Forty-six year old Amir Luge, and a father of five, holds not even the slightest hint or look of a Somali origin. Yet truth prevails. He is a Somali after all, although he detests that, believing beyond any reasonable doubt that he is a Tanzanian of a Zigua tribe.
Luge’s ancestors left Tanga not by choice, but by force, after they were chained and exported to the horn of Africa, during the era of Slave trade. Nearly three hundred years later, Luge also returned to the land of his ancestors, not by his choice, but by force after he was forced to flee Somalia in 1990s when the country was plunged into bloody civil wars.
The same goes for Athumani Mwale (65), fondly and popularly referred to by fellow Somalis at Chogo settlement-cum-village in Handeni district, Tanga region as Mzee Kizito. Their story dates back three centuries ago, when Arabs took the ‘Wazigua’ from Handeni to Somalia as slaves.
Skipping feelings of hopelessness, loneliness and disturbing homelessness that remain imbedded in all refugees around the globe, the two have a unique background: They are back to their country, albeit as refugees.
Of course they both share what other refugees throughout the world undergo. The loss of family members, grief from displacement and loss of freedom! Forget not the tragedy of living without the property and wealth they have toiled for in their economic endeavours.
With most of the Somali Bantus though, at least with Amir Luge, being a refugee is packaged with some sort of mixed feelings. “There is a lot I have left in Somalia, but then, taking a refugee in Tanzania feels more like home.”
He says he had known Tanzania way back in the stories he heard from the grandees but now it is no more history, rather living its reality.
When the writer dropped off from the bus he was travelling in from Dar es Salaam he was received by a young man who had beaten his fellow motorcyclists to take me to the refugees’ settlement. Smart in his daily bread winning antics, the ‘bodaboda’ rider offers an introduction of the village-cum-settlement setup, pointing out at plots and their respective owners.
Astonished, he ask him if the Somali Bantus ever got out of their settlement, to which he laughs before he gives a reply: “I am one of them, and all the motorcyclists we’ve left there are also Somali Bantus.”
With a Swahili neutralised accent, kinkier hair, and shorter heights, dark in their skin and more muscular as opposed to their fellow Somalis, it is seemingly difficult to identify them as Somalis unless introduced. Why? You cannot tell the difference between the Somali Bantus and the native Tanzanians; they look alike.
The 1990’s Somali civil war that saw the fall of Siad Barre had forced a huge number of Somalis seeking refuge in countries of East Africa, mostly Kenya and Tanzania. For the Somali with Bantu origins, they found this an opportunity to trace back their roots, which they were only hearing through traditional tales.
Mzee Kizito, a Somali Bantu, narrates the story: “I have received the story from my grandmother, who was told by her grandees, some of whom had seen our ancestors who took part in our history.”
Initially educated as a priest and later became a teacher, Mzee Kizito tells the story in a way that misses not any key detail of their history. His body, hands and face join forces in telling the story, keeping it all as if he was personally involved in the exodus, obviously applying his teaching skills. He makes sure that no word is misspelled, and when necessary, even clarifying how the word is pronounced.
Listening to the Somali Bantu story may very easily sound fiction. But Mzee Kizito insists: “It was probably mixed (with fiction) to help clarify the stories to young children or it may have fallen victim of oral literature, which usually alters as it passed from one generation to another.”
Luge is his brother in law. When they fled Somalia, Luge was 25 years old, but he knew pretty well the story of his ancestors as much as Mzee Kizito does. “I, like any Somali Bantu, have received the stories from my grandparents. Almost every night they would sit us down and tell us the whole story of our ancestors.”
And as Mzee Kizito tells the story, Luge also picks up some other little things, like a couple of village names that he never knew of before that they had their origin from the Zigua language.
Since there were more than five groups of Bantus from different parts of Africa who found their way into Somalia, Mzee Kizito is specifically talking about the Zigua Bantu who came from Eastern Africa, Tanzania for that matter.
The exodus to Somalia
Modern sources record that from 1800 to 1890 between 25,000 and 50,000 black African slaves were sold from the slave market of Zanzibar to the Somali coast. Most of the slaves were from the Majindo, Makua, Nyasa, Yao, Zalama, Zaramo and Zigua ethnic groups of Tanzania, Mozambique and Malawi.
History has that in the late 1830’s, there were several years of consecutive drought in Tanzania that resulted in widespread starvation and death. In the hope of averting their families' starvation, Africans without means to weather this terrible period were reduced to accepting Omani Arab promises of wage labour in a distant land.
“This starvation was so acute that people were forced to eat the skins they had on as their clothes. The starvation was later dubbed in Kiswahili as “Njaa ya Ngozi” meaning “Skin Hunger,” says Mzee Kizito.
According to Mzee Kizito, this starvation was earlier foreseen by the village’s god called Pangalugome. People in the village would often time approach this ghost and enquire for revelations of what should be expected in future. He tells the story the way he knows it:
The gods warned them that they should be prepared for the starvation, mainly by storing the food they would eat during starvation time. He also gave them a warning that they should not hold a traditional dance for girls for that year, instead they should keep that food they use for the traditional dances to help them in the coming hunger.
Ironically, that same year there were heavy rains that provided plenty of harvest that people thought “the gods have always been telling us the truth, but not this time around”. So, with plenty of harvests, instead of keeping them for the coming hunger they were told about, they spent them on the traditional dance.
One day a swarm of locusts flocked the village and ate all the food collected from the good harvest they had. At this point, the villagers remembered the prophecy of their gods. Unfortunately it was too late. They starved, that they even opted to eat the skin cloth.
By this time, the Oman Arabs had started contacts with the East African people and had already established the slave trade. When they found people starving, it was such a good advantage that they took to trick them that they would take them to a better place, where they would give them jobs and provide them with plenty of foods.
The offer obviously seemed better to the villagers. Having no options, the villagers considered the Arabs’ suggestion. Immediately the Arabs started to supply them with dates and bums, but just a handful of them. Later, the Arabs offered to take them to a better place where there was plenty of food. It sounded so good to refuse!
Little did they know their destination! The villagers willingly followed the Arabs who later took them to the Pangani coast, and boarded them in a boat, a vessel they had never seen before. “The Arabs also gave them a couple of bowls full of food, said to be bums and dates.
For some reason, as everyone was busy enjoying that food, one person in the group stood up and looked at the window. He couldn’t understand what he was seeing, but he knew something was wrong there and needed to be fixed.
He turned to the fellows and told them to look at the window with him. In all direction all they saw was water. They were in the middle of the sea. And they all agreed “we need to do something here”. Now there were two Arabs in that boat. Realizing that these people had learnt “something was not right”, one Arab started to intimidate them by whipping them randomly.
That beating had raised their suspicion. They thought “one person can no way overcome us.” So, they decided they would kill one and keep the other to sail the boat, not to the direction he wanted, but to that one the Bantus commanded him to go, back to their home coast in Tanzania.
However, the remaining Arab got smart and pretended he was willing to take back to Tanzania, but because the Bantus inside that vessel were ignorant of the location he took them straight to the Somali coast, where upon reaching they found many more Arabs who overcame the Bantus and easily captured them as slaves. They were then forcifully sent to the bush where they were kept in a fenced compound. A few days later the Arabs started using them for the purpose they brought them to Somalia, slavery.
One day, as part of duty, a woman was in the farm digging. With her was an Arab supervisor. This woman had a baby that she sat at the shade where she was working. Apparently, the baby started crying, supposedly it was hungry.
As a mother, she reached over for the baby to feed. But because she was a slave, and all that was required of her was to do was dig, the Arab supervisor got annoyed, and with anger, the Arab reached over to the woman, grabbed the baby and chopped off its head.
With anguish and disbelief, the woman took the head and the body of the baby to the camp to show other slaves what happened to her baby. Nobody in the camp accepted or tolerated it and so they came up with a plan.
The elders told the young people that when they are gone to the farm, each one of them should make arrows. The boys did exactly as they were told to, while some other plans were in the making.
Thursdays were usually off duty days for slaves. During these days the slaves were allowed to rest and just have fun. They mostly used Thursdays to relive their tradition, traditional dancing amongst. But on this particular week of the baby’s murder, they asked the Arabs if they could also have the Friday to rest, hiding an agenda with them. The masters agreed. Bantus made a good day of it and packed each of their belongings. They then waited when their masters were gone for the Friday worship at the mosque and they escaped from the camp.
Upon returning to the camp, the Arabs didn’t find the Bantus and they didn’t accept that easily. They determined to make a chase after them in a bid to bring them back. Although they managed to find them, they couldn’t bring them back to the camps. The Bantus were fierce and they succeeded to defeat the Arabs and ran away.
Their escape reached them to a spot where today is famously known as Shebhelle River. Shebhellle is translated as “Leopard” in Zigua. “They named this place because of what the Zigua attacked the their enemies they found at the place
In this whole escape plot, which was not just meant to run away from the camp, but go back to their origin home Tanzania, the leaders of the Bantu were two courageous women identified as Wanankhucha and Salama Chamatombo (Chamatombo means big breasts in Zigua, where as the Somali people referred to the lady as Salama Nasdere)
“Having lacked a reliable campus to direct where they were or where they should go, the Somali Bantu found themselves roaming around the Somali forests, failing to fulfill their dreams to return home,” says Mzee Kizito
When they reached at this Shebhele River, the two leaders did not agree where to go. Each one proposed the way they thought was appropriate. As a result they got divided, with Wanankhucha scooping a bigger number of people.
Salama Chamatombo went with only a few people who, nevertheless, determined never to follow the way of the Wanankhucha. They swore never to intermarry and hailed their languages, dances and all culture and traditional practices associated with their ancestors.
Life in Somalia
Being far from their original home could not make them abandon their core values as Bantus. They determined to cherish their identity no matter how far they were from their roots.
Among other traditions that the Bantus hailed was taking out newly born babies outside after seven days of the birth. The Bantus also named the villages in their languages and others the names of the villages they came from. “To this date, there are some villages in Somalia that share the names with the villages found here,” affirms Mzee Kizito.
Some of the villages with Zigua meaning include: Kisimayo (which has relatively a big number of Zigua in Somalia). The name was a delivery from the Swahili word “Kisima Juu” which can be translated as the “Upper Well”.
There is a village called Nyire meaning “Sweet”. This is because there was a time where women would only give birth to a baby girl. But when one went to drink water from this place, she would bear a son. Which they found the water of this place as “sweet”
Other names of the villages reflecting the Zigua tribe include Chikwazu, Kwa Mkumburu, Mgambo, Buriaga, Kwa Musa Makua, Msingino, Chizuno and Bweni.
“In fact, the Zigua have such a huge influence in today’s Somalia. Although the Somalis are seen as the dominant ethnic group in that country, history is very clear that the so called native Somalis found the Ziguas already in the country,” says Mzee Kizito.
The relationship between the Bantus and their once slave masters Arabs weren’t sour forever. Admitting that the Bantus have defeated them, the Arabs decided they would instead start to do business with their foes, hence the two traded guns, among other products.
The Trip Back to Tanzania
When war started, Mzee Kizito says, apart from losing his job, the Somalis were looking to kill him. Having worked with the government as a teacher and for a time as a politician, they believed he had accumulated big wealth.
Now that he has lost the job as a result of war, he looked for another job and got one at the harbor as a stevedore. He later decided he would bring the parents from the village they were staying to stay with him at Kismayo.
“As I was working, I managed to earn about $ 200 which I gave to my children and told them to run away from the country before the war intensified. And I specifically told them to un to Tanzania, for I knew that’s where I would meet them later when I also run from this country,” says Mzee Kizito
Luge, who was 25 years old when they ran from Somalia in 1991, says although it was always tough to start life from a scratch, “apart from the fact that living in Somalia was full of fear, coming to Tanzania as a refugee feels a whole lot better.”
He says he feels Tanzania to be his home. “This is the place I had only been hearing from the stories of the grandees, now I am physically here and there is a lot of similarities from what the grandees told us about. From the languages people speak here, to the names of the villages we’ve found here.”
Luge and his family lived in a town called Buriaga. He remembers it was in the February of 1991 when they started a trip to Tanzania. “We had already heard about the war a little while ago, but we were reluctant to run away thinking the fight wouldn’t get to our place,” explains Luge.
When they found it was no longer safe, they decided to run. Still, their focus to the destination country had remained one, Tanzania. They thought “perhaps this was another attempt to go back where we are originated, Tanzania.”
Having left Buriaga, they went straight to Kisumayo where they boarded a fishermen’s boat. He recalls the boat to be very tiny and they were about 15 of them, but they didn’t have options as the war was intensifying.
They spent a night at Kiamboni, then boarded a boat again to a place called Kiunga where they stayed for one week and headed to Malindi and to Ram where they aimed for Kenyan immigration to get some kind of refugee help such as health check up and entrance permits.
“When we were at the immigration office we were so persistent that we were running away from the war but we were going home not just for refugee shelter. It wasn’t easy for them to believe us that we truly were originating from Tanzania, from a Zigua speaking community,” narrates Luge.
He says immigration officers then had to call officials who could speak Zigua language. They pulled the young children aside and tried to talk to them in Zigua, to test if they truly were from that ethnicity. Surprised, Luge says, the officers found out the children would speak a pure Zigua language.
The language was enough evidence. The group of refugees was then taken from Malindi to Mombasa where they were held for two days, for what officers said “more investigation” needed.
“They officers couldn’t believe us easily. Some of us, especially the women had carried even the stones that we use to grind grains back home. I guess the officers didn’t believe that people who were going to their homes would carry even such kind of stuff,” he says.
Luge says he wasn’t worried though. Just having passed the Somali boarders was enough encouragement that they had left the trouble behind. He recalls a couple of troubles on the way that having settled at the other side of the boarder was itself a bit of the dream fulfillment.
“Coming from Kiamboni to Kiunga, we sailed at this spot famously known as “The Gate”. This is the must pass spot whenever people cross the river. And as the people pass at this place they are supposed to shade a blood, it doesn’t matter, whether its animal’s or human blood.”
He says since people were aware of this, they usually got prepared and travelled with an animal, whether a goat or any other so that when they passed there, they would drop it. “If you don’t drop an animal as a sacrifice, be assured it is human’s blood that would definitely be taken. So, with us, we dropped a goat that we had travelled with”
Having allowed entry into the country through a Kenyan boarder, they settled in Tanga, where they were made to meet their descendant relatives. “It was like a family reunion, and was so much dominated with tears of joy. Neither we nor our host Ziguas couldn’t believe that we have finally reunited.”
He says the Ziguas they found also told them that their fore grandees had been telling them about their ‘relatives’ who were taken as slaves to another foreign country. However, they had never dreamt of a reunion at any point in their lives.
“It was completely unbelievable to see how we share exactly same culture and tradition; the songs, dancing and the languages were just so similar that the disbelief factor was more not that we have these similarities but that we have finally met our brothers and sisters,” recalls Luge
In Tanga, they stayed for only a short time though. Most of them had relatives in Dar es Salaam who had run away from Somalia before them. And so when they were heading to Dar, they would easily name a person and the place he lives, which most of them stayed at Mbagala area.
When in Dar es Salaam, UNHCR was the one authority that was providing them with most of the financial support. He says despite the non-resemblance with other Somalis, it wasn’t hard for the UNHCR to identify them (Somali Bantus) as refugees, as they would also even speak fluent Somali.
Life in Tanzania
This was Amir’s first time to be in Tanzania. He says he was immensely encouraged with the equality among people. “Those living in town were not because of their racial or ethnic advantages, I could very easily tell how everybody is equally treated here.” Luge says: “In Somalia, Somali Bantus were in so many cases despised and marginalized just because of their ethnicity. Despite all these years we have lived in Somalia, we were still referred to as slaves.”
He says their fellow Somalis used to call them “Addon” which means ‘Slave”. Luge addsL “The towns and cities were for the so called native Somalis and for us Somali Bantus, ours were only the villages.”
Living in Tanzania, Luge says has made him realise how he had spent a lot of time and energy but earned very little. He says there are plenty of things that he has done here in Tanzania, that either it took him so long time to do them or has not done them at all in Somalia.
“For example, just staying here in Tanzania for these few years, I have already been able to build my own house, cultivated and harvested a lot of crops. In short, I can really feel or touch the fruits of the efforts I am putting in developing myself and my family at large,” Luge notes.
He says their agricultural products were taxed a lot of money in Somalia but had never seen any improvements in their social services. The social services were only better to other Somalis not to the Somali Bantus’ community.
“Right now, I have a young brother who has graduated from University. There are others who have finished colleges and have been posted to a number of schools in the country where they are teaching,” points Luge.
He says this gives him and the rest of Somali Bantus at large a hope that in future, they would see a number of individuals from Somali Bantu community holding different leadership positions in the country.
He believes it is the history of where they are coming from that inspires their kids to work hard in school and others in their businesses so that they can change their future. He says there were many cases that they were blocked to head or lead any meaningful positions in Somalia, not on merit basis, but because of their ethnicity. Luge and Mzee Kizito say it wasn’t hard for them at all to learn the Swahili language and cope with other Tanzanian culture. They say Kiswahili is also very dominant in certain parts of Somalia, especially where the Somali Bantu were living such as the town of Kismayo.
“When you get at this town, you will be surprised how dominant Swahili language is. People at this place prefer to listen to the Swahili radio channels such as Radio Tanzania, and with sports, the Simba and Yanga teams having so many fans at this town,” says Mzee Kizito
Chogo: The New Settlement
The new Somali Bantus settlement is at the village called Chogo, about 130 kilometers from Tanga and around 300 kilometers or so from Dar es Salaam. Despite the fact that the settlement is only few hundred kilometers away from Tanga, the people have developed a close link with Dar es Salaam which is more than 300 kilometers away from the village. “We are more used to Dar es Salaam than Tanga since we have lived here when we first came in the country. Apart from that though,” Mzee Kizito adds: “Tanga has so many similarities to that of Kismayu. There is this ‘Sultanish” culture which, like Kismayu, is very obvious in Tanga”
Prior to being shifted to Chogo, Somali Bantus were living at a nearby village called Mkuyu, their home of more than 10 years, but the area was too small for them, especially that they are farmers by nature who need enough land to cultivate their crops.
Upon arrival in Chogo, some 80 km away from Mkuyu each household received 3 acres of land, half acre to build a settlement house and the 2.5 acres for farm.
Looking at how the Chogo village is fully cropped and a very greenish place, one does not have to do a research to find out what kind of people Somali Bantu are. Whether it’s their history or their nature that inspires them, their work says enough what these individuals are capable of
You can very clearly see how the 2.5 acres set for farming have been very well utilized for that purpose. There is no idle piece of land between a house and a house. Rather, it is a maize cultivated piece of land that divides a house from the other.
Passing by their houses in the morning hours, you hardly will find individuals staying idle at home. The kids are obviously at schools, the parents are all gone to the farms while the young people have probably gone to sell their businesses ‘if not in their bodaboda’ business. Despite his age of 65 year old, Mzee Kizito, apart from the two acres surrounding his home, he has some extra 8 acres away which he has planted maize and simsim. Within the same farm, he has planted 240 orange trees, where he expects to harvest about 30,000 oranges.
“Additionally, I have 60 mango trees which have already bore mangoes but in total I have about 130 mango trees,” says Mzee Kizito
Luge says: “Nine years ago when we moved in here at this village, the place was simply a forest. We have had a number of encounters with wild animals here. But look at it now, no one can tell if this place was nothing but a jungle.”
The UNHCR had fully supported the Somali Bantu for the first two years, 2003 to 2005, when they moved at Chogo. Since then, they have fully been depending on themselves.
“I have never seen such a hard working people in my life like these Somali Bantu,” says Winfrida Zoya, a Settlement Commandant, adding: “Honestly, the neighbouring community is a very lazy people. Imagine last year, these Somali Bantu led in maize production over the whole district.”
Luge says there were cases where the host individuals at the surrounding villages have taken food from them because they (the neighboring community) didn’t produce enough.
There are number of agricultural groups in the village, but one famous is named Mauya. This group has only 13 members, and the village council has given them 250 acres that they currently grow only simsim. Mzee Kizito says they preferred simsim since it is the crop that they also grew in Somalia but also one that doesn’t need too much care, like guarding it from monkeys, wild pigs or rats.
Within seven years (from 2005) of their own independence from the UNHCR, a lot of individuals have made some incredible achievement, including buying their own trucks, which they use to transport crops and other business goods from outside the village and sometimes taking the goods to the outside market.
Two other individuals have bought power generators to supply power in the village for individual payment of Sh15,000 per month for their domestic use, while those with extra uses like shops pay Sh30,000 per month
The UNHCR, working with the Tanzanian authorities and the Tanzanian non-governmental organization, Relief to Development Society, have helped to build some social services such as schools, primary and secondary.
There is also a health centre and market constructed by the government, and a nursery school, partly built with the Free Pentecost Church of Tanzania in collaboration with the Finland government.
“Unlike some other public schools, our school doesn’t have big problems such as desks or books. All of our pupils and students sit on desks and we have enough books for most of the subjects, maybe for a standard two which has little need for Kiswahili books,” says Peter Kweka, Kwa Mdami primary school acting head teacher.
With 411 pupils, Kwa Mdami primary school has a shortage of only three teachers. In last years’ standard seven examination results, out of 33 students, 23 of them passed the exams.
Wema Kerefu, the Enrolled Nurse at the village’s health center, mentions the lack of laboratory expert as the only challenge at the hospital. She says all the laboratory equipment is available, but the health center lacks an expert to operate it.
“My husband was the only laboratory technician here, but he went for studies and when he came back, he was assigned to the dispensary. So, at the moment, we treat most of the patients in accordance with their illness record not the testing results,” says Kerefu.
She says, on a daily basis, she administers between 25 and 30 people, mostly being the women and a number of children. She applauds the women’s awareness and preference to deliver at the health center than at their home, contrary to their counterparts at the neighboring villages.
Although the health center qualifies for a dispensary status, Kerefu blames the political unwillingness to uplift the health center. Kerefu, who was initially trained as a Nurse Mid Wife, says she sometimes has to act as a doctor as well. With a total of three wards, each with 8 beds, the health center serves three surrounding villages namely Chogo Kijijini, Chogo Makazi and Msilwa village. Kerefu says the center doesn’t need much construction at the moment, maybe only a single building, for a theater.
The Settlement Commandant, Zoya, says currently the neutralization process is still going on, though the system has kind of being an obstacle she says. “There are almost 50% of individuals have already received the neutralization and the other 50% are still processed.
“The women and elders are the bigger group in that neutralization figures. The young people have a little bit being reluctant to the process as some of them want a resettlement to a third country, which is not possible for their case” says Kerefu.
She named the criteria acceptable for resettlement to a third country as: when a refugee is not accepted at the second country she/he has run to, or if he/she needs a family reunion or if for a medical grounds.
Kerefu lauded the Somali Bantu to have a very good relationship with their neighborhood. “I have previously worked in other refugee camps and settlement but these people are different. So far, I have never received any complains of them being in quarrel with their host neighbourhood”.