To get a sense of the troubles Kenyan Nubians have encountered in this bustling African capital, you can simply ask one his name.
Take Mustafa Mahmoud Yousif.
He is a Nubian, part of a small minority ethic group here that traces its roots to soldiers in the colonial British Army. He lives, like most Nairobi Nubians, in Kibera, the largest slum in Africa. And partly because of the injustices he says he has witnessed there, he became involved in the Nubian Rights Forum, a group of activists that lobbies for better living standards, citizenship rights and land ownership for Nubians.
He signs his emails “Mustafa Mahmoud.” To an American, this means his “family” name is Mahmoud. That’s what he’d write on an official document. That’s what a child would call him if he were a teacher—Mr. Mahmoud. And for reporters, the stylebook treatment of his name would be clear: second reference, use the last name.
The Kenyan government thinks the same way. When he registered for primary school, the “traditional” name recorded was “Mahmoud.” This is, after all, how it works for the dominant Kenyan tribes—the ones that have much larger populations and don’t face the same citizenship questions as the Nubians.
The issue is that Nubians do things differently.
“Yes,” Mustafa says with a laugh. “In primary school I became my father.”
See, Mustafa is the name Mustafa’s parents gave him. Mahmoud is his father’s name. Yousif is his grandfather’s name. There’s no “last” or “traditional” or “family” name. When Mustafa has a child, he will pass down his name and his father’s; the Yousif slides off the page into ancestral history. And the generational rotation continues.
Of course, lots of countries have different naming standards than the Western European style of given name first, family name last. In many Eastern countries the family name comes first. In some Spanish-speaking communities the name that an American would think of as a “middle name” is actually the family moniker. And meanwhile, some groups in Africa—in parts of Ethiopia and Eritrea, for instance—arrange their naming just as the Kenyan Nubians. (The Kenyan Nubian history traces back to Sudan and Egypt.)
But the name issue here is important because so much of the Nubians struggle for citizenship rights has revolved around documents: obtaining items like identity cards and birth certificates, and proving their relation to parents and grandparents who also lived here. Without a clear understanding on everyone’s part about how names work, there can be quite a mess, some Nubians say.
The naming differences also show the divide between mainstream Kenya and the needs of this tiny community, which despite its small size has become the face of citizenship activism in East Africa.
At least, Mustafa says, things are getting better.
“The government officials know that sometimes they shuffle the names,” he says. “At least they recognize that it’s often their fault.”