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Who are the "Somali Bantu"?:  The Rise of a New Ethnicity
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

The term "Somali Bantu" is a recent term referring to a grouping of small ethnic groups in Central Somalia.  The commonality of these small peoples was their origins from diverse Bantu-speaking peoples, though some now speak Somali-related languages.

Some are indigenous to the area, from before the entry centuries ago of the Cushitic peoples now known as the Somali.

Some are descendants of slaves brought from African territories further south.  In the last decade or so these small ethnic groups have formed an alliance to represent their common interests.  The term Somali Bantu refers to this grouping of peoples speaking several languages and of varying origins from Bantu-speaking peoples.

The term "Bantu" was established as a technical term by linguists to refer to a complex family of languages all over Africa.  It is also generally used in a loose way to refer to the culture groups or tribes of peoples speaking one of the languages classified as Bantu.

Their are about 650 or so languages in the Bantu language family.  The Bantu languages and peoples are the majority of people living south of the Sahara and cover about 2/3 of the land area in the continent south of the Sahara.

The Somali people are not among these Bantu peoples, and their language is classified as Cushitic, not Bantu.  More on that in a bit.  The term Bantu distinguishes these people from the dominant Somali cluster of peoples.

A Technical Term
The term "Bantu" was used by Western linguists and other scholars because of the common form of this word for "people" in these languages.  The term occurs in various phonetic variations among this family of languages.  The vocabulary, phonetic patterns, syntax and grammar patterns are all closely related.

Many Africans, now aware of these Western, technical academic terms and categories – scholars as well as educated common people – many nowadays also use these terms to classify their own tribe, if they are referring to the broad different ethnic or language groupings of people in Africa, especially if talking to a European.

The term "Bantu" is especially important in East Africa.  The history of this region involves the migration and resultant mixing and remixing of multiple peoples of three major black African language and culture groups:  Bantu, Nilotic and Cushitic.  In additon to these there is a fourth small, unrelated group called San.  (These peoples are better known in popular circles by the older term Bushman, now usually avoided in more scholarly circles.)

These peoples are thought to be the very early inhabitants, before the current African ethnoliguistic groups gradually migrated into that region.  The intriguing speech of this remnant population involves a set of clicks as consonants.  They are commonly referred to as the Click Languages.

The designation "Somali Bantu" is more of a sociological designation. "Somali," of course, refers to the general ethnic and geographical context. "Bantu" is a reference to their ethnic origin, whether or not they would still speak a Bantu language.

The various peoples who speak the extensive family of Bantu languages call themselves by more specific names for their ethnic or lineage group.  "Bantu" is a general formal classification term, which while still primarily referring to languages, has now come to be used as an ethnic name.

The term "Somali Bantu" has arisen in recent years to refer to this alliance of tribes of Bantu-language origin in Somalia.

Dan Van Lehman, working with the Somali Bantu Project, comments:

The term Somali Bantu gained popular use in Somalia in 1993 when indigenous Somali people with Bantu-speaking ancestry (mostly living along the middle and lower Shabelle River Valley) and those people from Bantu speaking ethnic groups who were brought to Somalia as slaves (primarily living along the banks of the middle and lower Juba River Valley) decided that their security depended on their mutual cooperation. With many different names describing both groups, the name Somali Bantu emerged as the term to describe all people in Somalia with Bantu-speaking ancestry.

The Maay Language
The language Dan refers to is Maay, also called MaayMaay and other phonetic variations.  This is a catalogued language, but there are few written resources available in this language's many dialects. The language is in the Eastern Cushite group, closely related to Somali, and shown in some listings as a dialect of Somali.  See The Maay-Speaking Peoples.  See also this good discussion of the relationship of the Maay ("Mai") language to Somali (Maxaa).

Multiple Tribes
Several different tribes of people living in the Jubba and Shabelle areas of Somalia speak forms of Maay.  The people are largely nonliterate, being mostly rural. They live in an area of Somali wracked with civil war and famine for about two decades, so they have suffered in many ways.  They have attempted to defend themselves culturally and politically by recent alliances across the various Central Somalia groups of Bantu origin, either indigenous or slave-based.

Bantu Alliances
The ethnic mosaic of Africa is complex, with its history of migrations, settlement, famine, war, merging ethnicities.  A multiplicity of factors is involved in the developing ethnicities, changing ethnicities and loss of ethnic identities that makes up the swirl of human history.  The Horn of Africa is a fascinating complex of layered identities and conflicted ethnic identity.

The traditional identity in Bantu societies has been focused at the family and village level.  Thus the broader groupings we tend to prefer and look for from a western analytical or academic point of view are often not the primary identity of the peoples involved.  Most Bantu peoples have traditionally been organized around extended family villages and clans.

What are known as "tribes" among the broader Bantu groupings of Africa have arisen out of this context and tend to primarily identify and organize themselves this way.  A change to a larger focus often, as in this case, arises out of the need for cultural or political self-preservation or self-assertion.

This is exactly the case with the large group in Kenya known as the Luhya, which began as a federation of neighbouring tribes needing to present a stronger front against the British colonial government.  This is one reason why many peoples often have more than one myth of origin, and a variety of names by which they call themselves.

The Maay language is not a Bantu language, but is a Cushitic language related to Somali.  It is the language of the Somali clan federations Digil, Mirifle, Rahanween (Rawiin) and others.  Many also speak Somali, a term for several related speech forms, which some sources categorize all as dialects of one Somali speech, and others list separately with each variety considered a language.

The Somali name for the common Somali language is Maxaad, written by some as Maxaa, (pronounced similarly to Mahaad or Mahaa).  Other people in Central Somalia also speak the language, including some of the Somali Bantu.

Bantu in Somalia
In Central Somalia, in the Jubba and Shebelle River areas, originally, there were some Bantu-speaking tribes.  (A related name, Jubba Somali, comes from the Jubba River, and also refers to the Gosha or Mushungulu peoples.  This term also appears in some compilation resources in a confusion with the unrelated town of Juba, Southern Sudan.)

Some of these Bantu people appear to have been early settlers there, likely from before the period of settlement by the Cushite Somalis.  Others were brought to the area in more recent times, probably from Tanzania and Mozambique, as slaves.  These peoples originally spoke Bantu languages.

Even now, some still speak a Bantu language called Mushungulu.  Some sources also report that other Bantu languages are spoken there, such as Makua, from Mozambique.  But linguists reporting on the region do not mention these as still spoken, though some people definitely have origins from these tribes.

Mushungulu and Gosha
Most Mushungulu also speak Maay as second language.  Some of the people you know may actually have Mushungulu as a mother tongue.  A common name for people of Bantu origin in Somalia is Gosha.

They use other terms for themselves, also, by village, region, clan or other designations.  Some would consider themselves a tribe of Somali now, or a tribe of Digil-Mirifle (Maay).  A small number of Gosha live across the border in Kenya.  These do not speak Mushungulu, but Maay and Garreh.

There are about 20,000, or up to 80,000 by some estimates, of people of Bantu origin, who speak Mushungulu, Maay, Garre and Somali.  Most are bilingual in at least two of these.  Most people of Bantu origin no longer speak a Bantu language.  (On the coast you will find the Bantu Swahili peoples, who are unrelated to the Mushungulu or Gosha.)

These Bantu groups are animistic or superficially Muslim in religion.  There is no church or Christian influence in their home area.  There have been Christian foreigners working in aid and development periodically over recent years.  War has made life difficult for people in Somalia, and even more difficult for outside assistance to get in.

Since the early 1980's Somalis and other ethnicities from Somalia have fled to Kenya or Ethiopia, and further away through formal or informal means.  The Somali Bantu are one of those groups migrating in large numbers to the United States and other Western countries.  Some have associated themselves with Christian missions or churches, and in the United States they have been settled and assisted primarily by churches.

One Somali Bantu named Mohamed Mohamed wrote me in 2012 to contribute to the discussion, first affirming the perspective presented in an earlier version of our article.

That piece of history is very wonderful. I am a Somali Bantu, and I did not know my origin this well. I am very interested in any article that says more about my ethnic group, the "Somali Bantu." Especially yours, which elaborates the Somali Bantu people's origins, culture and traditions. One big reason why the Somali Bantu had to form a coalition is the hatred that the Somali nomads had for this tiny society even well before the civil war.

Mohamed states that the Somali Bantu feared genocide.

Over the past years after the Somali civil war, the Somali Bantu have frantically searched for someone possibly in the West to stand up for them and acknowledge the problems they faced or are still facing in Somalia. These realities need to be faced in the democratic world, because Somalia as a government refused to recognize our existence as a community, which is culturally and traditionally distinct from them. The goal seems to be to eradicate us from the face of the earth. The Somalis call us names like ooji, adoon and jareer, which are all derogatory words. They suppress us in regard to educational and economic advancement.

He closes by putting his people's plight in perspective in the background of Islam.

We the Somali Bantu are Muslims just as the Somali nomads. And Muslims are prohibited from insulting, backbiting, harming and killing another Muslim. The Prophet Muhammad SAW said anyone who does any of the above has transgressed and can not be considered a Muslim. But the Somali nomads did that to the Somali Bantu. Now we the Somali Bantu want a separate, protected area in Somalia for self-government and safety.

New Designation for a Changing Identity
Use of a new term like this to represent themselves to the outside world has an advantage.  Though in the 1990s I was working as a consultant to an international development and relief agency in the Horn of Africa, and a consortium of agencies they work with, in Somalia, I first heard the term in the US in the late 90s or early 2000s.  The term seemed to be initially a media term, consistent with the growing attention their plight gained.

On the face of it, the term "Somali Bantu" is an anomaly.  But the term has taken on an important sociological meaning and value for the preservation of this ethnic minority.   The term designates a new unified grouping of small, formerly separate ethnicities of Bantu origin, speaking several languages.

Some sources attribute the first use of the name to aid groups in their fund-raising to come to the aid of the refugees.  Others indicate that the term was developed by the Bantu groups in Somali themselves to serve as a new common designation for the allied group.  David Redd, a caseworker at World Relief, who has assisted in Somali Bantu resettlement, indicates that these have accepted this term as their common designation in the United States. The comments above by Mohamed confirm that the name is now accepted as a self-designation.

This new unified identity came about because of the threat to their identity and survival as individual smaller ethnicities overwhelmed by the larger Somali groups, a civil war and longterm famine.  These factors led the affected Bantu groups in Somalia to develop a new alliance to present a unified voice to represent their common interests.  We have seen a new ethnicity develop.

It is often in such a context that new identities and new designations arise, often – as in this case – spurred by the need to relate to a broader community outside their traditional sphere of relationships.  These minority Bantu groups in Somalia made a united appeal to the international community under this name and identity.

New Ethnicity
This is one way new ethnicities develop, and with them new terminology for a new sense of identity.  Bantu peoples are lineage oriented in identity.  As these newly-united small groups meld and the next generation comes on, the primary identity of the smaller component groups may shift to this larger group and designation Somali Bantu, and may supplement or even replace the original smaller tribal identities.

I suspect there will be a difference between the Somali Bantu remaining in Somalia and those having migrated into western countries.  Likely those in the US will coalesce into another new tribe or ethnicity, as they make the great adjustment necessary to adapt to their new society, if they do not totally assimilate as individuals or families in to the broader American society.  Their new beginning in this new life in the west will likely be a new reference point for their identity as an ethnicity.

Those in Somalia will retain for longer their original Bantu tribal identities.  This will be a phenomenon to watch.  (Related to this type of phenomenon are the discussions in my topics on Assimilation.)

"Somali Bantu" has gradually become a general term used even in the academic context in the US, and now designates what we can consider a new ethnicity in the USA, where so many of these unfortunates have immigrated to survive.  This is one example of how a new ethnicity arises out of their previous distinct ethnicities.

Related People Profiles on this Site
The Afar People
The Digil-Rahawiin People of Somalia
The Gosha People
The Rendille People
The Sakuye People
The Somali Peoples
The Somali of Kenya

Related Profiles of San Peoples on this Site
The Sandawe San of Tanzania
See Also on the Internet:
"Hadza People" – East Africa San – Wikipedia

Other Related Articles on this Site
Colour, Race and Genetics in the Horn of Africa
Genetics out of Africa
The Sabeans and Other Ancient Genetics and Tongues: Distinguishing Fact from Legend and Modern from Ancient
The Kore of Kenya Maasai or Somali?
Models of Assimilation: Evaluating Ethnic Characteristics
Assimilation: How Peoples Develop and Change
Race and Ethnicity in the Horn of Africa

Also view related PowerPoint Presentations:
Models of Assimilation

Read more about the name Somali Bantu:
Background and Resettlement Information, from David Redd
Bantu Ethnic Identities in Somalia
Mushungulu Language – Ethnologue
Somali Bantu – Their History and Culture - Center for Applied Linguistics
Somali Bantu - Wikipedia
The Somali Bantu Experience: from East Africa to Maine - Colby College
The Somali Bantu Project, Portland State University

Applicable Registry of Peoples codes
 Gosha:  103458
 Mushungulu:  106940


Registry of Languages codes (Ethnologue)
 Maay:  ymm
 Mushungulu:  xma


First concepts written 14 September 2004
Finalized and posted 21 November 2004
Rewritten in 2005
Rewritten 22 March 2015

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD

Copyright © 2004, 2005, 2015 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.
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