Somali Bantu History
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.