NYTimes.com Article: Africa's Lost Tribe Discovers American Way
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Africa's Lost Tribe Discovers American Way
March 10, 2003
By RACHEL L. SWARNS
KAKUMA, Kenya - The engines rumbled and the red sand
swirled as the cargo plane roared onto the dirt airstrip.
One by one, the dazed and impoverished refugees climbed
from the belly of the plane into this desolate wind-swept
They are members of Africa's lost tribe, the Somali Bantu,
who were stolen from the shores of Mozambique, Malawi and
Tanzania and carried on Arab slave ships to Somalia two
centuries ago. They were enslaved and persecuted until
Somalia's civil war scattered them to refugee camps in the
Yet on this recent day, the Bantu people were rejoicing as
they stepped from the plane into the blinding sun. They
were the last members of the tribe to be transferred from a
violent camp near the Somali border to this dusty place
just south of Sudan. They knew their first trip in a flying
machine was a harbinger of miracles to come.
Over the next two years, nearly all of the Somali Bantu
refugees in Kenya - about 12,000 people - are to be flown
to the United States. This is one of the largest refugee
groups to receive blanket permission for resettlement since
the mid-1990's, State Department officials say.
The refugees will be interviewed by American immigration
officials in this camp, which is less violent than the camp
near Somalia. The interview process has been slowed by
security concerns in the aftermath of Sept. 11. Despite the
repeated delays, the preparations for the extraordinary
journey are already under way.
Every morning, dozens of peasant farmers take their seats
in classrooms in a simple one-story building with a metal
roof. They study English, hold their first notebooks and
pens, and struggle to learn about the place called America.
It is an enormous task.
The Bantu, who were often denied access to education and
jobs in Somalia, are mostly illiterate and almost
completely untouched by modern life. They measure time by
watching the sun rise and fall over their green fields and
As refugees, they have worked the soil, cooked, cleaned and
labored in backbreaking construction jobs, filling about 90
percent of the unskilled jobs in the camp in Dadaab, Kenya,
where most Bantu people lived until they were transferred
here last year. But most have never turned on a light
switch, flushed a toilet or held a lease.
So the students here study in a classroom equipped with all
the trappings of modern American life, including a gleaming
refrigerator, a sink, a toilet and a bathtub. They are
learning about paper towels and toilet cleanser and peanut
butter and ice trays, along with English and American
Refugee officials here fear that the Bantu's battle to
adjust to a high-tech world will only be complicated by
American ambivalence about immigrants since the terrorist
attacks in the United States.
The Bantu are practicing Muslims. Women cover their hair
with brightly colored scarves. Families pray five times a
day. In Somalia, they were in a predominantly Muslim
country often described as a breeding ground for
The American government requires refugees from such hot
spots to undergo a new series of security clearances before
they can be resettled in the United States. The new system
has delayed the arrival of thousands of refugees, leaving
them to languish in camps where children often die of
But most people here are willing to do what it takes to
live in a country that outlaws discrimination. While they
wait, they learn about leases and the separation between
church and state, and they practice their limited English.
About 700 Bantu have gone through this cultural
orientation. By the end of September, State Department
officials say, 1,500 are expected to be resettled in about
50 American cities and towns, including Boston; Charlotte,
N.C.; San Diego; and Erie, Pa.
In America, the refugees tell each other, the Bantu will be
considered human beings, not slaves, for the first time.
"It's scary," said Haw Abass Aden, a peasant farmer still
trembling as she stepped off her first flight through the
clouds. She clung tightly to a kerosene lamp with one hand
and her little girl with the other. But she regained her
composure as she considered her future.
"We are coming here to be resettled in the United States,"
said Ms. Aden, 20, speaking through a translator. "There,
we will find peace and freedom."
After centuries of suffering, they are praying that America
will be the place where they will finally belong. The
United Nations has been trying to find a home for the Bantu
for more than a decade because it is painfully clear they
cannot return to Somalia.
In Somalia, the lighter-skinned majority rejected the
Bantu, for their slave origins and dark skin and wide
features. Even after they were freed from bondage, the
Bantu were denied meaningful political representation and
rights to land ownership. During the Somali civil war, they
were disproportionately victims of rapes and killings.
The discrimination and violence continues in the barren
camps today - even here - where the Bantu are often
attacked and dismissed as Mushungulis, which means slave
But finding a new home for the Bantu refugees here has not
been easy. First Tanzania and then Mozambique, the Bantu's
ancestral homelands, agreed to take the tribe. Both
impoverished countries ultimately reneged, saying they
could not afford to resettle the group.
In 1999, the United States determined that the Somali Bantu
tribe was a persecuted group eligible for resettlement. The
number of African refugees approved for admission in the
United States surged from 3,318 in 1990 to 20,084 a decade
later as the cold war ended and American officials focused
on assisting refugees beyond those fleeing Communist
"I don't think Somalia is my country because we Somali
Bantus have seen our people treated like donkeys there,"
said Fatuma Abdekadir, 20, who was waiting for her class to
start. "I think my country is where I am going.
"There, there is peace. Nobody can treat you badly. Nobody
can come into your house and beat you."
The refugees watch snippets of American life on videos in
class, and they marvel at the images of supermarkets filled
with peppers and tomatoes and of tall buildings that reach
for the clouds. But they know little about racism, poverty,
the bone-chilling cold or the cities that will be chosen
for them by refugee resettlement agencies.
What they know is this flat, parched corner of Africa, a
place of thorn trees and numbing hunger where water comes
from wells when it comes at all - a place of fierce heat
and wind that whips the sand into biting and blinding
In the classes, the teachers try to prepare the Bantu for a
modern world. Issack Adan carefully guides his students
through the lessons, taking questions from older men with
graying beards, teenage girls with ballpoint pens tucked
into their head scarves and young mothers with babies tied
to their backs.
The lesson of the day: a white flush toilet. "Come close,
come close," Mr. Adan said as the women approached the
strange object doubtfully. "Mothers, you sit on it, you
don't stand on it."
The women nodded, although they seemed uncertain. Mr. Adan
showed them how to flush the toilet and how to clean it.
"You wash with this thing and you will have a good smell,"
"A very nice smell," the students agreed.
Then Abubakar Saidali, a 30-year-old student, looked
closely at the odd contraption and asked, "But where does
that water go?" For an answer, Mr. Adan took the refugees
outside to show them the pipes that carry the sewage.
Back in the classroom, the students spent the next few
hours learning about the refrigerator, ice cubes and
strawberry jam. They watched eagerly as Mr. Adan washed
dishes in a sink and admired the bathtub and shower. One
woman demurred, however, when he invited her to step into
"It is so clean," she said shyly. "Can I really step in
Some students grumbled that the American appliances seemed
more complicated than their ordinary ways of living. Why
worry about cleaning a toilet, some refugees said aloud,
when the bushes never need to be cleaned?
But Mr. Saidali said he was thrilled to learn about modern
toilets after years of relying on smelly pit latrines.
"This latrine is inside the house," marveled Mr. Saidali, a
lean man in tattered sneakers. "It's better than what we
are now using. It has a seat for sitting and the water goes
"Even this sink - it's my first time," he said. "This sink
is for washing. It cleans things very nicely."
Even with the lessons, some Bantu are worried about how
they will cope in America. They know that blacks and
Muslims are minorities there. Will Americans be welcoming?
Will they learn English quickly enough? Will they find jobs
and housing and friends? Some officials here worry, too.
"These people are from rural areas," Mr. Adan said. "They
don't know much about modern life."
But the refugees who arrived on the plane here said they
were eager for the challenge.
Uncertain of what might be needed in the United States,
they carried most of their precious possessions - broken
brooms, chipped mugs, metal plates - as they boarded a
rattling bus that roared deep into the camp as the sun sank
beyond the horizon.
The refugees knew they would be sleeping on the ground
again and going hungry as they have often done. But they
also knew that this was only the first phase of an
First stop, Kakuma. Next stop,
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