Author(s): Anna Gruen, MSW, University of Washington, Seattle WA

Community Reviewer(s): Iman Hussein, Somali Bantu community leader and medical interpreter Date Authored: May 01, 2006

Date Last Reviewed: May 1, 2008

The Somali Bantu can be divided into three distinct groups of those who are indigenous to Somalia, those who were brought to Somalia as slaves but integrated into Somali society, and those who were brought to Somalia in the 19th century as slaves but kept, to different degrees, a hold on their ancestral culture, languages, and perspective of southeast African identity (Van Lehman, et al., 2004). This last group of Bantu refugees has experienced particular persecution in Somalia.

The Somali Bantus are considered distinct from other Somalis by their language dialects, physical features, and cultural practices. Van Lehman, et al. (2004), states that the Somali Bantus are characterized by features such as the texture of their hair, which in Somalia, was used to exclude the Somali Bantu from political, economic and educational advancement. The majority of the Somali Bantu were thought to have at some point come from agricultural backgrounds, and to have often lacked running water, electricity, and material possessions (Van Lehman, et al., 2004). However, post Somali independence in 1960, more Somali Bantu’s were reported to have moved to urban environments and refugee camps, where they learned and participated in activities such as construction, manual labor, wood working, and vehicle repair (Van Lehman, et al., 2004.)

Starting during the beginning of the Somali civil war, in 1991, the Bantu’s were attacked often by bandits and militias as they lacked protection from the traditional Somali clan networks (Van Lehman, et al., 2004). Following increased persecution, the Somali Bantu’s fled to refugee camps located in Kenya’s Northeastern province. The camps, run by UNHCR, were thought to have held over 160,000 Somali Bantu refugees at their height (Van Lehman, et al., 2004.) After generally unsuccessful resettlement in Tanzania and Mozambique, the U.S. considered the group “persecuted” and eligible for resettlement in 1999. However, the group’s immigration from the Kakuma camp in Kenya to the U.S. was slow, in part due to insecurity and violence in the Kenyan refugee camp (, 2003).

While the Somali Bantu have been described as resourceful people, who have many skills, wish to better the lives of their children, and are depicted as humble and hospitable people, they are a group that requires particular understanding and attention on the part of health care providers. Van Lehman, et al. (2004) states that the past culture of subjection in Somalia may present special challenges to American resettlement caseworkers. According to Van Lehman, et al., (2004) the prevalence of violence and threats of attacks in the refugee camp further hurt the Bantu’s sense of well-being. Somali Bantu women may be an especially vulnerable refugee population due to the high risks and incidents of rapes in the refugee camps (Van Lehman, et al., 2004). Resettlement professionals are advised to pay attention to the international culture of inferiority and second class status as well as the after effects of trauma from violence for the Somali Bantu population (Van Lehman, et al., 2004).

Furthermore, The Office of Global Health Affairs (2003) reports that the Somali Bantu have substantial health burdens secondary to their pre-migration experience, migratory experience, life in refugee camps, and subsequent resettlement. Potential for long term psychological and physical suffering must be addressed as the consequences of such life patterns of the Somali Bantu and their access of health service in the US (Office of Global Health Affairs, 2003). The Office of Refugee Resettlement (2003), like the Office of Global Affairs (2003) contend that due to the protracted nature of the Bantu’s refugee experience and lower nutritional levels in the camp, the Somali Bantu are estimated to have a higher rate of undiagnosed health conditions than other refugee groups.

Cultural differences between Somali Bantu practices and beliefs and Western norms may be significant factors in health care deliverance and social services at Harborview. The Office of Refugee Resettlement (2003) argues that resettlement agencies should make every effort to inform health care providers about Bantu’s cultural understanding of health. In additional, The Office of Global Health Affairs (2003) notes that many Somali Bantu may believe that some illnesses are the results of being cursed, and/or targeted by evil spirits and therefore don’t seek medical attention or in turn will go to traditional healers for treatment. Musser-Granski et al., (1997) emphasize the importance of having competent bi-cultural and bilingual workers aid in the deliver of services to refugees. Interpreters in the clinical setting are the crucial links between therapists and client and must be called upon to communicate subtle cultural meanings idiomatic expressions, sayings, and non-verbal cues (Musser-Granski et al.,1997). Further, interpreters are the connection not only between two languages but between two cultures (Kinzie, 1986, as cited in Musser-Granski, et al., 1997). An assessment of available bi-cultural Somali Bantu consultants would lend Harborview providers the means to develop more culturally appropriate practice techniques for their work with the Somali Bantu.

The Somali Bantu are known to speak Af Maay, or Maay Maay, which is spoken in Southern Somalia, while Af Maxaa is spoken throughout the rest of Somalia and in neighboring countries such as Kenya (Van Lehman, et al., 2004). Other Somali Bantus are said to speak tribal languages from Tanzania, like Zigua, or Swahili. The Office of Global Health Affairs (2003) estimates that the majority of Somali Bantus resettled in the U.S. speak Maay Maay, and recommend that resettlement groups and professionals first use Maay Maay interpreters when communicating with this group. There are conflicting reports about the percentage of Somali Bantu that are familiar with Af Maxaa, and some argue that spoken forms between the two languages are different enough to be mutually unintelligible (Office of Global Health Affairs, 2003). Service providers should also consider that Bantu’s exclusion from formal education and positions in Somalia that require literacy have left a large majority of adult Bantus illiterate and very low in English proficiency (Van Lehman, et al., 2004).

Harborview providers have hypothesized that the differences between Af Maxaa and Af Maay dialects challenge the quality of the Somali interpreters’ service and the capacity of health care deliverance. The Office of Global Health Affairs (2003) emphasizes the importance of Somali Bantu having access to competent interpreters, particularly during their health examinations and any subsequent health care treatment. The Office of Refugee Resettlement (2003) concurs, stating that of key importance to treating Somali Bantu in health care service is the need for available translators, in particular women translators for refugee women. In Springfield, MA, resettlement agencies have hired women case-workers bi-lingual in Maay Maay and English, who have played a key role in assisting Somali Bantu women who have medical needs that are culturally not discussed with men (Office of Refugee Resettlement, 2003). A formal assessment of interpreters’ skills would determine the competency levels of Somali and/or Maay Maay interpreters, thus identifying appropriate measures for improved communication between Somali Bantu patients, interpreters, and Harborview providers.

Due to the history of dominate/subordinate relations between Somalis and Somali Bantu, their working relationships are of additional concern, especially in terms of comfort level and accuracy of interpretation during health care visits. Care should be taken in identifying Somalis who are genuinely willing to assist with Somali Bantus (The Office of Global Health Affairs, 2003). Van Lehman, et al., (2004) also argue that service providers should use caution and sensitivity with regards to translation and management between the ethnic groups, and that there should be no assumed mutual trust and respect between the two groups. As indicated by the above literature, two persons from the same country and speaking the same language may be enemies and cannot provide services one to the other (Westermeyer, 1990 as cited in Musser-Granski, et al). Further, providers must recognize that African refugees are not spared from the added layer of institutional racism that affects the life chances of other blacks and minority ethnic groups (Okitikpi et al., 2003).

A Bantu family typically consists between four and eight children, and the idea of family includes grandparents, aunt, uncles and cousins (Van Lehman, et al., 2004). In 2003, experts believe that the up to 13,000 Somali Bantu bound for the US had 50,000 to 100,000 direct clan relationships among the one million Bantu left behind in Somalia (Barnett, 2003).

Note for Seattle/King County area: A number of VOLAGS (voluntary agencies) helped resettle the Somali Bantu in King County and surrounding areas:

  • International Resuce Committee: Estimate they resettled 18 families, 94 people, which is now more including new babies born
  • Episcopal Migration Ministries (EMM): No information
  • Lutheran Refugee Project: Estimate they resetttled about 50 people, about half in Everett and half in Tacoma, WA. They have resettled 15 additional people from secondary migration to Everett, and resettled 25 adidtional people from secondary migration to Tacoma.
  • World Relief: Estimate they settled 23 individuals mostly to Kent, Renton and South Seattle areas.

As of May 2008, an estimated 500 to 600 Somali Bantu families (includes both Kizigua- and Maimai- speaking) live in the Seattle area . Many families arrived in other areas of the United States first and then migrated secondarily to Seattle (and therefore are not reflected in the numbers tracked by the local resettlement agencies.)

List of References and Resources

  • Background on Potential Health Problems for Somali Bantu. Office of Global Health Affairs . Updated 10/01/2003, 1-13.
  • Barnett, D. (2003). Out of Africa. Somali Bantu and the Paradigm. Shift in Refugee ResettlementCenter for Immigration Studies, October 2003.
  • Balint, I. (2004). The Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees: Resettling the Somali Bantu and Building a Community for Future Citizens. FYI Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, April/May 2004, p.3.
  • Goetz, N.H. (2005). Bridging the Gap: The Forced Migration Laboratory, Refugee Health, and Community Based Solutions. Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved. Meharry Medical College; TN, 1-7.
  • Hamilton, C. (2004). Refugee Works: Showcasing Somali Bantu in ‘The Way to Work.’ FYI Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, April/May 2004 p.2
  • Jaynes, G. (2004). Coming to America: a Somali Bantu Refugee Family Leaves 19th — Century Travails Behind Africa to Take up Life in 21st – Century Phoenix. Smithsonian, Jan, Vol. 34, i10, 54.
  • Musser-Granski, J., Carrillo, D. (1997). The Use of Bilingual, Bicultural Paraprofessionals in Mental Health Services: Issues for Hiring, Training, and Supervision. Community Mental Health Journal. Vol. 33, No. 1, 51-60.
  • National Somali Bantu Organization. (
  • Report from the 2003 National Consultation Somali Bantu Planning Workshop. Office of Refugee Resettlement, 1- 10.
  • Somali Bantu Begin A New Life in the United StatesThe International Rescue Committee, (2003). (
  • Van Lehman, D., Eno, O. (2004).  “Somali Bantu – Their History and Culture.” ( , 1-7.
  • Wilson Owens, C. (2003). “Somali Bantu Refugees.” Somali Bantu, 1- 7.
Beautiful Beads
Photo by Horizons for Refugee Families (cc license).