Old Rivalries End in New Land
Back in the Horn of Africa, ethnic Somalis often treated Hussein Abdi’s ethnic group with disdain.
“We just worked for them,” Abdi, 28, recalled. “I felt under them.... Sometimes they called us ‘slave.’ ”
Abdi is a Bantu, and Somalis once kept Bantus as slaves.
But as Abdi and other refugees from Somalia continue to settle in San Diego, Bantus and Somalis are recognizing that their similarities matter more than their differences. They share a common language, religion and traditions, and those cultural bonds are helping them build new lives together in their adopted country.
Somalis and Bantus are “all the same,” said Isha Mberwa, 25, Abdi’s wife. “Here ... there is no difference.”
Old country rivalries -- clan politics and competition for water and grazing land -- have been replaced by the everyday challenges of living in America, said Abdi Mohamoud, executive director of the Horn of Africa Community in North America.
“You don’t have those same dynamics to deal with here,” added Mohamoud, whose San Diego-based organization assists Somali newcomers. “Everyone is just trying to survive.”
It’s a grimmer reality in Somalia, where the animosity between Bantus and Somalis goes back generations.
Arab-Omani slave traders took the Bantus’ ancestors to Somalia in the 1800s from what are today Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania. They were forced to labor on farms or to work as servants in private homes.
The word “Bantu” refers to more than 300 ethnic groups in sub-Saharan Africa who are united by tongues from the same family of languages and in many cases share common customs. Lacking blood ties to mainstream Somali clans and endowed with typically broader features and darker skin than Somalis, Bantus were often ostracized and marginalized.
“The salient, ultimate criteria of integration is whether or not you are allowed to intermarry,” said Rutgers University African history professor Said Samatar. Bantus were rarely permitted to marry into Somali families.
Ethnic Somalis typically have angular facial features and soft curly hair and tend to be taller than Bantus. Anthropologically classified as Hamites -- African people of Caucasoid descent -- they believe they descend from two fabled brothers who belonged to the same Arabian ethnic group as the prophet Muhammad.
Slavery in Somalia ended during the Italian colonization of East Africa in the late 19th century. By that time, the Bantus there had converted to Islam and adopted Somali culture and language, but the hostility lingered.
To this day, Somalis in Africa sometimes derisively call Bantus jareer, which means kinky. Bantus, who tend to have tightly curled hair, question the masculinity of Somali men by calling them jilec, or soft hair. Having soft hair, Samatar said, denotes femininity.
Ethnic Somalis were the first to arrive in San Diego when Somalia’s government collapsed in the early 1990s, after the outbreak of civil war.
An estimated 6,000 to 8,000 Somalis have settled primarily in the City Heights neighborhood, centering on a stretch of University Avenue that many refer to as Little Mogadishu, after Somalia’s capital.
Renowned for their business acumen, Somalis quickly opened and obtained franchises for shops and sidewalk cafes, transforming the area into a vibrant African enclave.
Rapturous rhythms and soothing melodies, sung to the tune of the traditional Somali four-stringed guitar-like kaban, drift out of some storefronts.
Women dressed in brightly colored scarves and jilbabs -- a strip of cloth that covers the head and neck and hangs to the waist -- flutter in and out of the stores while men wearing long skirt-like wraps and box-shaped skullcaps huddle on street corners and at cafes.
In 1999, the U.S. designated Somalia’s Bantus a persecuted group and granted about 12,000 the opportunity to move to America.
When Abdi learned that he and his family had won the opportunity to settle in America, he bought and slaughtered a goat to celebrate.
“I was thinking it would be a safe place, a place where I can get an education for my children, a place where I can build my own future,” said Abdi, a man of small stature with a shy, boyish grin and cheerful disposition.
Abdi and his wife, who had lived in Kenyan refugee camps for 14 years, were among the 374 Bantus resettled here last year. They are raising four children and, between them, earn about $18 an hour, he as a landscaper at a casino, she in child care.
Adjusting to life in America has not been easy.
Among the rudimentary lessons given to the Bantus during a 10-hour cultural seminar shortly after they arrived in San Diego were tips on how to flush a toilet, how to run a vacuum cleaner and where to buy food. Few can read and write in Somali, and very few speak English.
“Our initial program had to be very hands-on ... from crossing the road to turning on a light switch,” said Michael J. McKay, director for refugee and immigrant services at the San Diego branch of Catholic Charities.
Abdi, who rents a small two-bedroom apartment, had never owned a key, never slept on a bed.
“I was afraid of the stove, and so afraid to go outside,” Abdi said through an interpreter, recalling his first days in the United States last October. Used to scrubbing clothes in a bucket or kneeling by a stream, his wife needed weeks to pluck up the courage to use the washing machine.
The first time Abdi took a shower, he stood frozen in fascination, wondering where the gushing water came from. He almost scorched his skin because he didn’t know how to adjust the temperature.
Like other Bantus, he had suffered persecution in Somalia, and the Somali authorities unofficially sanctioned the mistreatment by not intervening to protect Bantus, Abdi said.
Life in the refugee camps brought equal anguish -- malnourishment, disease and violence. Fights often broke out between Somali and Bantu refugees.
Such conflict is unfathomable here. Somali caseworkers were among those who showed Abdi how to shop and how to ride the bus. A Somali acted as a personal interpreter. A Somali social worker regularly visits the family to check on their well-being.
“Here in America, I don’t see any problems. And I’m not expecting any problems,” Abdi said during a break from an English class offered by the San Diego Community College District that he attends on Mondays. He added: “Here we are getting to know each other, person to person.”
Across town, in a first-floor apartment, the walls draped in traditional Somali fashion with white lace, Shukri Abdi -- no relation to Hussein Abdi -- suppressed tears as she recounted one of her past experiences with Somalis.
Shortly after the Somalian civil war broke out, Somali bandits stopped her first husband on the street. They robbed and killed him, she recalled, her eyes moistening.
“There was no security,” she said of the civil war, as she gently cradled 6-month-old Naema. “There was no safe place.”
Shukri Abdi fled to Kenya in 1995 and arrived in San Diego with her six children last October. Her new husband remains in Kenya.
Today, the 33-year-old mother said she is no longer bitter toward Somalis, who generally treat her with respect in America.
Bantu refugees from Somalia tend to refer to themselves as Somali Bantus and to their countrymen as Somali Somalis. But she now drops the word “Bantu” when strangers ask her nationality.
“When we came here,” she said, “we just saw ourselves as being Somali.”
Still, many Bantus are keen to preserve some sense of their identity and in April created a group called the Somali Bantu Community of San Diego. They also want to show that they can help themselves.
Hamadi Madisa, the group’s chairman, spent 12 years in Kenyan refugee camps before immigrating to America more than a year ago. He said Somalis in the United States had “adjusted their character” and were friendlier than those he had known in Africa.
“They help us now,” said Madisa. “But we want to have our own organization to help ourselves.”
Within the borders of Little Mogadishu, the groups meet daily, and that interaction often generates gestures of kindness that make getting by a little easier.
At the Minne HaHa corner grocery store one recent afternoon, Bantu newcomer Marian Ragu looked confused when she arrived at the counter toting a packet of meat. She was struggling to decipher how to operate the keypad for the food debit card that most refugees are given when they arrive.
Halima Yusuf, a Somali, rushed to her aid, demonstrating how to press the numbers. Yusuf said she was pleased to help.
“We have the same religion,” she observed. “We have the same language. When we come here, we are all the same.”
The Somali owner of the store and another nearby market, Abdikadir Osman, agreed.
Although he acknowledged that older-generation Somalis might still harbor prejudices against Bantus, “the culture of discrimination is gradually disappearing,” he said.
Osman has stocked the shelves of his shop with delicacies from the home country, such as corn flour to make anjera, a traditional bread staple, and halal, meat prepared in accordance with Muslim dietary regulations. He also has typical American products and often assists Bantu shoppers with selecting unfamiliar food items, like soup packets and made-in-a-minute box meals.
He said his family was among more than 100 Somalis who donated new clothes, including jilbabs, and money to Bantus so they could celebrate the Muslim festival of Eid-adha in January.
When he needed to build an office at one of his markets, Osman hired a Bantu he had met shopping in his store. He and other Somalis also shuttle Bantus, most of whom can’t drive, back and forth to the store.
“It’s very rewarding,” said Osman, a father of six.
In the lobby of the San Diego Department of Health and Human Services recently, Hassan Buruka, a Bantu, looked admiringly across the long table at Fatoun Ali, a Somali, as he sang her praises.
“She is a good lady,” he said of the Somali caseworker who helped the Buruka family apply for welfare and acted as interpreter. “She helps us. What would have happened if I came myself? I wouldn’t even know what door to enter.”
“They are very happy to see that we are here for them,” said Ali, who came to America in 1998.
Not long ago, Buruka, 40, would have shunned someone like Ali because, as he put it: “I have reason to have problems with Somalis.”
In 1991, he watched as Somali bandits gunned down his mother and his 4-year-old daughter from his first marriage at the family farm. Tied up by the robbers, there was nothing Buruka could do. Other Somali militiamen killed his father.
But that was in Somalia.
“Here the story is different,” said Buruka, who moved to San Diego in May. “They are my brothers. That’s the reason I moved here. I wanted to find Somalis to help me, to be with Somalis.”
Times staff photographer Francine Orr contributed to this report.