The ancestors of the Somali Bantu population formed farming communities along the fertile Jubba Valley riverbed in southern Somalia starting in the mid-19th century. Unlike the ethnic Somalis who are primarily nomadic herders, the ancestors of the Somali Bantus were subsistence farmers. Knowledge of and expertise in identifying with their environment was not only important but also necessary for their survival in Somalia. Regardless of droughts and floods, the farmers cultivated sorghum, corn, rice and sesame as well as fruits and vegetables in order to support their families. Farming together and producing food as an efficient unit provided a strong structure of community. Families lived together in close huts in small communities. There was little institutionalized education in their villages. Children were taught their Muslim faith but their villages lacked required formal education.
Families in the farming villages created many structures for collective support. Women joined together in large groups to prepare food for village feasts and marriage ceremonies. Families shared labor during the busy weeding and harvesting seasons of the year. The young men's work association, the barbar, assisted elderly and ill villagers with farming and domestic needs. Villagers came together in large meetings to make political decisions, celebrate births and marriages, mourn deaths, and often congregated for religious ceremonies.
When Somali Bantu families fled the violence of the civil war for refugee camps in Kenya, their lives changed dramatically. In the camps, Somali Bantu refugees continue their cultural traditions but can no longer cultivate food or live in close kinship with the environment. Families are split in the refugee approval process and members are left behind without their familial and communal support groups. Because of these factors which splinter communities, the Somali Bantus tightly embrace their religious heritage and the few family members who remain with them.
Somali and Somali Bantus accepted by the United States refugee relocation program are typically sent to large cities where organizations sponsor them for few months as they begin the task of acclimating to American culture and norms. These months are confusing. With little outside support or widespread knowledge of their history, all that the refugees have are their few belongings and their families and relatives. Because of their close kinship ties, many Somali Bantus have congregated in certain cities in the United States in order to recreate a more tightly-knit community structure. A Somali-Bantu spokesperson and community elder in Maine, Sheikh Mohamed, discussed his family's initial refugee placement in Syracuse, New York. The city was daunting, loud, and too large for him to feel comfortable. After a short stint in New York, he moved with his wife and five children to the smaller Lewiston, Maine. A small city that was beginning to host a number of Somali Bantus, Sheikh is happy about the transition he made to Maine: "Here I feel safe. When I am here, I am comfortable. In Syracuse this was not the case."
Somalis who have chosen to live in Lewiston have taken on a number of unexpected challenges. The weather is one of them. Many were shocked by the cold and faced difficulties keeping warm outside and paying such high heating costs for their apartments in the winter. The transition to a cash economy has posed challenges to people who met their needs with a barter system or a subsistence lifestyle. It is a daily challenges for illiterate Somalis to sort though mail, taxes, and community announcements. With the help of their English-speaking children and educated members of the community they provide support and information for one another.
This community profoundly depends on one another for support. Somalis and Somali Bantus have been relocating to the second largest city in Maine, Lewiston, since February of 2001. A small, manageable city with a sizable number of public housing facilities and employment opportunities in the nearby city of Freeport, Lewiston today is home to about a thousand Somali Bantu refugees and several thousand more Somalis.
Since many refugees arrived in Lewiston will no English language or literacy skills, children and adults alike have flocked to English Language Learner (ELL) programs in the public schools and the local Multipurpose Center. Education is very important to this community: community leader, Sheikh Mohamed, finds the system of local education the most rewarding aspect of American culture. Adult education programs in the community center are free of charge and consistently full of eager and hard-working Somali and Somali Bantu adults looking to learn English and gain basic employment skills.
Somalis and Somali Bantus have been an important addition to Lewiston's ever-changing identity. Although incidents of misunderstanding certainly have occurred, relations among native Mainers and the new Mainers are generally tolerant. As a testament, in January of 2003 a group of 4,000 citizens marched in Lewiston against a demonstration of 32 people supporting anti-Somali sentiment. When the Somali Bantu community created a summer camp in summer 2007, dozens of native Mainers volunteered to help.
Because of their unique history, common heritage and necessity for strong familial connections, the Somali Bantu population fosters a sense of community wherever they are. Apartments of Somali Bantus are elaborately decorated with Somali tapestries and decorations. Madina Farah is a hardworking mother who attends English classes five hours a week continues to cook with the Somali Bantu staple foods that her husband buys at the new Somali Bantu grocery store on Lisbon Street. Rice, cardamom and sesame oil reminds her of the home she left behind. Like the other Bantus of the community, she dresses in traditional Somali Bantu clothing and continues to provide her five children with an environment where they can honor their native roots while playing an active role in their new society.