Once vilified and oppressed, Uganda’s Nubians become a tourist attraction

Saturday August 20 2011

A Nubian couple admire presents received on their wedding day. Pictures: A correspondent

Thirty minutes away from the city, we turn off the Gulu-Kampala highway to Gangama village in Bombo, a town famous for its inhabitants — the Nubians.

The community’s long history of origin, settlement and its love-hate relationship with the government is vivid in our memories.

The driver pulls up at a home where a bridegroom is preparing for his big day.

“Come on in please. Make yourselves comfortable, but do not expect to see a lot of activity here. The action is at the bride’s place,” says the groom’s father as he ushers us in.

The groom’s mother, Aisha Mustafa Doka, who is supervising the activities, explains what it takes to marry a Nubian woman.

The groom first offers bride price to his future in-laws. The bride’s hair is plaited especially for the day at the groom’s expense.


The groom must also buy cultural wedding ornaments and outfits that include a white sheet that the bride wraps around her body during the Nikah — the Islamic wedding ritual.

The next day, she dresses up in another traditional outfit, also bought by the groom.

The ornaments and clothing are colourful, capturing attention.

It is imperative that her nose is pierced and her hair is plaited.

“The bride must also carry a special dish of meat balls — served with kisra or gurusa (yeast pancakes made from a mixture of wheat and maize flour ) — for her groom, cooked from her home, a mat for her father in-law, a traditional tray (tabaga) and a food cover (kuta),” said Aisha.

An invitation to the ceremony gives me the opportunity to learn more about the Nubian lifestyle — a cultural institution that is now being targeted by the corporate world due to its potential for cultural tourism.

The Nubians have existed in East Africa for over a century. But unlike other migratory tribes in sub-Saharan Africa, their advent was by default rather than by design.

Their entry into East Africa can be traced to the 1830s, when most, alongside their families, were brought in as soldiers under the command of Captain Frederick Lugard, Emin Pasha and Captain Williams.

Others migrated from the Nubian desert, which is now submerged under water as a result of the construction of the Aswan High Dam in southern Egypt and Gondola in northern Sudan.

The Nubians gradually lost touch with their homeland. Today, they speak a kind of Arabic creole. They have however, maintained their traditions.

The community regard themselves as historical victims of Anglo-Egyptian imperialism, Arab slave trade the European scramble for Africa and the First and Second World Wars.

In Uganda, Nubians were scattered all over the country, but with the highest concentration in Bombo. Their main occupation was trade and many were employed in the national security forces during the colonial era.

Since most of them were servicemen, they were falsely identified with Idi Amin, Uganda’s military dictator who was president from 1971 to 1979, and who incidentally spoke the Nubian language, even though he hailed from the Kakwa ethnic group in West Nile.

After the fall of Amin, Nubians become targets of persecution and killings. Many lost their property through grabbing or destruction. Women concealed their identity by abandoning their traditional dress, while some fled to Sudan, Congo and Kenya for safety.

In 1982, the Obote government signed a Banking Order that was largely seen as targeting the Nubians. Their accounts were frozen.
In 2004, they filed a suit challenging the constitutionality of the order. They remain bitter over these historical injustices.

So what makes them so interesting today as to attract corporate financing?

“The unique culture of the Nubian people is a global attraction that can be tapped into for the benefit of the entire nation,” said MTN’s chief executive Themba Khumalo.

MTN launched the Bombo Nubian Community Tourism Project under the MTN Foundation after a successful one year pilot study.
It partnered with the Community Based Tourism Initiative, a non-governmental organisation that supports local communities to participate and benefit from tourism initiatives. It is expected to benefit over 3,500 people.

The Nubians are known for their rich culture and colourful handicrafts in their trademark colours of yellow, red, black and white.  While the rest of the colours are manufactured, the black colour is produced naturally. How this is done is a secret the community keeps close to their hearts.

The handicrafts are readily available at the crafts shop run by the Bombo Tourism Nubian Craft Group.

However, today, it is closed as all the women who operate it are attending the wedding.

We cross Gulu highway to join a dusty road to the brides’ home in Gogonya village.

Among the artifacts at the wedding are mats, tabaga and pyramid shaped kuta (food covers) in the Nubian colours.

Along the way, we meet jovial women elegantly dressed in Nubian attire. They speak animatedly in Creole.

Later, the groom arrives at the brides home with his entourage for the Nikah. Ululations and drum beats mark the end of the religious function.

A couple of women take to the floor to perform the duluka dance which is part of the cultural activities. Duluka is now integrated in tourism activities.

What stands out about the Nubian marriage is that it is a blend of the Islamic and traditional rituals.

For example, after the Nikah, the groom enters the house and a Nubian ritual for bonding is performed. He then leaves for home without his wife, who joins him some hours later.

Nubians are also famous cooks. Their exquisite cuisine is also being targeted for tourism. On top of their kisra and gurusa, the tourist can expect a treat in traditional foods like okra in beef, pilau, chapati and vegetables in groundnut paste.

Traditional Nubian homesteads still exist where tourists can enjoy guided walks.