This essay analyzes the trajectory of the people now known as Somali Bantu. Beginning with their settlement of the southern Jubba Valley, through to their third country resettlement in the United States on P2 refugee status, the Somali Bantu have been continually transformed by engagements with multiple and often disparate cultures, traditions, languages, and histories. I demonstrate here the discursive nature of group identity and interrogate the connections between the history of oppression, the sustainability of culture, and the performance of identity. I combine first-hand accounts of forced migration with a summary of the documented history of the Somali Bantu, beginning with their forced migration to Somalia and the various factors shaping their status in the country. The analysis continues through the period of displacement, flight, and human warehousing in the Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps of Kenya and includes an examination of how bureaucratic labeling as refugees, and the public rhetoric of mainstream media further shaped the story of the Somali Bantu. Each of these moments through their trajectory are foundational to self-representations that would emerge in diaspora. This research contributes to the field of diaspora studies insofar as it demonstrates how the Somali Bantu, a group whose migration has been under-analyzed and often absorbed into the larger Somali narrative, has created a distinctive transnational identity out of their “routes” through marginalization and displacement to resettlement, rather than the “roots” of common ancestry. (Gilroy 1992)
“They Treated Us Like Oxen”
I met Ibrahim and his wife, Hibo, the morning after they arrived in Blacksburg. Ibrahim met me at his apartment door, gripping a sarong around his waist, his face still damp from a shower. i He was a slender man, around twenty-eight, with a small, round head like a nut. He introduced himself formally and then ushered me inside as if he had been waiting for an audience to whom he could tell his story.
Ibrahim was 12 years old when the violence of the civil war reached his family’s village. Until then, they lived quietly as subsistence farmers in Jilib, a fertile area lush with mango trees in the lower Jubba Valley region of southern Somalia. The Bantu homesteads were separate from those of the dominant Somali, however the groups came in frequent contact in the marketplace where they negotiated trades and purchases for their goods. The Bantu were accustomed to the humiliating treatment they received from the dominant Somalis who uttered pejoratives—Addoon! (Slave)—and held their noses when passing by. Sometimes, they would yoke heavy loads onto the shoulders of Bantu men, joking that they needn’t tire their donkeys.
“They treated us like oxen,” Ibrahim said.
During times of famine, Somali ranchers allowed their cattle to graze on Bantu crops. Ibrahim was severely beaten by a Somali man after attempting to chase a cow from their garden. When his father found Ibrahim lying on the ground with a broken leg, he cried. But through his tears his father advised that they should forget what happened.
“Even if they did something you cannot take revenge.”
The indignities marking their daily existence reached unbearable proportions as the civil war spread. Ibrahim’s family had heard that Kenya was offering refuge and had begun making plans to travel there. And then they were visited by a group of soldiers in the night. The soldiers demanded food and money. When the family was unable to produce anything, they tortured his father by tying him up and laying a burning plastic tarp over his body. When his mother attempted to escape into the bush, she was captured and raped repeatedly over several hours. In Ibrahim’s memory, she was violated by “hundreds of men” while his father lay helpless. An uncle attempted to defy the soldiers.
“We have nothing. If you want, shoot me.”
After this terrible night of violence that left his uncle dead, the family fled. They knew little about Kenya except that it was located somewhere to the west. They walked for 11 days, foraging fruit when they could. At times, he said, their thirst was so powerful that they drank their own urine. Once they reached the Kenyan border town of Liboi, they were detained by security officers who demanded to see identity papers. When the officers realized they were refugees, they provided transport to a camp in Dadaab. After registering and settling in Dadaab, Ibrahim attended the Iftin Primary school and dedicated himself to learning English and acquiring whatever education he could. Education beyond the primary level was largely unavailable to Bantu children in the rural villages of the lower Jubba Valley. He continued his education throughout his adolescence and eventually received a certificate from the Al-Fathi Medical Center Technical School after completing a course of study in mental health. The certification allowed him to give injections and offer other forms of medical assistance as a Medical Technologist with the International Rescue Committee, which had an operative in Dadaab. The job provided him with a bicycle and modest incentive pay that enabled him to supplement the yellow maize that constituted the foodstuff of his extended family. We talked for several hours that day, pausing a while to eat a lunch of boiled chicken and greens cooked by his mother-in-law, Abay, who was visibly happy to be reunited with her daughter and family. She rubbed her infant grandson’s round, bald head with baby oil until it glistened. Hibo meanwhile explored the three rooms of their apartment. She deferred to Ibrahim even though she could read and speak English herself. Quietly, she emptied a travel bag filled with biscuits from the processing center in Nairobi. She would not have known that their cupboards were filled with pasta, rice, canned vegetables, and peanut butter in anticipation of their arrival. In the afternoon, a reporter from a local newspaper visited and Ibrahim repeated his story to her. ii
I begin with Ibrahim’s first-hand account to personalize the documented and oral history of the collective Somali Bantu experience. Contemporary Bantu identity has evolved significantly through the refugee trajectory thereby demonstrating how group identity is both discursive and performative. To quote Stuart Hall, dispersed groups such as the Somali Bantu “bear upon them the traces of the particular cultures, traditions, languages and histories by which they were shaped. The difference is that they are not and will never be unified in the old sense because they are irrevocably the product of several interlocking histories and cultures, belonging at one and the same time to several ‘homes.’” (Hall 1990, 310) While Somali Bantu identity has been continually transformed by and through its engagements with multiple and often disparate cultures, traditions, languages, and histories, it has also been lived through these engagements. Now that the Somali Bantu have permanent residence and, increasingly, naturalized citizenship status in the United States, their collective identity will express through cultural productions and practices that shape the Bantu people and the broader African diaspora in the United States, as well as the American society where they reside.
People of the Forest
When the Bantu fled Somalia, they left behind a world organized around a mythology of a homogenous nation characterized by a common Arabic ancestry, a shared culture of nomadism, and a single Somali language (M. Eno 2008). iii Within this society, the Bantu were second-class citizens marked by distinctive Negroid features and subordinate status within the prevailing clan-based system that organized Somali society. Their ancestry has been traced to six different tribes—the Magindo, Makua, Manyasa, Yao, Zalamo, and Ziguapa—each of which had its own systems of language, belief, ritual practice, and family structure. Sources indicate that there were 900,000 Bantu people living throughout Somalia, some of whom had been in the country for hundreds of years and self-identified as Somali. iv The particular subset of Bantu people discussed here were reportedly captured by the Sultan of Zanzibar and other Arab slave traders from their homelands in Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania at the turn of the 18th century and brought forcibly to Somalia to work on plantations along the Jubba and Shabbelle rivers. Collectively, they were known in Somalia as Mushungulis, a word that has multiple implied meanings including worker, foreigner, and slave (Menkhaus 2010). Various sources also refer to the people now known as the Somali Bantu as Gosha (Besteman 1999), Zigula, (Dechlich 2000), or Jareer (M. Eno 2008).
Figure 1: Map of Somalia.
In the 1840’s, the first fugitive slaves began settling in the lower Jubba Valley. The first settlers were the Zegua from Tanzania who escaped after a few years of enslavement and occupied the largely uninhabited area as refuge. The nomadic Somalis tended to avoid the densely forested area, describing it as Gosha, or “unhealthy forest” because of its infestation of tsetse flies, which endangered the pastoralists’ livestock. However, to the Zegua, the fertile land bordering the river was a site for reclaiming identity, autonomy, and self-sufficiency through agricultural sustainability. (Besteman 1999, 60-1) They began clearing land, establishing small-scale farms, fortifying their villages to protect themselves from invasion, and “creating village based forms of authority, mediation, and negotiation.” (Besteman 1999,109) The Zegua were joined by 20,000 other fugitive or manumitted slaves who likewise sought refuge and established their own villages and farmlands from 1865-1895. Collectively, they forged an “independent Goshaland” bound by a common East African ethnic identity but otherwise distinct in terms of cultural practices, language, and internal governance (Menkhaus 1989:127 in Besteman 64, 65).
The Mushunguli transformed the Jubba Valley into a site of productivity that successfully accommodated multiple social identities. However, this independent Goshaland would undergo significant changes with settlement trends occurring after 1895. The influx of former slaves arriving in the lower and middle Jubba Valley after 1895 were distanced from their cultures of origin. Because they had been stolen into slavery as children, memory of the languages, rituals, and cultural practices of their homeland had diminished. Out of necessity for survival, the new arrivals were “Somalized.” They had forged stronger affiliation with the Somali clans in which they were raised and many practiced Islam, albeit a more liberal form that retained elements of the animist and indigenous beliefs held prior to their capture into slavery. They spoke a Cushitic dialect, Maay Maay, which eventually replaced the Swahili and Bantu languages spoken across the villages of independent Goshaland.
The colonial occupation of the Jubba Valley by the Italians and British during the late 1890’s likewise altered the space from one of independence and sustainability to that of racialized economic and agricultural exploitation. The British colonial administration, in an initiative of pacification aimed at the Ogaadeen Somalis, collected munitions from the villages, leaving them unfortified—a move that would later contribute to their vulnerability during the civil war. (Besteman 1999, 68) The Italian colonial administration, despite their abolition of slavery in 1890, conscripted the Mushunguli to work on Italian-owned plantations, and expropriated their land without compensation. Both British and Italian colonists regarded the Somalis as racially superior to the Mushunguli and through their policies and actions further reinforced the perception of each group as distinct and unequal. (Besteman 1999, 122) According to Catherine Besteman:
While upholding the perception of Somalis as distinct from and superior to the European construct of ‘black Africans’, both British and Italian colonial administrators placed the Jubba valley population in the latter category. Colonial discourse described the Jubba valley as occupied by a distinct group of inferior races, collectively identified as the WaGosha by the British and the WaGoscia by the Italians. v
Thus, the term Gosha, originally an inoffensive term for the people of the forest, evolved into a categorizing label for designating a territorialized and “subjugated racialized ethnic group” (Besteman 1999, 156). Dominant Somali and colonists each depended upon and exploited the labor and agricultural productivity of the Mushunguli / Gosha, and restricted their access to education, economic development, and political representation. Later, nationalists would forcibly conscript them for military service during the Somalia-Ethiopia conflict, thereby claiming Gosha bodies for the cause of the state while simultaneously marginalizing them. Even after Siyad Barre’s nationalist campaign of scientific socialism in the late 1970’s outlawed references to ethnic distinctions and formal relationships based on tribalism and social inequality, the lived experience of the Mushunguli / Gosha remained one of subordination. In fact, the legislated homogeneity heightened the awareness of difference and rendered the Mushunguli / Gosha experiences of discrimination as undiscussable. (Besteman 1999, 128). Some attempted to leverage the discourse of a Somali democratic ethos to their benefit, however, “rituals of subordination” performed in the daily confrontations between Mushunguli / Gosha and Somalis—the verbal and physical abuse, the false charges for petty offenses, the allowances granted to pastoralists’ transgressions—maintained their status as second class citizens. (Scott 1990 in Besteman 1999, 125) According to Menkhaus, by the late 1980s most [Bantu] communities in Somalia “found themselves weaker, poorer, and worse off than at any time in history.” (Menkhaus 2010, 90)
The Jubba Valley evolved into a place of subjugated “otherness” within the national space, propped up by notions of race, ethnicity, and status constructed by the dominant Somalis and reinforced by colonialist policies. (Besteman 1999, 133) According to Eno, Somali society was organized around the categories of Jileec (soft hair) and Jareer (hard hair)—terms that were not merely descriptive, but rather implied deep cultural significance that situated the two groups as mutually exclusive from one another. (M. Eno 2008) The Jileec’s softer hair texture, narrow nose, slim body frame, and lighter complexion was the embodiment of the dominant Somali’s presumed nobility rooted in an Arabic ancestry whose lineage traced back to Mohammed the Prophet of Islam. (Besteman 1999, 97) Conversely, the Jareer’s kinky or coiled hair, broader nose, bulkier body frame, and darker complexion were evidence of their impure ancestry, low social status, and questionable religious integrity. These physical characteristics were deployed to single out and unite the Bantu-Jareer as a group of ex-slaves who were bereft of a history or lineage. The conflation of Negroid physical characteristics with an ignoble heritage of enslavement was applied to all Bantu people living in Somalia, including indigenous groups whose origins were traced to the Shungwaya kingdom of the 12th century.(Besteman 1999, 94) Formulaic narratives of Somali identity, beginning with ancestral myths that were later reconstituted with the introduction of Islam to the region, operated to reinforce social boundaries that delimited who belonged and who was outside of the boundaries of Somaliness. (Kusow 2015, 410) These narratives, initially circulated through oral tradition and retained in social memory, produced and perpetuated social and racial stratification on cultural, institutional, organizational, and personal levels. (Kusow 2015, 409, 413)
Longstanding relations of domination and subordination around class, race, land and labor foreshadowed the violence and devolution of the Somali state after 1991.(Besteman 1996, 1999, Eno 2008, Menkhaus 2010) The weight of institutionalized prejudice that allowed Somali groups to obtain weapons from Somali militias, circumvent United Nations peacekeeping efforts to provide relief to people in the riverine areas, and rob Jubba farmers of food contributed significantly to destabilizing the state. Kenneth Menkhaus, who was among the peacekeepers, witnessed how the Mushunguli / Gosha were violently targeted and observed that Somali indifference was due to the deep seated belief that jareer were not a part of their society:
The virtual holocaust visited upon low-status groups such as the jareer in 1991 and 1992 was not just a tragic result of warlords and young gunmen run amok; it was also the result of conscious decisions by clan elders and militia leaders over who lived and who died, an ‘allocation of pain’ which reflected the ethics and logic of the existing social order in crisis, and which betrayed the fact that low status members of the clan simply did not matter enough to live. vi
Somali formula narratives included stigmatization of Somalis who were deemed lower-caste based on their occupations or weak affiliation to Islam. However, the institutionalized prejudice directed toward the Bantu-Jareer centered on inferences of slave identity and African descent. Since the 1990’s additional epitaphs have emerged that stigmatize Bantu-Jareer based on their vulnerability through the civil war. They are looma-ooye—kinless people with no one to mourn them; looma-aare—impotent to avenge the murder of their relatives; and reer-baari—people who are tamed and tolerant of their subjugation. (M. A. Eno 2014, 111)
Counter Narratives and the Somali Bantu Ethnonym
Prior to 1991, there was no perceived common identity among the Mushunguli / Gosha, and certainly no desire to form a group identity based on their slave ancestry. vii (Besteman 2012, 289-9) Instead, the “Gosha people used their history to reclaim agency—their rightful membership standing in clans of their choosing, their freedom from subjugation within those clans, their economic independence as farmers and producers, their standing as free and equal citizens.” (Besteman 1999, 146) The themes of equality, dignity, self-reliance and pride paralleled Siyad Barre’s rhetoric of scientific socialism. Their resistance strategy was focused not on overturning the social order through armed revolution, but rather from working within the existing structures and culture to win acknowledgement of their humanity and their agency. They used the tools available to them: official rhetoric, hegemonic forms of social organization such as gender, kinship, and family, as well as private forms of resistance contained in poetry, magic, and song. In doing so, they inhabited “the enormous gray area between domination and collusion, a confused space of imagined alternatives, public acquiescence, and private rage.” (Besteman 1999, 133)
The widespread violence against jareer after 1990 precipitated a growing political consciousness. (Besteman 2012, 292) Fleeing Somalia meant that the Mushunguli relinquished their marginalized identities for that of refugee. When they arrived in the refugee camps, they were profoundly impacted by the sight of Kenyans who shared their physical features and spoke Kiswahili holding positions of leadership. Francesca Declich writes, “suddenly, these Zigula who had never travelled outside Somalia experienced the difference of being considered human beings equal to others.” (Declich 2010, 176) While conditions in the refugee camps were extraordinarily difficult and they continued to face abuse from Somali refugees, encampment nonetheless marked a transition toward a better life and validation of their humanity. Somalis had been migrating to Kenya to escape famine, warfare, and civil unrest since the late 1970’s. Until 1990, they were able to enter the country and settle freely, and find employment on their own. After 1990 when more than 400,000 Somalis crossed into the country fleeing violence and social upheaval, Kenyan refugee policy was forced to change. Camps such as Dadaab were constructed to receive and contain the enormous influx of Somalis (and other refugees) into the country. Camp officials and humanitarian aid workers processing entrants were perplexed by the Mushunguli / Gosha who claimed Somalia as their country of origin. These refugees were distinctly different in appearance than the other Somalis and were typically unable to identify a clear tribal or clan identity. Thus, the entrants were designated as “Somali Bantu”—a term that had not previously been used as an identifier. viii From that point forward, the Jubba Valley farmers self-identified as Somali Bantu, despite their cultural diversity. This new ethnonym would prove useful in constructing a Somali Bantu narrative that was distinct from that of the other refugees in Dadaab, and raised their international profile as a people of special concern.
Figure 2: Aerial view of Dadaab Refugee Camp, Kenya. Andy Hall.
Declich writes that the refugee camp functioned as a “frontier area” that created a positive ethnic identity distinguished by shared cultural characteristics. (Declich 2010) Camp officials observed that the Bantu were ready to speak out about the abuses they endured once they were treated respectfully by Kenyan police, aid workers, and other Africans they met in the camp. (Van Lehman 2003, 14) This newfound confidence opened up options for the Bantu people. The need to gain recognition in a society that was structured against them diminished. Many vowed that they would never return to Somalia, even if conflicts were resolved. Some considered returning to Tanzania or Mozambique where their ancestors were buried. Approximately 5,000-10,000 in fact returned to Tanzania, with 3,000 being granted formal asylum. For others, having the opportunity to articulate their plight to an international audience presented unforetold avenues for freedom and a future for their children. Whereas their strategy in Somalia had focused on integration, in the refugee camp under the ethnonym of Somali Bantu they could construct a narrative around their history of oppression as a source of cohesion and solidarity.
The Somali Bantu continued to experience oppression in the refugee camps. They occupied the most menial positions and continued to be subject to the taunts and abuse of their Somali neighbors. Yet recognition of the Somali Bantu plight gained traction, and subsequently prompted outrage among the Somali refugees who declared that Bantu claims of mistreatment in Somalia and their assertion of a distinct ethnicity were fraudulent, that Somalians were united under a single identity. The level of threat against the Bantu escalated when they were selected for resettlement in the United States on P2 status as a group of special humanitarian concern. In a “dramatic reversal of identity claims” everyone wanted to be Somali Bantu in order to improve their position in the coveted and highly selective resettlement process. (Besteman 2012, 290) Corruption and subterfuge followed as some Somalis attempted to pass themselves as Bantu by stealing ID cards, purchasing identities, bribing families to include names as family members, and disguising themselves in shabby clothing in order to appear poor. Interviewers relied upon “essentialized notions of racial difference” in an attempt to authenticate identity in the reverification process, studying the shape and sizes of noses and hands, and using the pencil test to distinguish hair texture. ix (Besteman 2012, 295) Consequently, some who had legitimate claim to the Somali Bantu identity were rejected, while others who lied or cheated were included on the list for resettlement.
People of Humanitarian Concern
The Refugee Act of 1980 opened the doors to the United States for refugees from Africa thereby signaling a shift in United States refugee policy from one driven by foreign interests and anti-Communism ideology toward a more humanitarian selection policy. (Boas 2007, 2) The Cold War had ended thereby reducing the number of refugee claims from Communist nations. At this same time, nongovernmental organizations were raising international attention to protracted refugee problems in Africa and the demands these problems placed on host countries such as Kenya. Additionally, the Congressional Black Caucus made a case for increasing the number of entrants from Africa. These factors prompted policy makers to search for large, self-contained groups that would fit the P2 status, thereby making US refugee policy into a “true rescue program.” (Boas 2007, 7) The two groups chosen were the so-called Lost Boys of Sudan and the Somali Bantu.
Because the United States agreed to accept the Somali Bantu en-masse, their refugee status morphed into a totalizing identity. The influx of approximately 13,000 Somali Bantu across the country not only catalyzed significant demographic changes in these communities, but also occasioned public concern about their impact on social service and public education systems. Some of these concerns were spurious, reflecting xenophobic and anti-Muslim attitudes. Others were rooted in legitimate concerns about resource capacity, economic conditions, and the dearth of employment opportunities for a largely unskilled, undereducated, mostly non-English speaking workforce. The considerable media relations surrounding the arrival of the Bantu sought to counter negative receptions with public interest stories; however, these same stories fostered the grand narrative of romantic primitivism.
“The Most Oppressed People on the Planet”
Articles about Somali Bantu resettlement first appeared in American newspapers around 2001, shortly after the Department of State made its decision in 1999 to declare the Bantu a persecuted group eligible for possible entry into the country. The events of September 11th delayed the processing of refugees, establishing additional security measures that prolonged the already bureaucratic procedures in place for refugee determination. Individuals of Arab or Muslim affiliation were especially scrutinized. However, the International Office of Migration (IOM), the intergovernmental agency responsible for migration management, had already begun to transport the Somali Bantu from Dadaab to Kakuma where they would undergo medical examinations and cultural orientation in preparation for their migration to the United States. They had nowhere else to go.
In December 2001, a New York Times article by Mark Lacey entitled, “Somali Bantu, trapped in Kenya, seek a home,” presented the Somali Bantu as a subjugated group with an oppositional identity who, despite their birthright, distinguished themselves from the lighter skinned Somalis of Arab ancestry. These Somalis were the dominant class that systematically denied their full inclusion in society and leveled human rights abuses against them. The Somali Bantu argued that “true” Somalis might sympathize with the ideology of Osama bin Laden, but they were aligned with the United States as victims of terrorism. Lacey’s article was an unusual predecessor to the flood of journalistic interest that would surround the Somali Bantu once they began arriving in the United States. No commentary about the Bantu’s suitability for resettlement in an industrialized society was made, nor was any language that may have described them as primitive used. Instead, it aligned the Somali Bantu with the United States against the enemies of the State (Islamic terrorists and Somalis), in a move that prepared the ground for the largest resettlement of a single group from Africa.
By June of 2002, the movement of refugees toward the United States was well underway. Whereas Lacey’s article framed the Somali Bantu as politically engaged, subsequent articles emphasized their tragic past as “the most oppressed people on the planet” who had been “abused, beaten, and downtrodden.” x A New York Times article identified them as “Africa’s Lost Tribe” xi —a label that persisted across Others led with anecdotes about the Somali Bantu’s wonderment in the face in the face of Western abundance. Often, the articles told stories about the bewilderment of adult men and women as they encountered modern appliances, first in the cultural orientation classrooms of Kakuma refugee camp, and later in their new apartments across the United States. Almost every article reviewed in national and regional papers referenced the novelty of doorknobs, and flush toilets, and light switches as signifiers of their backwardness. As a whole, the stories called forth a romantic primitivism of a people who were simple, potentially untrainable, but wholly grateful for their acceptance into the country. Much of the data about the Somali Bantu was derived from two sources: A report by International Office of Migration (IOM) official, Sasha Chanoff, that appeared in the Refugee and Immigration Services of America newsletter in November 2002 xii, and the document, The Somali Bantu: Their History and Culture, written by UNHCR field officer, Daniel Van Lehmann, and Somali Bantu historian and scholar, Omar Eno, and published in 2002 by the Cultural Orientation Resource Center of the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, D.C. Both documents were written for American audiences in anticipation of the cultural challenges facing both Bantu and their receiving communities during resettlement.
Figure 3: Cultural orientation class teaching Somali Bantu about modern appliances such as flush toilets. Denise McGill.
The Cultural Orientation manual was designed primarily for service providers and volunteers who would assist the Bantu refugees in transitioning to their new communities. It was structured around several short chapters discussing land, people, history, religion, daily life and values, language and literacy, education, and cross cultural challenges. It became a primary source for the general public to learn about the Somali Bantu. The statement that “electricity, flush toilets, telephones, and kitchen and laundry appliances are all foreign to most Bantu refugees,” which circulated through multiple media sources, was taken from this document. According to Van Lehman, the statement was not in their original iteration of the manual but was added after their editor “demanded” that it be included. (Email correspondence, January 7, 2011). Sasha Chanoff’s article appeared in the Immigration and Refugee Services of America newsletter, Refugee Reports, when the movement of the Somali Bantu through the resettlement verification process was underway. The article began with a brief but comprehensive history of the particular segment of Bantu populations in Somalia that were identified for resettlement, and followed them through their reapplication for asylum in the United States after plans for resettlement in Mozambique were rescinded. The report, while comprehensive, communicated Chanoff’s posture toward the Bantu as subalterns. He described encountering a mass of Somali Bantu outside the interview site at Dadaab, waiting complacently while “runny nosed” children with “spindly legs” played quietly alongside their parents. The poverty and desolation of the Dagahaley camp where they lived was an “in your face reality” replete with “ragged masses” of children, dust, and blistering heat. His assessments of household life concluded with statements: “Everything about an American kitchen will be alien” or “They would not recognize 99 percent of the food in American supermarkets.” In the section on cultural orientation concerns, Chanoff pondered: “Where does one begin with people who have never held a pen or read a sign, who have no support network in the United States, and have no previous information about life in the United States?” His questions, while rhetorically framed to reflect the enormity of the task ahead, nonetheless situated the Bantu as a bounded culture whose dispositions, values, and attitudes made them potentially untrainable.
An oft-repeated quote (which I have been unable to trace to its original source) cited Chanoff as saying, “Do not assume they can open a door just because it has a doorknob.” Conservative, anti-immigration pundits manipulated the doorknob to fit their polemics. An article in Middle American News spuriously links this statement removed from its context with a diatribe against misguided liberal elite who will subsidize the “transplanted tribesmen” who are not far removed from the Stone Age with U.S. taxpayer dollars. This article, and others like it in VDare.Com and Refugee Resettlement Watch, framed the Bantu not only as primitives, but also as dangerous exotics whose cultural and religious practices—specifically, polygamy, female circumcision, and residuals of animist beliefs—were strange and potentially threatening to the majority white, Christian population. The vitriol of the articles and bulletin board posts amplified cultural differences and questioned the value of the Somali Bantu to their new communities. Van Lehmann pointed to the IOM and early Western press reports as perpetrating notions of the Somali Bantu as primitive providing fodder to anti-immigration sentiments. xiii “I worked in the Kenyan refugee camps for two years, and the Bantu obeyed the rules more than any other group in the camps,” Lehmann indicated. “Some did electrical work, some mechanical work, some were drivers. To suggest that they are somehow out of the caves is demeaning and does a tremendous disservice” (The McGill Report, July 23, 2003). In fact, according to Somali Bantu expert, Omar Eno, the biggest challenge the Somali Bantu would face in resettlement had less to do with the technologies of progress, but instead “learning how to navigate a modern society where families are dispersed and society is maintained not by patriarchs and tribal elders, but rather through impersonal institutions like schools, courts, hospitals, and social service agencies.” xiv
Conclusion: Identity in Diaspora
More than ten years have passed since the Somali Bantu arrived in the United States. They are no longer the so-called lost tribe, but are now very much on a cultural map of their own making. A Google search of “Somali Bantu Resettlement” pulls up web links for Bantu-led mutual assistance associations that have formed across the country. Somali Bantu music is featured on the Vermont Folk Life Center website on New Neighbors Music Project. There are several Somali Bantu channels on social media sites that provide news in Maay Maay and Zigua. Other broadcasting and media outlets feature small-scale productions of Somali Bantu music videos, weddings, and vlogs. While the younger generation of Somali Bantu are constructing and sustaining cultural identity through media sources that span their geographic dispersion, the elders express a call for justice for their homeland. In September 2015, hundreds of Somali Bantu gathered outside the United Nations in New York City to protest war crimes against the Gosha Bantu people living in Al Shabab-controlled regions of lower and middle Jubba.
What does the Somali Bantu identity mean to those who claim it? In the refugee camps, the identity emerged as a way to claim a political voice based in a shared experience of victimization. As victims who were later described as the most oppressed people on the planet, their narrative better situated them within a resettlement country that regarded itself as the grand protector, who received the Somali Bantu as a persecuted group worthy of rescue. The Somali Bantu view the United States as a site of equality, where “black and white” live together. However, the United States has yet to fully reckon with its own racist history, which is now further complicated with anti-Islamic and anti-immigration attitudes. Does the Somali Bantu vision of equality fit with their lived experience as a community that is multiply minoritized—racially, religiously, culturally, and economically? Or, do they assert a unique identity in opposition to existing racial discourse, one that proves their worthiness as chosen people? The Somali Bantu trajectory enters a new chapter in diaspora. Identity constructions emerging from this tension of marginalization and acceptance will be revealing.
i Names are changed to protect confidentiality.
ii I supplemented my memory of Ibrahim’s story with details from the article, “Bantus find welcome home,” by Julianna Doerzaph for the December 4th, 2004 edition of the News Messenger.
iii Eno’s important revisionist research provides empirical evidence that unmasks the mythology of homogeneity that had prevailed among selected Orientalist and Somali scholars, as well as in the formula narrative of the Somali people. Eno argues that the belief of a homogenous society has been deployed to justify oppression of Jareer/Bantu peoples.
iv Historical data is drawn from the following sources: Besteman, Translating Race Across Time and Space: The Construction of Somali Bantu Ethnicity 2012; M. Eno, The Bantu-Jareer Somalis: Unearthing Apartheid in the Horn of Africa 2008; Menkhaus, The Question of Ethnicity in Somali Studies: The Case of Somali Bantu Identity 2010.
v (Besteman 1999, 120)
vi (Menkhaus 2010, 99)
vii According to Bestemen’s research in the lower Jubba in the 1980’s attempts to discuss slavery were met with reticence.
viii Omar Eno told Besteman in an interview that the Bantu identifier was used in Somalia among Somali minorities and educated Jareer in Mogadishu in the early 1990’s at the recommendation of a South African UNOSOM officer who heard about their deplorable treatment. The term would serve to highlight their concerns as a minority group. See Besteman 2012.
ix The pencil test, as a measure of racial identification, involves placing a pencil into the hair of the subject. If the pencil falls out the person is identified as having the soft hair associated with whiteness or—in this case—with jileec.
x Paul A. Barra, “People of Lost Somali Bantu Tribe to Settle in South Carolina,” The Catholic Miscellany, March 1, 2003.
xi Rachel Swarns, “Africa’s Lost Tribe Discovers American Way,” New York Times, March 10, 2003.
xii The Chanoff article, “After Three Years Somali Bantus Prepare to Come to America,” was repurposed in other context such as the Reliefweb site and BRYCS (Bridging Refugee Youth & Children Services) newsletters.
xiii Personal e-mail correspondence, Dan Van Lehmann, January 2011.
xiv The McGill Report, July 23, 2003
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Van Lehman, Dan and Eno, Omar. 2003. “The Somali Bantu Their History and Culture.” Culture Profile No. 16. Washington, DC: The Center for Applied Linguistics, February.Copyright (c) 2016 Michele C. Deramo