After three years: Somali Bantus prepare to come to America

Originally published
by Sasha Chanoff, International Organization for Migration
In 1999, Africa's top resettlement officials filed into a sunlit room in the Joint Voluntary Agency (JVA) compound in Nairobi, Kenya for an important meeting. The topic: Do we resettle the Sudanese "Lost Boys" or the Somali Bantus first? History plays out in such moments, and destinies of thousands of people are shaped and changed. The Sudanese boys would go first (see Refugee Reports, Vol. 22, No. 4). The Somali Bantus would wait three more years.

Whenever groups are selected for resettlement from among Africa's millions of refugees, the chosen ones become imbued with a special significance. All sorts of questions come up: Who are they? How do they live? What cultural traits do they have? What life experiences inform their understanding of the world? And how will all this translate into living in America? What will they need to help them acculturate into their new society? They will become our newest citizens. But what kind of Americans will they be? Their everyday rituals and actions suddenly become charged with meaning, as if by watching and listening one could discern answers to such questions.

Who are the Somali Bantus?

Dadaab's Somali Bantus are living reminders of the once-vast Indian Ocean slave trade. Their history as a distinct group began around the turn of the 18th century when their ancestors-from Malawi, Tanzania, and Mozambique were captured by the Sultan of Zanzibar and other slave lords and sold into Somalia, victims of the millennia of human trafficking in East Africa. Some were freed after many years, while others staged uprisings to gain their independence. Hereditary farmers, they eventually settled into Somalia's arable regions along the Juba River. With a population of around nine million, pre-civil war Somalia contained about 900,000 Bantu people. Most of these Bantus were integrated into society. Some arrived thousands of years ago as migratory farmers and see themselves as original Somalis. The Italian and British colonial administrations brought other Bantu people in as a workforce. All these Bantus were part of the fabric of Somali society and contributed to their country in political, religious, and artistic ways both during and after Siad Barre's post independence regime of 1969 to 1991. The Somali Bantus who will soon be resettled to the United States are different. They are the descendants of slaves and originate from one of six main tribes: Majindo, Makua, Manyasa, Yao, Zalama, and Zigua. They re collectively known as Mushungulis (a term taken from the Zigua tribe's word for people-Mzigula). The word holds multiple implied meanings including worker, foreigner, and slave.

Their slave origins, as well as their ethnic and cultural differences from native Somalis, always kept them a marginalized minority. (Somalis are Cushites, a mixture of African with Middle Eastern and Asian populations that occurred thousands of years ago. Bantus are an African people, often shorter, darker, and stockier than typical Somalis.) These Mushungulis did not integrate with other Bantu people before the Civil War. Very few have found opportunity beyond subsistence farming. Discrimination and poverty prevented access to schools, land ownership, and everyday rights.

In 1991, as civil war tore through Somalia, hostile militias descended on the Mushunguli farms. Isolated, without any clan affiliation or other protection, they suffered widespread massacre and rape. Thousands fled to Kenya, alongside other Bantu and ethnic Somali refugees. Non-Mushunguli Bantus started returning to Somalia as early as 1993. But the Mushungulis could not return. Warring militias had possessed their farms along the Juba River. They knew that inequity, menace, and death awaited them in the land in which they had sojourned for two centuries.

For over a decade, Dadaab, Kenya has been their home, where, ironically, they have found themselves among a Somali majority and again subject to discrimination and danger. A report by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) indicates that Somali Bantus are attacked more frequently in Dadaab than other refugees.

In 1997, UNHCR forged an agreement with the Mozambique government in an attempt to resettle the group to their ancestral homelands. The initiative went as far as a registration activity in Dadaab - all interested Somali Bantu signed onto Mozambique resettlement lists - before cancellation at the eleventh hour. A change in government and a lack of resources were cited as the main reasons.

Finally, in 1999, the U.S. government recognized the Somali Bantu plight and pledged to take these twice-displaced people. But an updated list, based on the original Mozambique list, would be needed. In November and December 2001, UNHCR carried out a resettlement verification exercise in Dadaab to identify all of the Somali Bantus who had indicated interest in going to Mozambique. These would be the "chosen ones" who would be given access the U.S. resettlement program.

Somali Bantu Interview Site

It's a two-hour flight from Nairobi to the small town of Dadaab, situated 60 miles from Somalia in the corner of Kenya's northeastern province. Three outlying refugee camps, Ifo, Hagadera and Dagahaley, sprawl across the windswept, desolate landscape.

In these camps, which are collectively referred to as Dadaab, 130,000 refugees cohabit with scorpions, snakes, and poisonous spiders. A vast sea of humanity lives within winding thorn-walled compounds and mud huts that bake under a blistering hot sun. Bandit attacks and malaria bouts are ordinary occurrences. One experienced aid worker dubbed Dadaab, "the worst place in the world."

The Somali Bantus have survived in Dadaab for ten years. In November 2001, hope swept through the community-the old promises and rumors of resettlement were finally taking concrete form. A UNHCR team had arrived to conduct resettlement interviews.

Walking into the interview site in the nongovernmental organization (NGO) compound of Dadaab refugee camp, the heat at eight o'clock in the morning crept over 100 degrees. On the scene: one thousand Somali Bantu refugees spread out in a small field, patiently waiting for their interviews. Women wearing vibrant and brightly colored wraps and hijabs brought an exceptional animation to the otherwise unremarkable area of land. An overwhelming number of infants and runny-nosed children were nursing, playing, sitting quietly, sleeping, squatting, and crying. They far outnumbered the adults. None of the children had footwear. Their bare, cracked, dust-covered feet were attached to spindly legs and small bodies covered by ragged, oversized shirts - the only article of clothing many wore.

"A woman is giving birth!" a young man yelled, running towards myself and Andrew Hopkins, the UNHCR Somali Bantu team leader. "OK, take her over to the hospital," Andrew replied with a calm tone that suggested he'd dealt with this before. "No, I mean the baby is coming now. The woman is on the floor ready to go," panted the man. We looked at the crowd standing around a small thatch-roof hut, where women shielded the windowless openings with colorful lengths of cloth, and raced off to find a doctor or midwife. The baby was born before we returned.

During the next five days, five women went into labor at the interview site. Somali Bantu women normally give birth at home, so the dirt floor of that hut at the edge of the field was not such an unusual place. Almost every woman of reproductive age in the group was either breast-feeding, pregnant, or both.

The Intake (Transporting Refugees to the Interview Site)

Security guards open a metal gate and a bus roars into the NGO compound at 4:30 in the morning. Twelve policemen armed with rifles pile in, followed by the UNHCR officials. Gunshots had ripped through the night air as I slept and I was feeling a little nervous - the reputation for insecurity and the shots fueled the sense of danger surrounding Dadaab. We are heading to Dagahaley camp, about 11 miles from the compound. This is a perilous hour - a time when bandits strike. Vehicles are never allowed into the camps without armed escorts, and special security arrangements needed to be made for a pre-dawn trip.

The bus rumbles through a sleepy Dadaab town with its sandy roads, dozing goats and little wooden kiosk-like shops, and then we are out on the still plain, bumping along through desolate parched country that becomes impassable mud during the short rainy season. We pass "MSF corner", a spot informally named for the NGO workers who were attacked and raped by bandits six years ago.

Thousands of Somali Bantus are lined up in Dagahaley camp in an impressively ordered and quiet manner. The sun is starting to peek over the horizon, just beginning to light the tops of acacia trees that spot the plain. The UNHCR intake officers start calling out names, checking ration cards and boarding people - women and children - onto the bus, men on the lorry. The policemen roam around, somewhat disinterested, rifles swinging by their sides creating an eerie and incongruous contrast with the wide-eyed children.

There are many non-Bantus waiting anxiously among these Somali Bantus who have been selected for resettlement. Going to America is the holy grail of refugee life. People will cajole, bribe, threaten and kill for the opportunity. Dadaab's other desperate refugees are angry that they have been neglected in this resettlement process. People have been devising schemes and strategies to access the program. When the resettlement interviews began, urban refugees from Nairobi arrived in droves, looking for opportunities to buy ration cards from people scheduled for an interview.

I watched as a UNHCR officer barred a family of five, a mother, father and three young children, from stepping onto the bus. "I'm sorry, you're Somali, not Somali Bantu. Even though you have the right ration card you're not getting on this bus, bye-bye." There were an estimated 25,000 people who tried to board the busses over the course of the interviews. About 15,000 were permitted to board the busses, which brought them to the verification site where they were interviewed. A total of 11,860 of these were approved for resettlement (although by the time that figure became public it had already changed due to the soaring birthrate).

Resettlement Interviews

All the interviewing officers were struck by the naivete of the Bantus. The majority had never been exposed to resettlement in a way that would influence their stories and responses. In Nairobi, urban refugees pay for coaching lessons before resettlement interviews. They often present stock stories and rehearsed responses, and there is never an empty slot in a family. If a real family member has passed away or is not present at the time of interview that slot can be sold for as much as $5,000. The Bantus spoke honestly about the people who had passed away or left Dadaab. To avoid fraud and to insure that the right people would continue the resettlement process, UNHCR staff took photos of every approved and rejected individual.

The Bantus' answers highlighted their disregard for time, dates and places. Most of the women did not know their age, the age of their children, the time when they arrived in Dadaab or the town names along their route of flight from Somalia to Kenya. The men were a little savvier about such details. In the first interview I observed, the interviewer asked the woman, "How old are you?" The woman responded, "30." The interview followed up with, "Are you 30 now, or were you 30 during the Mozambique registration?" The woman responded, "I was 30 then." "So how old are you now?" asked the interviewer. "I don't know. You can give me an age," said the Bantu woman to the interviewer.

They used events as time signifiers, often giving confusing responses to simple questions. "When was this child born?" was a question asked every day. "During the big rains," was a common response. Or, "During the cholera outbreak." The "big rains" turned out to be El Nino in 1997 to 1998. The cholera outbreak referred to any one of a number of outbreaks in southern Somalia since 1992.

"Where did you enter Kenya?" was another standard question. "At the big metal poles," or "where everyone else entered," were the primary answers. We quickly learned that the "big metal" was a reference to the border town of Liboi, where metal telephone towers reach into the sky. Gleaning even the most basic information required dexterous and lengthy questioning and became a chore of patience.

Home Visit

I interviewed Mohamed Mberwa, his wife Jamila, and their eight children on my first day. This was a fairly common sized family (four to six children is the norm, but eight is not unusual). They were representational in many ways - a large family with parents who were rural farmers, spoke no English and had no education - and agreed to my overture to come to their house the following morning.

The first visit to Dadaab refugee camp imprints itself on the memory. The sheer volume of human beings, all living in collapsing, disintegrating mud huts, is overwhelming. The heat is brutal. The poverty is an in-your-face reality at every turn. Ragged masses of children covered in dust swarm any stranger venturing in. Some of the children cry, terrified by the ghostly alien in their midst, while others sidle up to bravely touch an arm or leg.

The Mberwa family's living block (block D section B, Dagahaley camp) sits in a configuration and style unique to the Bantus. About 150 refugees live throughout this maze of chest-high mud-walled lanes, courtyards and huts. Multi-colored floral designs decorate the exterior of many shelters. The outer walls to this block are made of intertwined live thorn trees, which help to protect the inhabitants from roaming bandits and hyena after dark. The Mberwas lived off of one courtyard, with a sleeping hut and a kitchen hut, a nearby pit latrine, and a small area where some plants grew in what is commonly referred to as their "kitchen garden."

I walked into the courtyard at mealtime. The three youngest boys were sitting in the dirt around a large pot filled with cooked corn, eating with their hands. There were no utensils in sight. Many of the Bantus have never used a fork or a knife. Corn, beans, oil, salt and sometimes lentils sustain the family in a tasteless, barely adequate and non-variable refugee-ration diet. They would not recognize 99 percent of the food in American supermarkets.

The 10 by 14 foot sleeping hut held a raised hard mud bed covered by traditional Bantu mats. The whole family slept here, the youngest children on the bed with the mother and the rest spread out across the floor. "You see, we don't even have a door. A hyena could come in any night and steal one of my children," said Jamila, voicing a relentless and irrevocable nightmare that has plagued her since her youngest baby was taken by a hyena during their flight to Kenya. A twin child of Jamila's four year-old boy died of malaria as an infant.

Mohamed, the father, was out roaming the Somali blocks and staying near the NGO compounds in the hopes of being hired for some menial job.

Somali Bantus are self-described hard workers, ready to take on any manual labor jobs. "The Somalis here don't let us start our own businesses," Mohamed had told me. "In Somalia, we were only allowed to be farmers and manual laborers, and it's the same kind of thing in Dadaab." Bantus make up slightly more than 10 percent of Dadaab's 130,000 refugees, but they occupy over 90 percent of the construction, cooking, cleaning and other manual labor jobs provided by NGOs. Urban Bantus in Somalia have earned reputations as skilled mechanics and technicians.

The three oldest boys - 18, 16, and 12 years old - were out socializing at the Dagahaley market area. Muslima, the 13 year old daughter, was home helping her mother take care of the children. Muslima, tall for her age and thin, wore a bright red, white, and black homemade dress (one of her two pieces of clothing) and a green head covering. A traditional Bantu white bead necklace hung loosely around her neck. Her bare feet and hands were thick and calloused.

I followed Muslima through her litany of daily chores and watched the activities that had swollen and hardened those hands despite her young years. She pounded the corn rations into meal with a heavy, flat-headed three-foot stick. Then we walked two hundred yards out of the block to the water spigot. After filling up two five-gallon jerry cans of water, she tied a rope through one and looped it across her forehead so the weight rested on her head and shoulders. This water would be used today and tomorrow morning to cook and bathe. Lifting the other can into her arms she gracefully walked back to the kitchen and then went to fetch firewood from a pile nearby.

Before 1998 Dadaab's refugees needed to forage up to three miles from their compounds in order to collect enough firewood to survive. Bandits attacked and raped women regularly. Men were killed so they simply refused to go out. The devastatingly high number of attacks motivated the U.S. government to fund a firewood program, which helped to reduce the high incidence of rape. Most women would never report rape because doing so would lead to rejection and ostracism from the community.

Muslima bundled wood into her arms and then showed me the cooking routine. Flames heated pots that rested on tripods of rocks. Neatly stacked cookery and plastic water basins sat on the dirt and ash kitchen floor. There was no refrigeration, no stove, no water tap, and no cabinets. Everything about an American kitchen will be alien.


Muslima goes to school sporadically, when she can find the time between all her house chores and watching the children. She's managed to attain a fourth grade education. But in three years she will have reached marriage age (16 is the norm for these Bantus) and might start bearing her own children. Her brothers have been in school in Dadaab. Two of them speak some English. Most of the school-age boys attended primary or secondary education. Not many of the girls have time for school, as most had chores similar to those of Muslima.

Some of the younger adults have finished high school. The majority have never been to a day of school in their lives. Holding a pen between fingers is an unknown sensation for Mohamed and Jamila. Mohamed said that he started working on the farm in Somalia when he was eight. His schoolhouse was the sun, wind, rain and corn crops. He learned how to work all day, how to judge weather and how to pay careful attention to the quality of the corn. He knows that the lack of education is what has kept the Mushungulis in subsistence, poverty-stricken lives. "We never had a chance for education in Somalia. They didn't want us to go to school. Because of this we could only work in the manual jobs."

Medical Practices

If you look closely you can see three burn marks in Mohamed's forehead. Two of his children have the same scars. This is how the Somali Bantus (and many other rural Somali people) counter hydrocephalus, a condition in which a child is born with an enlarged head due to fluid accumulation. A searing hot flat piece of metal is applied three times to the baby's forehead in the belief that these burns will help to reduce the head back to normal size.

Mohamed's oldest son, Abukar, had round scars on his chest. The practice of cupping - heating a cup and placing it on a sore part of the body - is common throughout the community. The marks of this traditional practice, employed to alleviate pain, are visible on many people.

Jamila tended a small area near the kitchen where plants sprouted delicately from the ground. Some of the greenery was used to supplement the food rations on special occasions, while other plants were used for medicinal purposes. One plant served to ease headaches, pains and fevers when ground up and boiled. The special Bantu-bestowed named for this plant was Solbokojini, which translates loosely into "fight with the Djini."

Superstitious Beliefs

Spirits and a belief in the preternatural play a powerful role in the lives of the Bantus. Mothers with infants under 40 days old often carry around a metallic object that serves to protect the newborn from evil spirits.

Witchmen are the go-between for the Bantus and the world of spirits, demons and magic. If a Bantu wants something in particular he will go to a witchman, who can be hired to curse, bless, kill, cure, tell the future or for a variety of other uses. According to the Bantu belief system a witchman can withhold your sexual appetite for months on end or measure out your footsteps and cast a spell that will make you disappear. A witchman can charm a crocodile to capture a woman fetching water on the opposite bank of the river and bring her to you. These wielders of magic speak the tongue of the Djinn, a language known only to themselves. If a witchman splashes mongoose blood on your camel, your kettle, or another possession and utters the right incantations, you will die.

These are some of the examples of the rich world of spiritual magic that inform the Bantus' daily life. Such beliefs serve as a mechanism to understanding incomprehensible or improbable occurrences, to explain behavior, and to justify hardship or happiness. This is not a Bantu-specific worldview. Many refugees and immigrants across the United States have arrived with similar beliefs.

Departure Preparations

The witchmen have cast spells that help to protect the Bantus during this time of excitement and increased tension and danger. The U.S. government also played its part to insure the Bantus' safety. It was decided that security concerns involved in extricating this minority group from a vast and resentful refugee population in Dadaab dictated extraordinary measures.

Instead of processing the resettlement applications of the Somali Bantus in Dadaab, the decision was made to move them to the Kakuma refugee camp, a 900-mile, three-day road trip across bandit-ridden northeastern Kenya. Dadaab's proximity to Somalia and possible future antiterrorist strikes against Somalia lent credence to this processing plan. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) was charged with building a new camp in Kakuma and transporting the Bantus whose cases could be considered.

By the end of December 2001, the verification exercise was complete. A total of 11,860 Bantus had been carefully selected. In May 2002, UNHCR forwarded the list and photos to the Joint Voluntary Agency, which in turn, provided IOM with the information. By June, the largest single group of African refugees to be considered for U.S. resettlement in America's history began to move.

IOM posted the transport list and held a travel verification check, calling in the heads of families and asking if they were ready to go. A transit center in Ifo camp had been constructed with barbed-wire fencing, a generator to keep the lights on throughout the night and eight large structures, each of which could accommodate well over 100 people.

On June 26, about 300 Bantus lined up outside the transit center. They carried old, 100-pound corn sacks bursting with pots and pans, mattresses, clothes, hand-woven mats, lanterns, a rare disassembled bicycle, the occasional disassembled donkey cart and other goods. They did not seem nervous or anxious, but rather maintained a calm presence that the resettlement team was starting to associate with these Bantus. At nine o'clock in the morning the final process began.

Family by family the Bantus passed through the only entrance to the transit center and lined up at a table for a photo match. Almost every woman held an infant in her arms. The small children clutched the edge of the table and peered up at the IOM staff. Then the families passed through a medical screening. The sick, the pregnant women, the newborns and other elderly or handicapped were identified for a future flight to Kakuma. In all, 269 were fit to travel. The others would wait for the first plane transport. Once the screening was finished, it was time for lunch and diaper training.

A group of mothers and children gathered around the diaper trainer. A test baby was selected from the group. As the trainer wrapped this strange and unknown disposable white diaper around the baby, it started screaming in terrified protest. The mothers looked on, amused and interested. Little children hid behind their mothers' legs and peeked out with fear and curiosity. The diapers quickly became known as "little shorts." Throughout the three months of convoys, no matter how often we explained the intended use of these "little shorts," the mothers always kept them clean, removing them when an infant needed to go to the bathroom.

On June 27, the IOM team arrived at the Ifo transit center before sunrise in order to board everyone and get through Dadaab town as quickly as possible. Tension had been mounting among the greater refugee population not identified for resettlement and among locals. One day earlier a human roadblock had formed in Dadaab town, stopping the IOM vehicles and pelting them with fruit and stones. Someone had spread false rumors, saying that IOM had brought in some 200 foreign staff instead of hiring locals. (In fact, more than half of the 15 staff employed for the first movement were from Dadaab and the outlying area.) The incident had scared the team. The convoy wanted to be far away from Dadaab by the time the town woke up.

Seventy gun-toting police officers had been deployed to patrol the camps at night, watch over the transit center and escort the busses up to Kakuma. A group of police was on hand as the final boarding began. In a wonderful display of organization and quiet discipline, the Bantus lined themselves up, went through a final photo ID and stepped onto the busses. Two little girls screamed in protest as their parents tried to carry them into what they perceived as behemoth alien machines. One old woman sat in her seat backwards, legs facing the backrest.

Convoy to Kakuma

The convoy passed through Dadaab town without incident. As the refugee camps faded into the distance, unusual thoughts and sensations swept over the group. People threw up, unused to the motion and bump of the bus. These Bantus were effectively leaving behind a history of discrimination and a decade of terror. The relief, sense of liberation, and excitement were tangible. One man turned to me and said, "The Somalis in Dadaab are saying 'who will build our latrines now?' They even want to marry us now, which is strange because they never wanted to marry us before."

For one woman, a first flavor of the world beyond her 10-year exile presented itself in the form of a coke bottle passed into the bus by a vendor. She took a sip and grimaced; she'd never tasted a soda in her life. Ten other women around me admitted to never having tried a soda either. No one on my bus had ever watched television. Sodas and television are small but obtainable luxuries in Dadaab. Movie houses (wood and thatch structures with generator-run electricity) cost about ten cents. The lack of knowledge of such small comforts spoke to their extreme level of destitution.

As we entered Garissa, a large town two hours from Dadaab, faces were glued to windows, taking in the typical Kenyan town scene. "Have you ever been outside of Dadaab?" I asked one woman. "No," she said, "In the last ten years, I've never even been into Dadaab town (four miles from her camp). I've stayed in Ifo for most of my life."

Many of these Bantus have never seen a two-story building, let alone electricity, a paved road, or anything that relates to a modern city. The next day, as we traveled through Nairobi, you could see their eyes soak in the traffic, the tall buildings, the constant bustle of crowds, cell phones, and numerous other trivial and mundane details that appeared extraordinary.

Two overnight stops and three days on the road took their toll. The unfamiliar cold weather - dipping down into the low 60s near Nairobi - added to the weariness. After 900 miles, stretches of indescribably dysfunctional road, lots of motion sickness, and a beautiful tour of Kenya's countryside, Kakuma camp, with its 80,000 refugees, loomed in the distance.

The various Kakuma-based NGOs were prepared. The 269 Bantus flowed quickly through medical checks and registration activities and were assigned homes in the new camp of 2,500 mud-brick huts. Kakuma was as hot as Dadaab, and the strong wind blew dust in everyone's face. The Bantus settled into their new homes. The next day, they began building small additions in a remarkable display of industry, adaptability, and acceptance of their surroundings.

Over the following months, the transports grew to more than six hundred people. On September 27, 2002, the final busses a