Somalia's Bantus demand rights | Africa | Worldbulletin News
Between the two only permanent rivers in arid Somalia, the Juba and Shabelle, lays one of the most fertile lands in the continent.
For years, it has made Somalia the highest producer of bananas in Africa.
It is Somalia's food basket and a land that has been fought over by successive warlords during two decades of war.
This is the home of a minority community known as the "Jareerwayne," or Somali Bantu, who number one million out of the country's population of 10 million, according to the UNHCR.
Unlike their pastoralist neighbors, Bantus are a farming community.
The Bantus, or "jareerwayne" as they prefer to call themselves, are also different in physical appearance.
They share negroid features of wooly hair and broad noses – unlike ethnic Somalis, who have Caucasoid features like milky hair and straight noses.
"Our ancestors were brought to Somalia from Tanzania, Mozambique and Malawi as slaves more than 400 years ago, mostly to toil on the fertile land along the Shabelle and Juba," Hussein Abdi, a 36-year-old Somali Bantu living as a refugee in Nairobi's mainly Somali Eastleigh district, told the Anadolu Agency.
But even after the abolition of slavery and Somalia's independence from Italy in 1960, the ethnic minority, which has been vital to the national economy, has felt marginalized.
"I fled Mogadishu ten years ago and sought refuge in Kenya," said Ahmed.
"I couldn't take the fighting anymore, but above all I couldn't live like I was – a second-class citizen with no rights," he lamented. "We are always looked down upon in Somalia."
The community has in the past been sidelined in terms of decision making.
"Since our independence, we have never had a jarerwayne become a president, a parliament speaker, a prime minister, an army general or even an ambassador," said Tiidow Hassan, a Somali Bantu community activist currently living in Sweden.
"They have kept us away from the government and political system," he told AA by phone. "The system based on equal share is a mirage."
The Somali civil war led to a large exodus of Somali Bantus who crossed over to Kenya, while others –who could trace their original tribes back to the time before their ancestors were sold in the Zanzibar slave market by Arabs and Swahilis – were resettled in Tanzania.
Most of their homes back in Somalia were destroyed by invading clan militias and their farms taken by new migrating Somali clans.
Alleged persecution by the larger Somali community, a heritage of slavery, and the fact that they had no clan militia to protect them made the international community give priority to the settlement of Somali Bantus abroad.
Today, the community diaspora stretches from Minnesota in the U.S. to Scandinavia, the U.K. and Australia
"I was forced to flee my country. I risked my life living in Somalia," Hassan Haji Musa, who has lived in Sweden for 12 years, told AA.
"The persecution and the war left me with two choices: to leave Somalia or carry a gun and become a rebel," said Musa. "I chose to flee."
Democracy, respect for human rights and freedom were a whole new experience for the Somali Bantus when they settled in the West.
"We were not brave enough to have publicly made our grievances known," said Shariffa Iftin, a community activist.
"This, I think, is because of the stigma attached to our slavery past," she noted. "I myself grew up with this system."
"But living in Europe, I have had an experience I never saw back home in Somalia, where everyone's rights is respected," asserted Iftin.
It is this newfound freedom that has opened the eyes of many Somali Bantus in the diaspora, who now feel obliged to take up the mantle and liberate the community after centuries of marginalization.
Iftin, Musa and Hassan have for some time now tried to organize a meeting of all Somali Bantus in the diaspora to charter the future of the community.
This culminated in a Somali Bantu conference in Sweden on March 21.
It was the first time that the community met to discuss its political future.
"Our goal is to change the destination of the community," Musa (Hassan) told AA.
"We want to change the current policy of the international community and Somalia government towards the Jareerwayne in all aspects of life – politically, educationally and socially," he said.
Musa said their main agenda in the Gothenburg meeting was to unite the Somali Jareerwayne people in order to "protect the very existence of the Bantu in Somalia and to change the oppression they have experienced for decades."
The organizers believe the first ever political conference by Somali Bantus was a success and marked the beginning of a new chapter in the history of the ethnic minority.
"A new generation has awoken and taken over the community," Iftin told AA.
"We are looking beyond just being maids, masons and cleaners back home," insisted the activist.
"Our children don't have to live the way we lived back in Somalia," said the mother of two daughters. "We want a better Somalia for the next generation of Somali Bantus."
Many Bantus in the diaspora, meanwhile, still dream of the day they can go back to their mother country and claim their old properties.
They have pegged all their hopes to the Somali peace process that led to the formation of the transitional federal government in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2004.
A new constitution had meant that power was to be divided among all Somali clans, including the Bantu, by a controversial 4.5 ratio.
"In the parliament of 275 MPs, we only have 11 Somali Bantus," said Musa.
"It means we have no numbers to be heard in parliament and introduce changes in our constitution to improve our lives," he lamented.
"If the 4.5 system is calculated correctly, we have the right to get at least 55 members," insisted the activist.
Hassan, the other activist, said they wanted that changed.
"We want the community to be more involved politically," he told AA. "We are eyeing 2016 elections."
But even before the planned 2016 elections, the community is pressing for the creation of a new federal state within Somalia carved out of the mainly Bantu region of Middle Shabelle and Hiraan.
This was one of the main objectives of the Sweden conference.
"We are about 60 percent in this region," said Hassan. "We are the majority."
"We therefore expect that Mogadishu will this time let us decide our future and have the first Somali Bantu regional president with headquarters," he hoped.
No official from the federal government was willing to confirm whether or not they had received the grievances and recommendations from the Sweden conference.
Bantus leaders, however, remain optimistic about the current government compared to previous regimes.
The campaign championed by the Somali Bantu activists in Europe will eventually affect the lives of thousands of fellow Bantus in the refugee camps in Kenya and in Somalia.
"Somalia is starting to enjoy some peace, thanks to God," said Abdi, the Nairobi-based refugee.
"I will be willing to go back to Somalia and start my business there if my community is more recognized through a free and fair democratic system," he told AA.