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Bantu in Somalia

  • Profile

    The so-called ‘Bantu’ groups – Gosha, Shabelle, Shidle and Boni – collectively known as (Wa) Gosha (literally, ‘people of the forest’) live in the Lower Juba Valley. Other Bantu communities are located in the Shebelle Valley. Gosha are the principal non-Somali minority group in the country. Gosha speak a Bantu language and are often referred to as, and call themselves, Bantu.

    Bantu have retained many separate cultural traditions and characteristics which date back to different earlier historical periods. These traditions have merged into new social formations in Somalia. The name ‘Bantu’ derives from a late 20th century recognition of their Black African origin, appearance, cultural heritage and language. They were traditionally incorporated as inferiors into Somali clans and lineages.

    Historical context

    Some Bantu are remote descendants of early indigenous farming communities pre-dating pastoralist migration into the area and forming separate communities in the nineteenth century known as Gosha. Although slavery had long been practiced in the area, contemporary Bantu society originated partly in the influx of hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans in the nineteenth century Arab slave-trade.

    Bantu were put to work as unpaid labourers on southern agricultural farms that exported items like sorghum and sesame oil to the Middle East and elsewhere. They also worked as livestock herders, domestic servants, concubines and artisans. Some were attached to local Somali family groups, though many lived in separate Bantu settlements.

    They were originally held under a slavery regime supported and condoned by Italian colonial authorities in the south (then known as Italian Somaliland) up to final legal abolition and emancipation in 1903. Large numbers escaped to form fugitive slave communities deep in the inter-riverine forests; these became known as Gosha (‘people of the forest’). They managed to retain their autonomy to a considerable degree, and also some of their original socio-cultural institutions and languages, for example from Zigua, Yao, Nyasa, Makoa, Ngindu and Nyika societies.

    After the abolition of slavery, many freed slaves migrated to forest areas to join Gosha and became Gosha too. Those remaining behind were given no compensation for being enslaved, and many continued to work for their former owners, sometimes still in slavery-like conditions. Others managed to live by farming independently in separate Bantu villages. In the 1930s, Bantu were subjected to a new colonial forced labour law obliging them to work for long periods on Italian settler plantations with minimal or no payment.

    As elsewhere in Somali society, pastoralist clans and Rahanweyn provided ‘protection’ in an institutionalized form of bonded incorporation (sheegat in Somali) into local clan segments. Bantu worked for their ‘patron’ (abban) without payment in return for subsistence and basic social needs. They thus gained customary law (xeer) protection by their patrons. Females were sexually exploited; rape of Bantu girls and women was commonly perpetrated by clan members with impunity, in contrast to the punishments for rape of clan females. Clans customarily prohibited intermarriage with Bantu, although concubinage was not uncommon.

    After the army coup overthrowing the multi-party civilian government in 1969, economic changes provided new opportunities to Bantu linked to agricultural development and trade. Anti-discrimination measures (now defunct since state collapse) under President Siad Barre’s rule opened up state education and state employment, and gave some social recognition and political representation to Bantu and other minorities. While continuing to do work and practice crafts rejected by pastoralists, Bantu also developed new skills within their communities and moved into many modern artisan occupations, notably in engineering (such as repairing vehicles or boats), manufacturing, carpentry, woodcarving, building, masonry and house painting.

    However, discrimination remained widespread, perpetuating their poverty. Bantu experienced a wave of extensive land loss as a result of the Siad Barre government’s 1975 land registration law, which nationalized all land. Bantu were rarely able to document their customary land holding, and government-connected clan members seized or were allocated farmland in return for little or no payment. Many Bantu were dispossessed without any legal redress or protection. Bantu were forced to work, regularly without pay, for new and often absentee landlords.

    The 1980s were characterized by new political mobilization by Bantu. The previously derogatory term of Jareer (‘hard-hair’, from their African ancestry) as used for Bantu by ‘nobles’, who called themselves Jileec (‘soft’ or wavy hair, signifying Arab descent), was adopted positively by Bantu themselves as the preferred Somali-language term of self-description. In the 1990s, with a new international presence in Somalia, the term Bantu gained wider currency and became an equally acceptable ascription.

    In the 1990s, during the civil wars following state collapse, warlords such as General Mohamed Aideed (who fought US forces in Mogadishu in 1993), occupied southern regions with their clan-based faction militias, and perpetuated land grabbing, killings, forced displacement and forced labour. The horrendous 1992 famine in southern Somalia particularly affected Bantu and Rahanweyn in the Baidoa area. A UN humanitarian operation, UNOSOM, was launched, but the UN withdrew in 1995, with little having been achieved in terms of re-establishing peace, disarming factions, rebuilding central and regional government or the justice system, solving the humanitarian crisis, or securing respect for human rights. Civilians of all clans suffered abuses at the hands of warlord militias, and customary minority protections from majority clans disappeared.

    Bantu suffered particularly from armed factions (which fought to control farmland and urban areas in the south), systematically looting and abusing civilians. They were also often denied famine assistance by clans. Thousands of Bantu were internally displaced or fled to Kenya. Up to now, Bantu have rarely been able to reclaim land stolen in the 1990s or earlier.

    Current issues

    Bantu communities continue to face discrimination, including verbal abuse by members of minority clans: Bantu people are still sometimes referred to as adoon, a Somali term for ‘slave’. Al-Shabaab has also targeted Bantu communities because of their religious and cultural practices, and in January 2010 the National Somali Bantu Project (NSBP) reported that several Bantu people were killed for attending a traditional service in the Lower Juba region. The NSBP also reported the desecration of Bantu graves and forced compliance of Bantu Sheikhs with al-Shabaab doctrines, as well as numerous cultural attacks on Bantu dancing, the use of traditional medicine and the imposition of linguistic limitations including being forced to adopt Arabic names. Al-Shabaab have also reportedly recruited Bantu children as young as 10 into their militia.

    Like other minorities, Bantu people face renewed discrimination in IDP camps, with numerous cases of rape of Bantu women, who are not protected by traditional clan structure in the camps.

    Updated March 2018

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