The civil war in
Somalia, which began in 1991, has led to the collapse of the social system and
governmental structures. In the face of this situation, millions of Somalis took refuge in
parts of Somalia and in neighboring Ethiopia, D'Jibuti and Yemen. However, most of the
refugees crossed into the United Nations High Commission for Refugee (UNHCR) camps in
Kenya. Among the most affected by the civil war was the Somali Bantu of Juba valley area.
The Somali Bantu are a minority group in Somalia whose members are ethnically and
culturally distinct from the dominant-clan Somalis. Most of the Bantu arrived as slaves in
Somalia from southeast African countries, such as Tanzania and Mozambique, during the
reign of the Sultanate of Zanzibar in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Bantu refugees
speak a minority dialect of the Somali language, with many also still speaking languages
and practicing cultural traditions from Tanzania and Mozambique. For nearly two centuries,
the Bantu have been subjugated or considered outcasts in Somalia. Most Bantu never
integrated into the dominant Somali clan structure, and historically have been
marginalized by Somalia's ruling parties. As a result, they have had few opportunities in
education or government.
Unlike most dominant clan Somalis, the Bantu are sedentary farmers and consequently
had large stocks of food on their land when Somalia's civil war broke out in the early
1990s. Bandits and rogue militias raided Bantu villages. In the process thousands of Bantu
farmers were robbed, raped, and murdered. During that time, many Bantu fled their
farmlands in the country's south to refugee camps in Kenya, where the total number of
refugees grew to 160,000. The Bantu who have remained in Somalia are now sharecropping on
their own land for armed militias.
While conditions in the camps were an improvement over life in Somalia, the Bantu
continued to suffer abuse and discrimination by other refugee groups. In 2002, U.S moved
12,000 Bantu to northwest Kenya for interviews by Immigration and Naturalization Services
- a first step toward resettlement in the United States. As a Bantu elder stated, "We
didn't know what freedom was; we have been let out of the cage and we don't want to go
After some delay, the first batch of settlers is scheduled to arrive in Spring or
Summer 2003. In 2001, Daniel Van Lehman, a research fellow with the Hatfield School of
Government at Portland State University and I were approached to write a profile report
about the history and culture of the Somali Bantu. The article "The Somali Bantu:
Their History and Culture," recently published by the Center for Applied Linguistics
(www.culturalorientation.net/bantu), in Washington, D.C., through an agreement with the
U.S. State Department. The report provides an overview of the Bantu people, their history
and culture, and the challenges facing them as well as their new communities in America.
Van Lehman is one of a handful of Americans with such comprehensive knowledge of the
Bantu, stemming from his work with the United Nations in the first refugee camps during
the early 1990s. We were also invited by private and governmental institutions in the US
to give talks and training to service providers about the Bantu. Our experiences and
reflections over these projects led us into developing the 'Cultural Orientation Project'.
The goal of this project is to increase the knowledge and understanding of the provider
community (Americans) about the Somali Bantu, their history and culture, and the
challenges they might face in the United States.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement has awarded a grant of one million dollars
(U$1,000,000) over three years through Portland State University for the project.