubian family. He is 22 years old and a resident of Makina in Kibera. To apply for an ID card he was asked to provide his birth certificate and school leaving certificate – which the Government  then lost.

Hamid first applied for his ID card in 2011. He was asked to submit a range of original documents, including his birth certificate and even his school results slip, for vertification. Yet along the way, these original documents were lost by a government office. No one at the government office could find his documentation. Hamid had trouble following up on his application and didn’t know what to do.

Hamid heard about the Nubian Rights Forum paralegals from one of his neighbors, who works with the organization. She invited him to come discuss his case. After discussing the details, NRF took up Hamid’s case. Because of the complexity of the case, one of the project administrators also got involved in the first steps. NRF staff went with Hamid to two government offices to try to trace his documents. They had no luck. Next, the NRF team wrote a letter to the Director of Registration in Nairobi. The letter resulted in a meeting to negotiate a potential solution for Hamid. Although the original documents could not be found, the Director suggested instead re-applying for an ID card, using an affidavit prepared by Hamid’s adoptive mother as support. An NRF paralegal took Hamid first to discuss this with his adoptive mother, who agreed to support Hamid’s application. The next step was going to the Kibera Law Court to swear an affidavit, at a cost of 1000 Kenyan Shillings.

Officials were rude, harsh, and did not take his requests seriously. With the paralegals, everything was different. With someone next to him, the government treated him with more respect.

The paralegal accompanied Hamid to the government office. He was required to appear before the vetting committee. The committee members asked Hamid where he lived, where he went to school, who was his birth mother, and whether he could speak Nubian. Hamid explained his situation and the committee approved his application. Hamid was told to come back after one week to provide his fingerprints and take a photograph. He did so, and submitted the application for his ID card. Hamid now has a waiting card. It has been a little over one month since he submitted his paperwork. Hamid knows it is possible to check the status of his application by SMS, though so far there is no further information.

Hamid hopes to use his ID card to attend college and to register for M-Pesa. In the meantime, he feels the waiting card could be protection against possible police harassment. When he was attempting the process alone, Hamid said the government treated him “like a slave.” Officials were rude, harsh, and did not take his requests seriously. With the paralegals, everything was different. With someone next to him, the government treated him with more respect. Hamid has told friends to take advantage of the paralegal support as well, saying “without them, we will not have another option.”



Issa’s Story

Issa is a 19 year-old Nubian and resident of Mako’ngeni in Kibera. He had  an ID card, but needed a birth certificate to get a job. To get a birth certificate he had to find the birth certificates of his father, mother, grandfather, and grandmother.

Issa had a national ID card, but felt if he had a birth certificate it would help him find a job. Issa was able to obtain the ID card before the 2013 elections by using his school leaving certificate instead of a birth certificate to prove his birth date. Yet during the vetting process, he was also asked to bring the birth certificates of his father, mother, grandfather, and grandmother. He faced many challenges in getting an ID card, but the process of obtaining a birth certificate was much harder.

For three months, he tried to get through the birth certificate application process on his own. He repeatedly went to the relevant government office in order to submit his application – each attempt was met with more requests from the officials for additional documents. Issa felt the officials treated him harshly and may have made the process more difficult in order to increase their chances of a bribe. After many failed attempts to submit his application, he gave up on the process.

NRF Paralegal Asia Suleiman

NRF Paralegal Asia Suleiman

A while later, a friend told Issa about the Nubian Rights Forum paralegal program. He went into the office and said: “I want a  birth certificate.” Asia, the paralegal assigned to this case, asked Issa to bring in the documentation he had been using to apply. Upon review of these documents, the paralegal advised him that the papers were sufficient to support his birth certificate application. With the help of the paralegal, Issa filled out the application forms. The paralegal took the forms to the office, submitted the application, and told the government office she would follow-up on the process. Issa stopped by the NRF office occasionally to check on the status – with frequent communication, he truly felt he and Asia were working on the process together

Then one day, Asia called Yusuf to let him know his birth certificate was ready. Yusuf said “it was the happiest day” – he felt the birth certificate was a key document as a citizen of Kenya. He knew that with this document, he could obtain other forms of identity papers. He plans to apply for a passport and will work with the NRF paralegals on that process as well, because he trusts them.


Asinina’s Story

Asinina is 20 years old and is a resident of Makina in Kibera. She needed a birth certificate for her little brother so he could go to senior school. To obtain that she first needed to apply for a death certificate for her late mother. To apply for the death certificate she needed to find her mother’s ID card.

The NRF offices in Kibera, Nairobi

The NRF offices in Kibera, Nairobi

Asinina came into the NRF office to seek help getting her younger brother a birth certificate. Her brother, in class 8, needed a birth certificate in order to sit for his school exams. After hearing about the paralegal program from her friend, who had applied for an ID card with the help of NRF, she wanted to seek assistance herself.

Asinina knew nothing about the process of getting a birth certificate. Asinina’s mother had recently passed away and was the person who helped Asinina get her own birth certificate in the past, though she since lost it. Zena, the paralegal who took on this case, advised Asinina that the first step would be to apply for a death certificate for Asinina’s mother. Zena asked her to bring the ID card number of her late mother. With that information Zena and Asinina went together to fill out the forms for the death certificate. The officials asked them to return after one week. In a week’s time, they again went to the office and submitted 90 Kenyan shillings for the filing of the papers. Two weeks later Asinina was able to pick up the death certificate. Asinina is getting ready to use this death certificate and other papers to apply for her brother’s birth certificate. She told her brother’s teachers that the birth certificate is being processed. In the meantime, the teachers allowed him to start class at school.

Asinina also received assistance from the NRF paralegals to apply for her own ID card. Because she lost her birth certificate in the past, she faced additional questions during the vetting process. The elders were present at the chief’s office during the vetting. She was asked where she was born and to explain the birth and death places of her mother. The vetting committee asked for the burial permit and death certificate of her mother. The paralegal prepped her in advance about these questions, but Asinina feels it is unfair that all people are not treated the same. She does not think she should have to answer these questions, because “we are all Kenyan.”

In October 2013,  Asinina received her ID card. She is very hopeful the ID card will allow her to get a job. Asinina feels that without the assistance of Zena, she probably would not have been able to obtain her mother’s death certificate, which is critical for success in these other application processes. Asinina also felt afraid to apply for her ID card in the past, because she could be asked for so many different requirements. With the paralegal, it was different – the paralegal provided information in advance and really made a difference. The paralegals work with such passion. When her brothers turn 18, Asinina will be able to help them apply for their own ID cards. Asinina is now telling other members of her family to use the paralegals to apply for the documents they need.


Khadija’s Story

Khadija is Nubian, 23 years old and a resident of Makina in Kibera. Before she could obtain birth certificates for her children she had to obtain an ID for herself. Before she could apply for an ID card she had find her school certificate.

Khadija did not know what the process of applying for an ID card involved and, as a result, had never attempted to apply in the past. She heard about the NRF paralegals from Hassan, who is a paralegal himself. He encouraged her to come into the office to learn about the ID card process. When she arrived at the NRF office, Hassan explained the process and requirements to her. Because she did not have all the proper documentation, Hassan first helped her to get a certificate from the madrasa she attended. With proof of her name, age, and schooling, her application for an ID card would be stronger.

Khadija went with Hassan to get an affidavit from the Nubian elders. She then went through the vetting process, where she was asked questions about why she did not apply for her ID card at the age of 18, where she was born, and which country she came from. Her answer: “I was born and raised in Kibera.” She knew to anticipate these kinds of questions because of the preparation Hassan did with her prior to meeting the vetting committee.

After completing the vetting process, Khadija was told to come the following week to submit her official application forms and have her ID photo taken. Hassan went with her for this part of the process too. She applied and received a waiting card, with which she could check the status of her application over time. Anytime she checked the status, she then told Hassan. Hassan also checked the status for her.

About two months later, Hassan found out the ID card was ready. He called Khadija to let her know how to retrieve the ID card from the government registration office. When she picked up the ID card, she felt so happy. She is very thankful for the help from Hassan. Otherwise, she would not have an ID card.

Once Khadija had her ID card, she asked Hassan for help to obtain birth certificates for her seven children. Her ID card is a critical document to supporting the birth certificate applications of her children. She and Hassan are just starting these application processes now. She is now trying to convince her older brother and younger sister to apply for an ID card as well.



Discrimination passes down the generations. Children can't go to school if their parents have no documents.

Discrimination passes down the generations; children often can’t go to school if their parents have no documents.







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