The Somali Bantus live in the region of the Juba and Shabelle rivers. They have been there since the time of the Arab slave trade, when their ancestors were taken as slaves from Tanzania. The total population is unknown, but may number up to one million. Since their arrival in the Somali territories, they have been exploited, socially outcast, and subject to various abuses. The plight of Somali Bantus was highlighted in 2003 when, as refugees from the Somali conflict, 12,000 were repatriated as refugees to the USA. Other than this, the Somali Bantus have received little news attention.
Ethnically, culturally, and linguistically different from the Somalis, the Somali Bantus live severely repressed lives. They are relegated to performing the most menial, arduous jobs, and endure the worst living conditions, with no political representation. Somali Bantus speak a mixture of languages. Whilst many speak the Bantu languages of their ancestors, a large number speak Af-Maay, a version of Somali specific to the Juba-Shabelle region. Somalia's language of government and education is Af-Maxaa, made official by the regime of Siad Barre. His government sought to present a homogenised Somalia, ignoring the minorities which constitute up to one third of the country's populace. As a result of this linguistic discrimination, most Somali Bantus are illiterate. The cycle is perpetuated by the occupation of menial jobs in which literacy is not necessary. Further, institutional discrimination prevents the provision of educational facilities in Somali Bantu regions, and the few who receive education are deliberately prevented from progressing. As a result, it has been estimated that only 5% of Somali Bantus have received any kind of formal education.
Aside from the linguistic differences, Somali Bantus have cultural practices which differ from those of the ethnic Somali. Although many are Muslim, they retain some aspects of animistic religious practices. It has been written that Somali Bantus converted to Islam upon their arrival in the Somali territories as slaves. This has been attributed to the tradition that Muslims may not own other Muslims as slaves. The Islam practised by many Somali Bantus, in addition to syncretising elements from their ancestral homelands, is more socially liberal than that practised by other Somalis. As a result, some view Somali Bantu Islam as unorthodox. The hijab, for example, is not ubiquitous, as it is in ethnic Somali regions. Some Somali Bantus practice Christianity, to which they converted in refugee camps. This is a recent development in Somali Bantu culture.
As a repressed and alienated minority in Somalia, intermarriage with other groups is unheard-of, and the Bantu group continues to suffer from neglect and discrimination. Occupation of the worst jobs, extreme impoverishment, illiteracy and deprivation of the most basic provisions seem to relegate the group to further misery.
Somali Bantus were amongst the hundreds of thousands displaced from southern Somalia by the conflict over the past two decades. They fled to the numerous refugee camps in northern Kenya, in which conditions were worse than those they left. The situation deteriorated to the extent that the USA intervened on humanitarian grounds, flying twelve thousand to various towns and cities, including Boston and San Diego. There, Somali Bantus have enjoyed previously unimaginable liberties.
The US is not the only country to have opened its doors to Somali Bantus. Tanzania granted citizenship to 3,000 Somali Bantu refugees in 2003 and many more since then, recognising their claims to an ancestral homeland in the country. The process was aided by the fact that many Somali Bantus speak Tanzanian languages and have cultural affinities with communities in certain regions of the country. This migration is part of a reversal of the journey made by the Somali Bantus' slave ancestors two hundred years ago. Whilst some refugees travelled by sea to Mombasa, others continued to the regions in Tanzania that their ancestors had left as slaves. Refugee families in Tanzania receive land to farm, and are sometimes housed in purpose-built villages; their indigenous neighbours report on the ease of assimilation.
Whilst the thousands of Somali Bantus who left Somalia reap the benefits of more liberated lives – as citizens of countries in which they do not experience the same institutional discrimination as before – hundreds of thousands remain in Somalia and the refugee camps beyond. The prospect of an end to centuries of deliberate exclusion and deprivation ending seems remote, and the cycle of discrimination and impoverishment will continue.