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African Diaspora Newsletter No.10 - PROFILE:


Omar A. Eno & Dan Van Lehman

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 back in."

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.

Department of History, York University,  Toronto, Canada
Email: nigerian@yorku.ca
Fax: (416) 650-8173