Who are the Bantu? [ top of page ]
The term “Bantu” is used as a general label for over 300 ethnic groups in Africa. They make up a major part of the population of nearly all African countries south of the Sahara. Among the best-known groups are the Swahili, located throughout eastern Africa, and the Zulu, predominantly in South Africa. The Bantu are known more as a language group, however, than a distinct ethnic group. The people that comprise this group are placed there because they share a common language family and similar social customs. Though they belong to a variety of different tribes, the Bantu refugees in the United States generically refer to themselves as the Bantu.
Who are the Somali Bantu? Where did they come from? [ top of page ]
In recent years, the Somali government has promoted the notion that Somalia is a homogeneous country, but Somalia is actually comprised of several different groups. The Somali population is estimated at about 7.5 million people, of those, the Somali Bantu population is estimated at about 600,000.
The Somali Bantu came in two waves and belong to three distinct groups:
- Those who are indigenous to Somalia
- Those who were brought to Somalia as slaves but integrated somewhat into Somali society
- Those who were brought to Somalia as slaves but maintained their ancestral culture and languages
The first wave of Somali Bantu came to Somalia centuries ago during what is recognized as one of Africa’s major migrations. During this time, Bantu-speaking peoples trekked eastwards from the west and central parts of Africa where a sizable portion of them settled in the Sub-Sahara region.
The second wave of Somali Bantu came during the 18th and 19th centuries and are principally descended from six African Tribes: the Yao, Makua, Nyanja, Ngidono, Zigua and Zaramo. The Sultan of Oman, Sayyid Said, whose sovereignty extended from northern Mozambique to southern Somalia, regularly abducted Africans from these areas and forced them into the slave trade. During this time, Arab slavers captured and shipped thousands of Bantu men, women, and children via Zanzibar’s slave market. Although many of these slaves were sold to European buyers, some slaves were sold to Africans on the continent, Somalia included.
One common story among many of the Somali Bantu is that their ancestors were actually tricked into slavery. In the late 1830s, there were several years of drought in Tanzania that resulted in widespread starvation. Many Africans, in the hope of averting their families’ untimely demise, accepted promises of wage labor in a distant land. When promises of a better life failed to entice them anymore, the Arab slave traders, and their African accomplices, used brute force. Those that were enticed/forced from their homes were sold as slaves once they landed in Somalia.
When was slavery abolished in Somalia? [ top of page ]
Slavery trickled out of Somalia slowly. In 1895, 45 slaves were freed by the Italian colonial authority under the administration of the chartered company, V. Filonardi. Massive emancipation only began, however, after the antislavery activist Robecchi Bricchetti informed the Italian public about the slave trade in Somalia and the indifferent attitude of the Italian colonial government. Officially, slavery lasted until early in the 20th century when it was abolished by the Italian colonial authority in accordance with the Belgium protocol. There were some inland groups, however, who were not freed until the 1930s.
Though slavery was abolished in the early part of the 20th century, in the mid-1930s, the Italian colonial authority introduced coerced labor laws and the conscription of the freed slaves in the agricultural industry. The newly freed Bantu were expected to work as farm laborers on over 100 plantations owned by the Italian colonial government. The Bantu were forced to abandon their own farms to live in government established villages around the Italian plantations. Over time, some Bantu were able to migrate to large Somali cities where they found jobs as manual laborers and sometimes, semi-skilled tradesmen.
What is the Bantu life like in Somalia? [ top of page ]
Even though they have been living in Somalia for over two centuries, the Somali Bantu are, in many ways, viewed and treated as foreigners. While those that arrived during the early migrations are, by this time, integrated into Somali society, those that arrived via slavery have a tougher life. They live in mud-plaster huts and most have never been in a town or seen a building taller than two stories. Excluded from mainstream society, many Bantu have retained their ancestral social structures. For many, this means that their east African tribe of origin is the main form of social organization. While some Bantu who have lost their language and culture have attempted to integrate into the dominant Somali clan social structure, they are viewed as inferior members. On the whole, the Bantu are subjected to discrimination and are often excluded from political, economic and educational advancement. Several physical features are used as means to distinguish between who gets persecuted and who does not: the Bantu have dark skin and heavy features while the Somalis are lighter skinned and have sharply angular faces.
Many Bantu say that life became more difficult for them after Somalia became independent from colonial rule in 1960. Though the Somali government made declarations in the 1970s that tribalism should be abolished, discrimination against the Bantu continued and from the 1970s until the early 1980s, the Somali government forcibly conscripted Bantu into the military.
Civil War broke out in Somalia following the 1991 overthrow of Dictator Mohamed Siyaad Barre’s regime, having disastrous results for the population in general and the Bantu people in particular. As society broke down between 1991 and 1992, the agricultural market began to cease normal operations. Because the Bantu were the backbone of the agricultural production in southern Somalia, they had large stocks of food on their property. As hunger increased, food grew increasingly more valued among the population and among bandits and rogue militias. Because the Bantu were excluded from the traditional Somali clan protection network, these bandits were able to attack the Bantu, stealing food stocks, as well as robbing, raping, and murdering Bantu farmers.
How did the Somali Bantu come to be resettled in the US? [ top of page ]
As the Civil War progressed, more and more havoc was wrecked on the Bantu farming communities. In October of 1992, the Bantu began to flee en masse for refugee camps located in Kenya’s Northeastern Province. By January, 1994, an estimated 10,000 Bantu were living in these camps, known collectively as Dadaab. Many more traveled by sea to camps in Mozambique. In light of the persecution that the Somali Bantu would face if they returned home, UNHCR began making attempts to resettle them. While the Bantu initially sought resettlement to Tanzania, the land of their ancestors, and then Mozambique, both countries refused to resettle them citing internal problems.
How many Somali Bantu refugees live in the United States? [ top of page ]
In late 2002 and early 2003, nearly 12,000 Somali Bantu were approved by the United States for resettlement in the largest resettlement program ever undertaken out of Africa.
For more information:
The Somali Bantu: Their History and Culture by Dan Van Lehman and Omar Eno of the Center for Applied Linguistics: [more info - pdf ]