[Masthead] Mostly Cloudy ~ 64°F  
High: 73°F ~ Low: 49°F
Monday, May 2, 2016

The Bantu: A closer look

Saturday, December 22, 2007

To understand Shelbyville's new neighbors, it is necessary to examine their history, their oppressed status in Africa and the hideous conditions from which they recently escaped.

According to Holly Johnson, director of Catholic Charities of Tennessee, the latest Somali newcomers to Nashville are from the Bantu tribe, which was persecuted in that war-torn country for years.

The Cultural Orientation Resource Center, part of the Center for Applied Linguistics, has published a book about the Somali Bantu as an introduction for those providing services to the Bantu refugees "in their new communities in the United States."

The Bantu-speaking peoples make up a major part of the population of nearly all African countries south of the Sahara, belonging to over 300 groups that each has its own language or dialect.

Groups of Bantu can vary in size from a few hundred to several million and include the largest group in Kenya; the Kikuyu, the Swahili, and the Zulu of South Africa.

The Somali Bantu are descendants of slaves taken from Tanzania and Mozambique. Before they were pressed into bondage, the Bantu practiced indigenous ceremonies. But since Muslims are forbidden to own slaves of their own faith, the Bantu freed themselves by converting to Islam.

However, many of the Bantu, whether they are Christian or Muslim, retain animist beliefs which include the use of curses, magic and possession dances. No evidence exists linking the Bantu to fundamentalist religious or extremist political groups and some fundamentalists in Somalia regard the Bantu's Islamic practices as unorthodox.

While the horrid practice of slavery was abolished in this country in 1863, it continued in southern Somalia until the early 20th century, when it was abolished by the Italian colonial authority. However, some inland groups of Bantu remained in slavery until the 1930s.

But even though slavery had been made illegal, the same Italian authorities then reintroduced coerced labor laws and the freed slaves were conscripted for the agricultural industry of fascist Italy in the mid-1930s.

Despite attacks from slave traders and the forced labor of the Italians, the Bantu were able to set themselves up as farmers and live in a somewhat stable manner, even moving to large Somali cities to work as manual laborers and semi-skilled tradesman.

But throughout the 20th Century, clan differences remained and overt discrimination against the Bantu continued. During the late 1970's and early 1980's, they were drafted into the Somali military in their war with Ethiopia. And things became much worse for the Bantu when civil war broke out in 1991.

Following the collapse of Siyaad Barre's regime, competition between clans for power resulted in disaster for the general civilian population and the Bantu in particular. Since they were considered the backbone of the production of agriculture in southern Somalia, the Bantu possessed large stocks of food and as the hunger escalated, they became targets of bandits and rogue militias.

However, the Bantu were not part of the traditional Somali clan protection network and the group was attacked with impunity, with militias robbing, raping, and murdering Bantu farmers as well as taking their food stocks.

Control of the areas the Bantu farmed shifted from warlord to warlord as the conflict dragged on, with all wreaking havoc upon the farming communities. Finally in October 1992, the Bantu fled southern Somalia for refugee camps located about 40 miles from their border in Kenya's barren and often hostile Northeastern Province.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) set up camps in the region for different clans which held 135,000 refugees in 2002, with CARE International and Doctors Without Borders providing support and medical care.

But the area of Dadaab in northern Kenya is quite dangerous, with aid workers forced to live in secure compounds to avoid gunfire and bandits. And due to the late arrival of the Bantu to the camps, plus discrimination by other Somali refugees, the clan settled on the outskirts of the camp, making them more vulnerable to bandit attacks.

The Bantu constructed fortified compounds guarded by armed sentries since they were victims of a disproportionate amount of attacks compared to the other refugees. Refugee women were extremely vulnerable to rape, with different clan members accused of the crimes, resulting in hostilities between refugees groups.

The Bantu who stayed in Somalia took up farming again, but armed bandits from dominant clans took control of the valuable agriculture region, extorting protection money from the Bantu. Today, the Bantu who remain in Somali exist in a state between sharecropping and slavery.

According to the State Department, 12,000 of these Bantu refugees have spent most of the past decade languishing in these camps until 2002, when they were moved to the Kakuma refugee camp in northwest Kenya to interviewed by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

The State Department says the Bantu have remained a persecuted minority in Somalia, and cannot return to the homes they fled. As a result, since 2003, the Bantu have been arriving in this country for resettlement.

The Bantu have enormous barriers to overcome in their introduction to American society. Their status as immigrants, their lack of English skills, illiteracy and the fact they possess no modern job skills, will only make the challenge that much harder.

The literacy rate of the Bantu is considered to be well below the 24 percent of the average Somali, since they have been excluded from that society. Only an estimated five percent of all Bantu refugees have been formerly educated and just five percent of adults are proficient in English.

The State Department has approved enhanced cultural orientation of up to 80 hours for each individual Bantu, which includes survival literacy and special classes for mothers and youth.

According to the Cultural Orientation Resource Center, the Bantu have had very little exposure to Western housing, conveniences or food, and things we take for granted such as electricity, flush toilets, telephones, and kitchen and laundry appliances are totally alien to most Bantu refugees.

The Cultural Orientation Resource Center suggests that "working in semirural, nonmigratory agriculture may help some Bantu better acclimate to American society by placing them in a residential and work environment that is more familiar to them than standard modern-economy jobs in urban areas."

The Bantu also have had little experience with banks, checking accounts, or ATM's and require intensive training on finances, budgeting, and financial planning.

A high birth rate is also reported among the Bantu population, most married women are either breastfeeding or pregnant and the concept of family planning does not exist.

The Center also states that resettlement professionals will have to deal with significant health care, sanitation, and social support issues relating to small children and mothers, pointing out that the Bantu use pit latrines and "are unfamiliar with typical American bathroom facilities and common sanitation items such as diapers and feminine care products."

Related subjects