Nubi people


Nubi / Nubis / Nubian

Nubians are an ethno-linguistic group of people who are indigenous to the region which is now northern Sudan and southern Egypt. They originate from the early inhabitants of the central Nile valley, believed to be one of the earliest cradles of civilization. They speak Nubian languages, part of the Northern Eastern Sudanic languages.

Nubians consist of seven non-Arab Muslim tribes which originated in the Nubia region, an area between Aswan in southern Egypt and Dongola in northern Sudan.

Today, Nubians in Egypt primarily live in southern Egypt, especially in Kom Ombo and Nasr al-nuba north of Aswan, and large cities such as Cairo, while Sudanese Nubians live in northern Sudan, particularly in the region between the city of Wadi Halfa on the Egypt–Sudan border and al Dabbah. Additionally, several groups known as the Hill Nubians live in the northern Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan state, Sudan.

The main Nubian groups from north to south are the:

  • Kenzi, Faadicha (Halfawi), Sukkot, Mahas and Danagla.

There also exist two large tribes of fully arabized Nubians who inhabit Northern Sudan - these groups are known as the:

  • Shaigiya and Ja'alin.
Nubi people


Identification. The Nubians are a non-Arab Muslim population who lived in the geographical region known as Nubia in southern Egypt and northern Sudan. One hundred and twenty thousand Nubians were relocated beginning in 1964 because their villages were inundated by the Aswan High Dam Lake. Some argue that the name "Nubians" derives from a word in the Nubian language meaning "slaves," but others say that the ancient Egyptian word nab meant "gold" and that the Ancient Egyptians used that term to refer to the Nubian Valley because of the gold mines that were nearby. Another source mentions that the word nebed appeared in an inscription of Thotmes I (1450 B . C .) to designate people with curly hair who were invaded by the Pharoe.

Location. The Nubians lived until 1964 in a boundaryless geographical region known as Nubia, the southern edge of which lay along latitude 19° N, in village clusters along the banks of the Nile. The river, south of Aswan, is broken by five stony passages known as "cataracts." Nubia stretched from Aswan in Upper Egypt in the north, at the Nile's First Cataract, to the Republic of Sudan in the south, for some 300 kilometers, midway between the Third and Fourth cataracts. After 1964, and before the Aswan High Dam Lake inundated a large portion of their land, the Egyptian Nubians were relocated to reclaimed land in Komombo in the governorate of Aswan, 50 kilometers north of the city of Aswan. The Sudanese Nubians were resettled at Khashm al-Girba in what was eventually known as the New Haifa Project, 800 kilometers away from their original homeland.

Demography. The Nubian community, both in Sudan and Egypt, barely reproduced itself prior to resettlement. At a time when the larger society was experiencing an annual population increase ranging from 2.5 to 3.0 percent, Nubia was experiencing a population decline. Ever decreasing land availability owing to the construction of the Aswan Dam earlier in the twentieth century led to the emigration of males to cities. An imbalance existed in the sex ratio, especially in the middle-range age. Such an imbalance further led to natural decrease in the population. Among the Egyptian Nubians this population pattern was maintained after relocation. Among the Sudanese Nubians, population has increased since relocation. Many emigrants came back after relocation to settle, because the land acreage they were granted by the government was generous. Today the Sudanese Nubians have almost doubled their population in certain villages and have even tripled their population in New Wadi Haifa.

Nubi people

Linguistic Affiliation. According to Rouchdy (1991, 4) the Nubian languages, excluding Arabic, are classified as Eastern Sudanic languages, a branch of the Nilo-Saharan Group. The Nubians generally can be divided into four groups, each inhabiting a separate part of the Nubian Valley and speaking a different language. The groups, according to Fahim (1983, 10-11), are the Kenuz, the Arabs, the Nubians (Fadija), and the Halfans. The Kenuz, who prior to resettlement occupied the territory from Aswan south along the Nile for a distance of 150 kilometers, spoke a dialect called Metouki. Today the Kenuz still live in the northernmost region in relation to the rest of the Nubians, northeast of Komombo. The Arabs, who lived before resettlement in the next 40 kilometers south of the Kenuz, spoke Arabic. Today this group lives east of Komombo in Aswan. The Nubians (who are often referred to as "Fadija," a derogatory term the northern groups use to connote alien status) who live in the southern extremity of Egypt and north of Sudan speak Mahas. Today the Nubians live southeast of Komombo in Aswan. The Sudanese Nubians, Halfans, who originally resided in Wadi Haifa south of the Egyptian border, have their own dialect known as "Sukkot."


Identity of the Nubi People

These Nubi people developed as a unique ethnicity, as individuals from various Sudan tribes melded together in the new settlements in Uganda and Kenya, marrying local women. Nubi men continue to marry women of various tribes. These new wives are expected to learn the Nubi language.
Some popular sources sometimes use the term Nubian for this ethnic group. This seems to be partly due to confusion of these Nubi people, originally from Sudan (Nubia), with the cluster of ancient peoples called Nubian in northern Sudan and southern Egypt.
For comparative reference, the Registry of Peoples lists the primary groups of these Nilotic Nubian peoples with their unique codes as follows:

The Nubi are now estimated some sources as 16,700 (2001) in Kenya and almost 15,000 in Uganda. The Kenya Nubi still live primarily in Kibera, as a separate tribe, speaking the same Nubi Creole Arabic. Today, the Nubi people work in both the private and public sectors. The women specialize in unique handicraft and hairdressing.
This community faces a number of socio-economic and political problems that have reduced their self-esteem. The people live mainly in the slum areas where the electricity, water and sanitary conditions are poor.

Families have difficulty paying school fees and this leads to school dropout and involvement in drug use. This problem is made worse by the urban surroundings. The Nubi people also face a problem where their land is being grabbed by the rich. They find themselves threatened and depressed.

Nubi people


The inhabitants of old Nubia formed riverine communities clustered in villages along the banks of the Nile. Prior to relocation, Nubia was located between Aswan in Egypt and 150 kilometers into Sudan. The Kenuz occupied the northern area, the Arabs resided in the middle, and the Nubians were located in the south of Egypt and the north of Sudan. About 50,000 Sudanese Nubians and 70,000 Egyptian Nubians were relocated. There were attempts in the relocation plans to maintain the location of the villages in relation to each other.

The villages are further divided into hamlets. The size of the village, the number of its hamlets, and the density of its population are directly related to the width of the agricultural land. The villages with wider agricultural land were smaller, had higher population density and contained fewer hamlets. The hamlet is both a regional and kinship unit of settlement. The inhabitants are related to each other by marriage and descent. Three types of hamlet existed in old Nubia. In a patrilineal hamlet, all inhabitants were descended from the same patriarch, and the hamlet was named after this common ancestor. A second type of hamlet includes members of various patrilineal clans who are related through matrilineal descent and is usually named after the male founder of the settlement. In some hamlets, inhabitants are not related at all.

The hamlet is further divided into dwelling quarters. In patrilineal hamlets, each family is connected to the dwelling quarter by patrilineal descent. In other types of hamlets, the dwelling quarters reflect patrilineal clan/tribal affiliations. In all types of hamlets, dwelling quarters were separated from each other by natural divisions, including small hills and barren land. Inside the dwelling quarters, closeness of patrilineal relationship determines the spatial location of housing. Each hamlet had a mosque and a modiafah or a mandara, visiting quarters. The relocation of the Nubians presented new experiences to which they had to adapt. In Egypt, Nubian villages were given their old names, but, rather than being located along the banks of the Nile, were 3 to 10 kilometers away. The palm trees that were characteristic of the old Nubian environment did not exist in the new villages. The rocky hills that separated the villages and hamlets from each other also did not exist. The previous widely separated hamlets were brought together, thus increasing the density of the settlements. In old Nubia, a hamlet often represented a clan or kinship unit. In New Nubia, the dwelling patterns were built in four blocks to the size of the living quarters, and during resettlement houses were allocated on the basis of family size. As a result, the dwelling patterns that were based on kinship disappeared. In Sudan, the Nubian villages were no longer located at the banks of the Nile. Instead they were located at the Atbara River, which is narrower than the Nile. Their agricultural land, unlike that in old Nubia, was broad, and they had to cope with rotational crops.



Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Agriculture was and still is the basis of the Nubian economy. The scarcity of cultivable land was an outstanding feature of old Nubia. As a result, men migrated to cities to find work, and women were left to do the agricultural work. The Nubians in Egypt had two cultivation seasons, winter crops, shitwi, and summer crops, sifi. The Nubians in Wadi Haifa had, in addition, the flood cultivation, dameira. The Nubians depended on the rise and fall of the Nile water to irrigate winter crops. In summer cultivation, the Nubians used the shadof (water wheel) or buckets. Winter-crop season started in mid-October and ended in April. Some of the winter subsistence crops included millet, wheat, and barley. Peas and lentils were cash crops sold by the Sudanese Nubians at the Haifa market. Summer crops were the least important to the Nubian economy. Most crops were used for household consumption, and they included a variety of beans, okra, and some greens. The summer-crop cycle started in July and ended in September. The flood cultivations started in September and ended in December or January. Some of the dameira crops included lupines and tomatoes. In old Nubia, palm dates were an important subsistence crop. Transplanting palm shoots was governed by the Coptic calendar. There were two seasons for this activity. The first started around March and the second started around July. Dates were harvested from late August to late October, depending on the owner's desire for the texture of the date. The harvest of dates was a celebrated occasion in Nubia. In reality, dates and palm trees, writes Dafalla, "have affected many sides of the inhabitants' lives, and its traces could be observed everywhere. Its uses were varied and considerable and nothing was ever wasted" (1975). Today the Egyptian Nubians use their land to cultivate sugarcane as a cash crop sold at a government-regulated price. They use chemical fertilizers and modern modes of irrigation (perennial vs. basin). Other crops such as fruits and vegetables are rare, cultivated only by the well-to-do landowners. The Sudanese Nubians also use their land to cultivate a cash crop, namely cotton. They have had to cope with the requirements of cultivating vast lands, a practice that they were not used to in old Nubia. Dates are no longer part of the subsistence economy, either among Egyptian or Sudanese Nubians, owing to the environment of the resettlements. Women and men engage in different crafts. Women used to make utilitarian items—plates, mats, clothes, and so forth. Today Nubian women no longer engage in craftwork because household needs are readily available to them in the market. Nubian men leave blacksmithing, clay making, carpentry, weaving, and hair shaving to non-Nubians. They prefer to engage in crafts that are related directly to agriculture (e.g., making water wheels). After resettlement, many Nubian men worked as grocery-store owners and cab drivers.

Trade. The location of old Nubia made it difficult to navigate the Nile. After relocation, both the more accessible roads and integration into the cash economy contributed to an increase in trade activities in Egyptian and Sudanese Nubia.

Division of Labor. Prior to relocation, the scarcity of cultivable land forced Nubian men to emigrate to Cairo in search for jobs. Nubian women farmed the land, cared for animals and poultry, and performed domestic tasks. Since relocation, men have been cultivating the land because it is at quite a distance from the home. In cases where there is no able-bodied male to tend the land, a relative or hired helper from one of the surrounding Saidi villages does the work. Among the Sudanese Nubians, generous tenancies enabled many of the labor migrants to come back home after relocation and tend their land all year long. Labor in the home is still a woman's domain, but Nubian women also work outside the home as schoolteachers, government-center workers, and seamstresses.

Land Tenure. Prior to relocation four types of land tenure existed, each reflecting land use. These types were individual tenure, land inundated by the first Aswan dam, land on which the home was built, and clan land. Individual tenure included land used for cultivating winter crops and land on which irrigation projects were built; it was acquired by purchase. Land inundated by the building of the initial dam was inherited patrilineally by men only and had symbolic value. The home land was inside the hamlet and was usually located near the home. This type of land was not very common in Nubia and was inherited patrilineally by men only. Clan land was dispersed around the village and was passed on to leaders of the clan. Only men inherited this type of land, although prior to 1927 there were records of women inheriting. In New Nubia, as part of the relocation plan, Nubian families were allocated land individually in relation to size of family.

Nubi people


Kin Groups and Descent. Kinship in Nubia is organized around the tribe. Because of the isolation of the old settlement and the double-descent rule, however, the village and the hamlet are more important units. Both father's and mother's relatives are important in organizing mutual obligations.

Kinship Terminology. Nubians use three terms that classify kinship and descent. These are, from dosest to farthest: asi (children), bayt (home), and qabiila (clan). Only the first term is an indigenous Nubian term; the rest are borrowed from Arabic. Among contemporary Nubians, the Nubian languages are evolving toward Arabic, and some Arabic kinship terms are being used.


Marriage and Family

Marriage. Cross-cousin marriage is the preferred marriage type. Intermarriage among the various Nubian groups was and is still rare. Only women are bound by endogamous marriage rules. A dowry is exchanged as a sign of public declaration of marriage. The dowry then becomes the possession of the bride, and it may not be returned even if the marriage is not consummated. The age of marriage among the Nubians after relocation has risen because of economic conditions and the legal establishment of a minimum marital age. Divorce is frowned upon by tradition, and the demographics as well as the marriage rule of (Egyptian) Nubians leaves divorced women scant opportunity for remarriage.

Domestic Unit. Before relocation, the extended family (bayt) constituted the domestic unit in Nubia. This was a unit of at least four generations of double descent. The able-bodied men worked in cities and sent remittances. Owing to the pattern of land and dwelling redistribution that occurred after relocation, the domestic unit became smaller, encompassing only two or three generations of relatives.

Inheritance. The Nubians in some cases follow the Sunni Islamic rules of inheritance, which grant males double the share of the females. This share is passed on both from the father and the mother, if there is a male heir. In cases of land, however, such rules do not hold true (see "Land Tenure").

Socialization. The family in old Nubia was the primary agent of socialization. The mother and other womenfolk did most of the child rearing. Fathers played a minimal role in socialization, given that they mainly worked in cities. Older men presented the male image in the process of socialization. Today, with universal education policies, the introduction of electricity, and the integration of the Nubians into their respective states of Egypt and Sudan, the school, the radio, and the television provide additional socialization agencies.


Sociopolitical Organization

Political Organization. Prior to resettlement, Nubia was relatively isolated from the Egyptian and Sudanese governments. In Egypt, Nubia was divided into thirty-nine districts, each headed by a government-appointed headman ( omda ), who acted as the liaison between the district and the government. The town of Eneba was the seat or center of the Nubian government. In Sudan, there were six districts that served the same political function. The districts in Sudan did not exist before Muhamad Ali's conquest of Egypt and Sudan. The omda also appointed the town heads and the police officers, whose responsibilities included aiding citizens to register births and deaths, dealing with the rare instances of crime, and distributing government aid sent to the Nubian Valley. After resettlement, all of the Nubian groups acquired the new political organization of their respective states, which were in the process of postcolonial nation building.

Social Control and Conflict. Disputes and crime were originally handled by the elders of the hamlet, and rarely was a police officer or headman involved. Arab councils—tribunals based on tribal or clan affiliation—intervened to mediate any conflict that escalated (usually conflict over land).

Today traditional social-control mechanisms are used to resolve some conflicts, but, increasingly since 1965, conflict resolution has required more modern mechanisms, for example courts and state-trained police officers.


Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Practitioners. The Nubians are Sunni Muslims who believe in one God and his Prophet Mohammed, in the angels created by God, in the prophets through whom his revelations were brought to humankind, in the Day of Judgment and individual accountability for actions, in God s complete authority over human destiny, and in life after death. They also follow the Ibadat, or practicing framework of the Muslim's life: the Five Pillars. In Islam there is no hierarchal authority, no priest or shaman. Islam also permits its intermingling with local tradition. In Nubia this process of intermingling is expressed in the animism that is predominant along the Nile and in the activities of the local shuyukh (sing. shaykh ), who regulate daily concerns about health, fertility, and marriage.

Ceremonies. Nubian ceremonies can be divided into three kinds: the rite de passage, the religious ceremonies, and the agricultural rituals. The latter have completely disappeared from the Nubian culture given that the crop that was celebrated, palm dates, is no longer cultivated because of environmental changes in the new settlements. The rite-de-passage celebrations include the naming ceremony (Subu), birth, circumcision for males and females, marriage, and death. The religious ceremonies include the seven main Islamic celebrations: al-Fitr, the feast that clebrates the end of the fasting month; prepilgrimage celebrations; al-Adha, the feast that follows the pilgrimage to Mecca; Lilat al-Qadar, celebrating the night of the first revelations of the first Quranic verse; Isra' Wal Mirag, commemorating the night the Prophet Mohammed flew to Jerusalem, and from there to the seventh sky, to establish the Five Pillars of Islam; al Sana al-Higriah, the Islamic New Year; and Mulid al-Nabi, the Prophet's birthday. In all these celebrations drums and religious songs are recited for the duration of the feast, which may extend up to fourteen days. After relocation, ceremonies in general have become limited to the village because the homes were built so close to each other. Also, owing to increasing costs, the length of celebrations (but not their conspicuousness) has decreased.

Arts. The art forms in old Nubia are divided into three categories: utilitarian, decorative, and symbolic. The utilitarian arts included the making of plates, mats, fans, and jars from material available in the environment, such as straw and clay. Women practiced this art form. Bright colors distinguished the Nubian form from other Egyptian or Sudanese plates or jars. After resettlement, this art form disappeared because the utensils are available in the market. The decorative art included mainly bead necklaces and bracelets. Grooms and brides used these ornaments to decorate themselves. Since resettlement, modern decorative jewelry, including silver and gold, has replaced these items. Women traditionally made the bead necklaces, and today a commercial version of these necklaces is sold in the market. The symbolic arts included wall and door decoration. Relief decoration was typical of Nubian houses. Icons of animals were made to protect houses from the evil eye. After resettlement, relief decorations were replaced by painting. Most paintings have religious motifs, and some of the decorations indicate that someone in the house recently completed the holy duty of pilgrimage to Mecca.

Medicine. Prior to resettlement, government medical care was almost nonexistant in old Nubia. Today, in Egyptian Nubia, there are small clinics and health units that provide both in-patient and out-patient services. In Nasr town, in Aswan, there is a hospital. In New Haifa, the government provides basic services including sanitation facilities, piped water, and medical care. Health units provide out-patient services, and an in-patient hospital is available in Haifa town. In the late twentieth century infectious disease is on the rise among Sudanese Nubians, largely owing to population increase and lack of maintenance of water filters. On the other hand, change in the water supply in the Nile has decreased the prevalence of schistomosomiasis (a debilitating parasitic disease caused by a blood worm that inhabits the water). A more severe strain of schistosomiasis, however, has developed.

Death and Afterlife. Nubian traditions with regard to death follow Islamic teaching. At death, a Muslim's body must be washed, dressed, wrapped in white cloth, and buried appropriately (the face pointing toward Mecca) before the first sunset. For women, the mat on which the deceased was carried to the grave was "shaded with arches of palm branches over which a red silk cloth worn by women at weddings was laid" (Dafalla 1975, 54).

The picture of life after death in Islam both serves to comfort the bereaved and challenge the community to live lives of integrity and responsibility with the sure knowledge that the labor of today will be enjoyed in the hereafter and that both justice and mercy will prevail in the life to come. Islamic teachings emphasize two levels of judgment. The lower—often referred to as the "tomb judgement" or barzakh —takes place before Judgment Day; it is directed to the individual soul only. The higher judgment in Islam is reserved for Judgment Day, a day when humanity (Muslims and non-Muslims) will meet their creator.



  • Photo © Angels Ferrer
  • Nawal H. Ammar -