Somali Bantu Background
The Somali Bantus are the minority ethnic group of Somalia, inhabiting the Shebelle and Jubba River valleys, and speaking two main languages in addition to Somali- Maay Maay and Zigua. The Somali Bantus are ethnically and culturally different from the general Somali population, and there is a need for culturally relevant services specific to the needs of this community.
The Somali Bantus are the descendants of many Bantu ethnic groups found in East Africa including areas of Tanzania, Mozambique and Malawi. These groups were brought to Somalia in the 19th century by Arab slave traders from the tribes of Majindo, Makua, Manyasa, Yao, Zalama, and Zigua.
When civil war broke out in Somalia, the Somali Bantus were sent from their homes and farms by armed people of the Somali clan. The legacy and stigma of slavery made the Bantu population particularly vulnerable and many Somali Bantus were killed, tortured, and raped by the ethnic Somalis as the famine increased. The ones who were able to flee walked anywhere from two to four weeks to reach the Kenyan border.
Some of the Somali Bantus and other Somali groups were brought to the refugee camps by UNHCR. While expecting to find safety in the refugee camps, the Bantus often faced similar problems they had in Somalia such as torture and rape. When these issues continued occurring in the refugee camps, the Somali Bantu leaders from each of the three main camps requested that the UNHCR resettle to a safer place or deport them to their countries of origin like Mozambique, Tanzania, and Malawi. The UNHCR from all three camps rejected this request. After the rejection, Somali Bantu leaders sent a letter to Australia officials but were again denied. The Somali Bantus then reached out to the United States officials and their request was approved.
In 2000, the United States government agreed to resettle Somali Bantus all across in the United States. Approximately 12,000 Somali Bantus are now settled in the United States with 3,000 in Lewiston, Maine.
To learn more, we highly recommend the book “Making Refuge: Somali Bantu Refugees and Lewiston, Maine” by Catherine Besteman and this website sponsored by Colby College.
Somali Bantu History
The Somali Bantus are an ethnic group from Somalia, largely from the Shebelle and Jubba River valleys, in the Southwestern part of the country. These people are the descendants of many Bantu ethnic groups from East Africa, including areas of Tanzania, Mozambique and Malawi. Brought to Somalia in the 19th century by Arab slave traders, Bantus endured centuries of oppression in the horn of Africa as enslaved agricultural laborers. Thus, Somali Bantus are ethnically and culturally different from the general Somali population (Eno & Van Lehman, 2003).
In the beginning of the 20th century, Italian colonizers in Somalia abolished slavery (Besteman, 2016). However, in the years following, Italy preceded to established over 100 plantations in the Jubba and Shebelle River Valleys, and introduced labor laws that forced Bantu people to work as farm laborers on plantations exclusively owned by the Italian government (Eno & Leahman, 2003). As a result, many Bantu people were still considered enslaved people well into the 1930s. At this time, though, there was an effort within Bantu communities to become associated in larger Somali clan membership to avoid some of the abuse that shadowed enslaved status in the country (Besteman, 2016).
In Somalia, lineage and clan structure provided the basis for social and political life. Bantu families often claimed membership in three of Somalia’s five major clans: Darood, Rahanweyn, and Hawiye clans. Despite clan membership, though, loyalties between families of different clans certainly outweighed their clan kinship; lineage and clan membership was more impactful for claiming membership within larger Somali society than it was for informing day to day life within Bantu villages (Besteman, 2016).
Further, membership to either jileec (Somali national) or jareer (minority) groups was far more important for determining one’s socio-political standing and thus, quality of life (Besteman, 2016). As agricultural minorities, Bantu people suffered harrowing brutality at the hands of Somali pastoralists in surrounding towns. These Jileec people were often part of the Darood clan and felt entitled to pillage and assault Bantu people and their property, despite the Bantus attempts to claim clan loyalty that may reflect their own. In fact, many pastoralists completely disregarded the Bantus efforts to be aligned with larger Somali clans, noting that their agricultural laborer status far outweighed their efforts to find membership in shared clan alliances. Some pastoralists during this time even suggested that Bantu people avoided re-enslavement only because national laws spearheaded by Siad Barre, Somalia’s dictator-president, had outlawed the country’s clan system, which made social hierarchies based on clan membership or previous slave status illegal (Besteman, 2016).
The social hierarchy separating jareer from jileec would become even more meaningful when the effects of the Cold War hit the Jubba and Shebelle Valleys in 1960 (Besteman, 2016). After enduring the Italian administration’s forced labor camps, and British-Italian conflict that passed control of this area back and forth between the two imperialist countries, independence from colonial control in 1960 should have been a relief for Bantu people (Besteman, 2016; Eno & Van Lehman, 2003). However, in the middle of the 20th century, Italian and Britich powers rewrote a border between Somalia and Ethiopia that ceded a significant piece of Somali-inhabited land to Ethiopia. With this development, Somalis were, of course, furious (Besteman, 2016).
In part due to the irredentist rhetoric that emerged from this re-organization of the Somali-Ethiopian border, Somalia’s dictator-president, Siad Barre, came to power after a coup in 1969. After initially allying himself with the Soviet Union, Barre turned to the United States for aid and resources once he recognized that the Soviet Union was more interested in aligning itself with Ethiopia, another ally of theirs in the Horn of Africa (Besteman, 2016).
Throughout the subsequent 1980s, the United States, seeing Somalia as a strategically located base between the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf, granted the country hundreds of millions of dollars in economic and military support. Barre used these resources to consolidate power in the hands of his closest friends, advisors, and relatives. Most of these emerging elite, urban businesspeople and politicians were part of the Darood clan in southern Somalia; all of them fueled by the wealth of foreign nations, and personally connected to the Somali government. Thus emerged class based inequality in Somalia in addition to the existing racial and ancestral hierarchies born from the slave trade and immigration. Subsequently, Bantu people found themselves at the very bottom of this hierarchy, as agricultural workers, and as formerly enslaved people and either non members, or unrecognized members of the Darood clan (Besteman, 2016).
While the governmental level experienced a dramatic increase in wealth and resources, villages like those in the Jubba and Shebelle river valleys were not invested in. Despite a desperate need for roads, schools, and medical facilities, these areas of Somalia saw only the development of foreign capitalist ventures, including a plan by the World Bank to build Africa’s second largest dam, and a USAID plan to privatize all land ownership, that ultimately ended up in the hands of elite, Mogadishu politicians and businesspeople (Besteman, 2016).
After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism, the United States determined that Barre was disposable as an ally, and promptly cut aid to Somalia. In that same year, Barre’s government was disenfranchised by separate anti-government coalitions that banded together and militarized to force him feeling for Kenya in 1991 (Besteman, 2016).
Bantu people in the Jubba and Shebelle valleys undeniably suffered under Barre. However, when he passed by these valleys on his way to Kenya, his militia distributed weapons and vehicles to his supporters in the Darood clan to suppress Barre’s opponents, Bantu people were brutally murdered, raped, and dehumanized by the newly empowered pastoralists (Besteman, 2016). In response, Bantu people were forced to flee their pillaged homes in the middle of the night, as to not encounter Darood militia who aimed to keep them within the valley (Besteman, 2016). Most people, who were able, headed 40 miles to the border of Kenya, many to a refugee camps in Dadaab, in the north-east, and Kakuma, in the north-west (Crisp, 2000; Eno & Van Lehman, 2003). Our founder and executive director, Muhidin Libah, grew up in one of these Kenyan refugee camps before moving to the United States and enrolling in college in New York.
Many people died of diarrhea and starvation during the trek, and many more died of other curable diseases once arriving to Kenyan refugee camps (Besteman, 2016). Even in these camps, Bantu people were subject to discrimination and often placed in housing units on the outskirts of the camp, where residents were more vulnerable to looters and women more vulnerable to sexual abuse than their Somali national counterparts in the center housing units (Eno & Van Lehman, 2003). Bantu families were often made to work for more powerful Somali families within these camps, building homes, and fetching water and firewood (Horst, 2007).
Further, these refugee camps were particularly controlling, dehumanizing places for all residents. Many published reports of these camps concluded that, in the face of inadequate checks of power, agency staff considered refugees to be untrustworthy subjects, and would often withhold food, compensation for work, and other basic needs as a means of control (Agier, 2002; Crisp, 2000; Harrell-Bond, 2002; Horst, 2007).
In the last years of the 1990’s however, some Somali Bantu people were identified by the UNHCR as resettlement priorities given that they were an “extremely vulnerable group” that “could not be returned to their home country.” In 1999, the United States offered Bantu people P2 resettlement status, meaning that they were at particular humanitarian risk. However, multiple years would go by before anyone could come to the United States through this program due to processing and protocol (Besteman, 2016).
In the mid 2000’s, Bantus were finally able to begin moving to cities across the U.S. About 12,000 Somali Bantu people are now living in the United States, and in 2005, Somali Bantu people began to arrive in Lewiston following a large secondary resettlement of ethnic Somalis. Today, there are over 7,000 Somalis in the twin cities of Lewiston and Auburn, over 3,000 of which are Somali Bantu (Besteman, 2016). Now that Lewiston is home for our community, we are working hard to contribute to our city’s social and economic vibrancy.
For many decades Lewiston has been suffering a decline in the manufacturing industries that had once been its economic base (Besteman, 2016). Although this trend bottomed out in the 1980s, the most recent U.S. Census still reported harrowing results. Over 23% of people in Lewiston are living at or below the federal poverty level. Downtown Lewiston is home to three census tracts among the poorest in the nation. The poverty level in these “extreme poverty tracts” reaches as high as 67%. In 2017, for example, 96% of children in the city’s school system were eligible for free/reduced meals (U.S. Census Bureau, 2017).
USDA defines food security as “access, at all times, to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members.” In the most recent update of Household Food Security in the US, Maine ranked third in the nation for people experiencing very low food security (Coleman-Jensen, Rabbit, Gregory, Singh, 2016). In this context, the Somali Bantu are the poorest community in the poorest city in one of the poorest states. 5 years ago, our organization was born to combat this trend and encourage our community’s self-sufficiency in the face of these disadvantages.
Somali Bantu ancestors practiced indigenous ceremonies that included animist beliefs and centered music and dance. However, once these people were relocated from southeast Africa to Somalia as agricultural slave labor, many converted to Islam because many Somali national people practiced Islam, and Muslims are religiously barred from owning Muslim slaves (Declich, 1995). Although most Bantu people had converted to Islam by the beginning of the 20th century, their ancestral religious traditions did not completely fade (Eno & Van Lehman, 2003). In particular, dance groups, called mviko, remained integral in Bantu life (Declich, 1995).
Traditional Bantu spiritual ceremonies are essential aspects of community well-being (Eno & Van Lehman, 2003). These ceremonies, which include dance, music, storytelling, and singing are passed down through generations, and build a cultural foundation through which a community’s history is told and cherished. Belonging to mviko groups, for example, is the equivalent to family kinships in Bantu culture (Declich, 1995). However, Mviko and other Bantu ceremonies that include playing drums and dancing are not considered appropriate for traditional Islamic practice, and were often forbidden by local Muslim sheikhs in pre-civil war Somalia (Declich, 1995; Eno & Van Lehman, 2003).
Even in the U.S., Bantus are among the more liberal Muslims in modern society. In addition to spiritual ceremonies that do not adhere to strict muslim religious practice, other evidence of this liberalism is found in the familial Bantu structure. Women are allowed to work outside the home in Bantu communities, and, in fact, make up the majority of Bantu agricultural workers. Further, although they often wear headdresses, Bantu women do not often wear a hijab (Declich, 1995; Eno & Van Lehman, 2003).
Traditional spiritual rituals, from the Bantu’s east African heritage is passed down through mothers. Harvest ceremonies, and ritual dances are important Bantu traditions (Besteman, 2016; Eno & Van Lehman, 2003). However, like other muslims, Bantu people also celebrate Eid-al-Fitr, a holiday that rings in the end of Ramadan, the holy month, and Eid-al-Adha, an occassion that celebrates the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca (Eno & Van Lehman, 2003).
The Bantus are often members of the Sunni Islamic sect, and the Ahmediya Sufi and Qaadiriya Sufi brotherhood, which are central for religious learning (Eno & Van Lehman, 2003). Like any other community, religious dedication within Bantu societies varies from person to person and family to family. Our shared Bantu ethnic heritage, though, is a powerful cultural binder. Bantu people take care of their neighbors and extend gracious hospitality to friends, family, and even strangers in need, regardless of religious affiliation (Besteman, 2016; Declich, 1995; Eno & Van Lehman, 2003).
The Somali language has multiple variants, distinctive between cultures and regions. The two main languages are Af Maay (pronounced af my) and Af Maxaa (pronounced af mahaa). Both are Cushitic languages, meaning that they are a branch of the Afroasiatic language family and spoken primarily in the Horn of Africa in the countries of Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia (Wolff, 2019). Almost all Somalis speak at least one of these languages.
Af Maay, also called Maay Maay, is more predominant in southern Somalia where most Bantu people lived, as an agro-pastoral language. Alternatively, Af Maxaa is the dominant language in the rest of the country, and in neighboring countries, including in Kenya. Both of these variants were considered the official languages of Somalia until 1972 when the government decided that Af Maxaa would become the official written language of the country. This move further discouraged Bantus and other Southern Somalis from participating in government and education, and benefiting from government services (Eno & Van Lehman, 2003).
Although Af Maay and Af Maxaa have similarities in their written form, their relationship is almost unidentifiable in their spoken forms. Moreover, in the Jubba and Shebelle valleys, Af Maay was often combined with Bantu ancestral tribal languages, originating in Tanzania (Eno & Van Lehman, 2003).
Af Maay, the dominant language of Somali Bantu culture, consists of 24 consonants and 5 vowels:
The consonants: b p t j jh d th r s sh dh g gh f q k l m n ng ny w h y.
The vowels: a e i o u.
Of these letters, b, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, m, n, s, sh, t, w, and y are pronounced very similar to the way they are pronounced in the english language. Af Maay has no glottal sounds like the sounds of ‘ha’ and ‘a’.
Unlike the english language, there are only 3 basic verb tenses in Af Maay: past, present, and future. Instead, varying degrees of the past and future are incorporated into the verbal structure of the language. The most common word order in Af Maay is object-subject-verb, but subject-verb-object is also common phrasing (Eno & Van Lehman, 2003; Wolff, 2018).
Agier, Michael. (2002). Between War and City: Towards and Urban Anthropology of Refugee Camps. Sage Publications, Ltd. Ethnography, vol. 3, no. 3. Retrieved from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/24048113.
Besteman, Catherine L. (2016). Making Refuge: Somali Bantu Refugees and Lewiston, Maine. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Coleman-Jensen, Alisha; Rabbit, Matthew; Gregory, Christian; Singh, Anita. (2016). Household Food Security in the United States in 2015. United States Department of Agriculture. Retrieved from: https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/79761/err215_summary.pdf?v=0.
Crisp, Jeff. (2000). A State of Insecurity: The Political Economy of Violence in Kenya’s Refugee Camps. African Affairs. Retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.1093/afraf/99.397.601.
Declich, Francesca. (1995). Identity, Dance and Islam Among People with Bantu Origin. Lawrenceville, NJ: Red Sea Press.
Eno, Omar; Van Lehman, Dan. (2003). The Somali Bantu: Their History and Culture. The Center for Applied LInguistics. Washington, DC. Retrieved from: http://www.hartfordinfo.org/issues/wsd/immigrants/somali_bantu.pdf.
Harrell-Bond, Barbara. (2002). Can Humanitarian Work with Refugees be Humane? Human Rights Quarterly by The Johns Hopkins University Press. Retrieved from: https://www.unhcr.org/4d94749c9.pdf
Horst, Cindy. (2007). Transitional Nomads: How Somalis Cope with Refugee LIfe in the Dadaab Camps of Kenya. Berghahan Books.
U.S. Census Bureau. (2017). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Retrieved from: https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/lewistoncitymaine/IPE120218#IPE120218.
Wolff, Ekkehard. (2018). Cushitic Languages. Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. Retrieved from: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Cushitic-languages.