Saturday, February 11, 2012

Francesca Declich Fostering Ethnic Reinvention Gender Impact of Forced Migration on Bantu Somali Refugees in Kenya .......

Cahiers d'études africaines
Numéro 157 (2000)
Francesca Declich
Fostering Ethnic Reinvention
Gender Impact of Forced Migration on Bantu Somali
Refugees in Kenya
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© Cahiers d’Études africaines
Francesca Declich
Fostering Ethnic Reinvention:
Gender Impact of Forced Migration
on Bantu Somali Refugees in Kenya*
This article assumes the process of displacement due to natural or human
generated disasters, as a condition which, in spite of constantly changing
contexts, entails similar structural characteristics generally determined by
the constant way international aid is provided. Such structural aspects
influence the negotiation of power within groups by occupying spaces of
uncertainty created by the very process of forced displacement. In fact,
despite the different geographical, historical and political conditions in each
case, a change in production/reproduction relationships often, if temporarily,
occurs within a group for some period of time following displacement. It
is during this very period that the patterns to control and manage people
in conditions of displacement are often very similar everywhere as applied
by humanitarian agencies; such standard patterns may have a strong influence
in terms of inter-gender power relations. In other words, I argue that
the periods in which refugees do not control the means of production are
the periods in which aid providers, who belong to an outside and international
context, may wield the greatest influence. As control of production
is continuously renegotiated between genders, impact on gender relations
and construction is to be expected in forced migration processes, especially
when people receive humanitarian aid during such processes.
I argue that the very pattern through which humanitarian aid is offered
provides similarities and constants in situations which otherwise may vary
greatly from each other. One characteristic of such similarities is that
* Early versions of this article have been presented on the 24th of May 1995 in
Edimburgh, at the conference on “Identity in Africa” (24-26 of November 1995)
and at the 2nd Congress of the AISEA (Associazione Italiana di Studi Etno-
Antropologici), University of Rome “La Sapienza”. An initial introduction from
the Refugee Studies Programme of the University of Oxford was important to
allow my visit in the camps surrounding Daddab. I thank for helpful comments
on this article: Eve Crowley, Doreen Indra and an unnamed referee of the Cahiers
d’Études africaines. A welcomed contribution of the French Institute for
Research in Africa (IFRA) in Nairobi became available when carrying out fieldwork
in Kenya and Tanzania.
Cahiers d’E´ tudes africaines, 157, XL-1, 2000, pp. 25-53.
actions, benefits and incentives are directed differently by gender, reproducing,
more or less, highly conventional western standards ideologies of what
gender relationships should be. Therefore, humanitarian actions may have
a differential impact on future development for men and women. In other
words, a comparatively uniform “refugee experience” in Africa results
largely from becoming a recipient of aid in settlement areas/refugee camps
according to some standard criteria.
I define here a system of humanitarian aid provision as a set methods
of supplying items and services to a human group considered in condition
of urgent help for survival. The system is composed of a number of inputs
(food items, non food items and basic services) which are provided according
to certain rules by a community of expatriates together with some
nationals from the host country. The actions of such community, and the
rules used for providing aid, are integral part of the system of inputs offered
to the refugees.
The standard inputs produced by the system of aid provision are
addressed differently by gender and, therefore, have a differential influence
on men and women. The different ways men and women respond and/or
strategise in relation to similar inputs from external agencies can be better
estimated along the time; strategies and ways to respond may vary according
to class, age and education of those involved.
Unfortunately, only a few analyses of such responses in the period
following first displacement are available1. Most studies which are carried
out within a context of development or emergency projects suffer from an
epistemological constraint: they describe people who have been observed
during a short period of time, without much knowledge of their previous
ways of living nor follow up in the next stages. These studies rarely
compare what happens to people after the emergency period with what was
envisaged in previous reports, because this is not part of their rationale or
interests. Studies conducted in emergency projects often attempt to construct
“history” based on people’s recollections-which are of course themselves
situational to the emergency context, and which may not closely
parallel either their historical experiences or actions.
In this article, I shall present the case of the Somali Zigula and Shanbara
who escaped from war along the Juba River in Somalia. Data were gathered
between 1985 and 1988 in Somalia and, later, between 1994 and 1996
during displacement in Kenya and Tanzania’s refugee camps. I suggest
that this group’s loss of control over production of staple food, during the
first period of their forced migration, created a condition of weakness and
uncertainty which largely determined the process of power negotiations
between genders that followed. In such a situation of radical change, some
people are endowed with power and some are disempowered. This occurs
through micro-mechanisms which give rise to the establishment of new
1. The work of Elizabeth Colson is a very good example of such analyses.
dynamics between genders. Such micro-mechanisms should be highlighted
as much as possible in order to provide key points for a diachronic analysis
of the changes that take place in the relations between gender in such situations.
Among the Somali Zigula, for instance, it is already apparent that
gender power relationships within the group are changing as a result of a
certain management of the aforementioned period of uncertainty by humanitarian
aid agencies. A renewed gendered construction of ethnicity is part
of this process.
Bantu Refugees from Somalia
Following the onset of the civil war in Mogadishu in the last days of 1990,
thousands of people fled from Somalia. By the beginning of October 1992,
Kenya hosted approximately 412,000 registered refugees and it was estimated
that another 100,000 unregistered refugees were living in the
country. More than 300,000 of these were Somalis (Gallagher & Forbes
Martin 1992: 16).
Most of those who fled from the riverine areas surrounding the Juba
River poured into refugee camps along the boundaries with Kenya in Liboi
and Daddab. Daddab was controlled by UNHCR (United Nation High Commissioner
for Refugees) and run through several implementing agencies.
The largest flow of refugees occurred in 1992, when gunfights along the
Juba River became more frequent. Between September 1991 and June
1992, three camps were opened near the town of Daddab in Northeast
Kenya. In March 1994, they hosted 128,144 Somali refugees divided in
three settlements by the names of Ifo, Hagardeera and Dagahaley. Out of
these, 1,252 in Ifo2, 3,322 in Hagardeera3 and 5,569 in Dagahaley4 were
defined in UNHCR’s reports as “Bantu Somali” refugees, totalling 10,143
members of such minority group in the camps. Other “Bantu Somali” settled
in the Marafa refugee camp close to Mombasa and approximately 3,000
reached Tanzania and were allocated to the refugee camp of Mkuiu
(Tanga Region).
Adoption, Patronage, Clientship and Occupational Castes
in Somalia
Before I discuss the present day ethnic classifications and labels it is useful
to go back to detailed studies describing some processes which brought
2. Ifo refugee camp. Fact sheet, UNHCR, n.d. See also Ifo Site Profile, UNHCR,
October 26th, 1993.
3. Hagardeera refugee camp. Fact sheet, UNHCR, n.d. See also Profile of Hagardeera
Refugee Camp, UNHCR, December 14th, 1993.
4. Dagahaley refugee camp. Fact sheet, UNHCR, n.d. See also Dagahaley Refugee
Camp. Camp Profile, UNHCR, January, 1994.
agriculturalist settlers of the Juba and Shebeli Somali Rivers (Shabelle,
Shidle, Makanne, Eyle, Elay Baydabo, etc.) to be progressively overwhelmed
by pastoral populations arriving from northern areas and seeking
accessible water points along the Rivers.
As inquired about in the second and third decade of the twentieth century
and, later, diligently described, the struggle over the River access points
and, to some extent, to rainfed cultivable lands, gave rise to repeated bloody
clashes and violent fighting which resulted in different kinds of agreements
between lineages and groups of people (Cerulli 1964: 78). The nature of
such agreements have been described in terms of relationships of patronage,
adoption and alliance (iskashaato); however, jural and actual nuances of
these forms of interaction were a matter of negotiation and depended on
the skills in public relations of the individuals, groups and communities
involved, on the resources at stake and on the size of the groups involved.
Patronage in Somalia is a relation in which groups of people seek an
agreement of mutual dependence although one becomes patron and the other
a client. A patronage relationship, for instance, occurs when agriculturalists
give to a certain lineage/clan of pastoral people exclusive rights to River
access points close to their village; in exchange for such an exclusive
license, the agriculturalists may receive an annual payment in animals and
a permanent protection against the intrusion of other foreign shepherds who
might not respect their cultivated fields while approaching the River access
points. The relationship of the agriculturalists Makanne with the pastoralists
Badi Caddo is said to have been of this kind, during the first decades
of the twentieth century (ibid.: 84), as well as that of the agriculturalists
Shidle with the pastoralists Mobileen (ibid.: 78). There are also relationships
of patronage between pastoralists; for example, it is reported that scattered
Somalis (Harti, Ogaadeen and Marrehaan) entered the lower Juba
area as clients of the “Galla” (Oromo) people. Initially, the Somalis looked
after the “Galla’s” animals. Thereafter, the Somalis’ number increased
and they gained a foothold: revolted against their patrons and started controlling
those lands (ibid.: 79).
Adoption between descent groups named “haliif ” (in Arabic) or “arifa”
(ibid.: 68), in a mangled Italianised way, was especially widespread among
the Somalis Hawiye. This was an agreement through which the adopter (a
clan, a lineage or one of the family of the lineage), under request, took
complete responsibility for the protection of the adopted; the adopted (person
or group), on the other hand, was to refrain from jeopardising the peace
of the adopter group (ibid.: 67). Among the Hareyn—as possibly, in most
cases of adoption—the adopted formally renounced to their birth place in
terms of clan/lineage and promised to accompany the adopter’s clan/lineage
in peace and war for ever (Lewis 1969: 66). This also entailed a partial
or total transferral of blood compensation rights and duties from one’s original
group to the adopter’s clan/lineage (ibid.: 67). The reciprocal obligations
entailed by the agreement of adoption could cease for two reasons:
when an adopted group migrated from the territory and when an adopted
group became strong enough to constitute an autonomous ethnic unity, as
recognised by the adopter. Of course, power conflicts would also determine
the cessation of an adoption (Cerulli 1964: 73). The end of an adoption
involved the clearing out of the territory previously granted for agriculture
or other purposes by the adopter (ibid.: 67-68). From the adoption system
arose several complicated issues in the consuetudinary law and examples
of such are reported for the twenties (ibid.: 68, 70-75) and the sixties (Lewis
1969: 72-74). The institution could be used by a group for establishing
itself in an area and, thereafter, claiming such territory permanently by
force. Moreover, allegiance of an adopted lineage or family with its original
clan could continue after many years of permanence in far away areas.
When adopted people kept old allegiances with lineages/clans of enemies
they became unpleasant and dangerous guests in case of conflicts. Finally,
when governments banned the use of tribal criteria from the national legal
system, adopted people could try to use their old relations of adoption in
order to claim permanent rights over other clans’ cultivable lands5 again
fostering conflicts. Yet, relations of adoption protected some agriculturalists
before other regimes of land property were set up in Somalia. For
instance, during the Siyaad Barre government, disregarding relations of
adoption, tracts of land were expropriated for national purposes (i.e. setting
up of state farms, etc.), taken from people who had less links with the
lineages/clans of the governments’ members, mainly agriculturalist riverine
During the years, the interactions created through adoption and patronage,
fostered certain pastoral people to convert themselves to good farmers
by occupying more and more arable land. Along the Shebeli River, Cerulli
mentions some such people as: the Hillibi, the Daacud of the Balad area,
the Mobileen, the Molkal, the Badi Caddo (Cerulli 1964: 83). Yet, some
Somali pastoral groups were adopted in villages of riverine people; for
instance, in the Shidle village of Shanloo, along the Shebeli, lived families
of Somali Wacesla (ibid.: 82) and in the Zigula village of Mugambo, along
the Juba, lived families of Somalis who spoke the Bantu language kizigula.
Therefore, despite the general understanding of what is Somali society,
there have been very complex ethnic interactions among pastoralists and
agriculturalists in the last centuries; it would be difficult to keep track of
all such interactions. These involved the concession of temporary rights
over the use of land and territory, but did not necessarily entail that the
adopted people (agriculturalists or pastoralists) were the losers (ibid.: 84).
In fact, especially before colonial times, a patron/client relationship was one
of mutual support in different economic activities or for the control of a
territory rather than one of domination of a group over another. Until the
5. See the case reported in LEWIS (1969: 72-74), although the case is mentioned to
argue another point.
present time a “distinction is made between those born into a clan and those
who have become members by adoption” (Helander 1988: 133). However,
case studies from the Hubeer (ibid.: 43) and the Hareyn (Lewis 1969: 68)
show that in many cases those who have been adopted outnumber the others.
Adoptions also involved people of those occupational castes considered
inferior to the others. An analysis made by Cerulli (1964: 90) points out
at low castes people, as descendants of those subdued during the successive
invasions of the Horn of Africa in the last centuries. No conqueror completely
destroyed the enemy nor was free from contacts and intermarriages
with the defeated people. This occurred even though the latter were put
in an inferior jural condition (ibid.: 88). Several different kinds of groups
have been assimilated to such low castes on the base of their jural inferior
situation; such groups have included corporation of people practising special
jobs considered vile and suspect, such as blacksmiths, wood workers, potters,
tanners, magicians, shoe makers, hunters and gatherers and sometimes
fishermen. Therefore, according to Cerulli, people belonging to low castes
share similarities in development and historical formation rather than linguistic,
cultural or geographic origins (id. 1959: 113). The names of the
most well known low castes in Somalia are Ybir, Midgan, Tumal, Gacansibir,
Muusa Deryo, Ribi, Bon, Kabtol, etc. The names are not accurate
if seen as referring to specific lineages or occupations, rather, the way
people from different occupational castes are named is positional. It
depends much on the geographic area of the Somali country where they
live and the lineage membership of those who speak about them. For
instance, at the beginning of the 1920, there were blacksmiths Tumal in
Mogadishu who considered themselves as poor descendants of the Ajuraan6
(id. 1964: 91-92) and blacksmiths called Gacansibir among the Marrehaan
of the Juba; yet, Muusa Deryo among the Rahanwiin were potters and blacksmiths
unlike the Muusa Deryo of the Habar Awal (id. 1959: 101-113).
Hunters and gatherers along the Juba River in 1985 were called Bon by
both Shanbara and Zigula and only very few intermarriages would occur.
Nevertheless, Shanbara reported that at the beginning of their settlement
in the Gosha area a group of men abducted women from a village of the
Bon people and married them7.
A common characteristic of the occupational castes is that they have
established long term patron/client relationships with one of the predominant
lineage in the area where they live. Such relationship entails consuetudinary
agreements with the patrons as regards payment of bloodwealth,
dispute resolution and marriage rules which vary from group to group.
Basically, because their specialised work is necessary in any lineage, people
from such castes usually have long term relations of adoption with stronger
clans. Moreover, they are not in a large number nor have strength enough
6. The Ajuraan were patrons of the Shebeli valley North of Mogadishu.
7. Fieldnotes, 1985.
to defend themselves alone. As adopted people, low castes cannot take
political initiatives but enjoy some sort of protection depending on the
lineage/clan of their patrons8. In the past, low caste people and slaves held
different legal status (Cerulli 1959: 19-29) which varied according to lineages
and geographical areas. Often was recognised a real blood compensation
for the death of low caste people (id. 1964: 72). It is impossible to
dwell on the analysis of all such jural differences as regards people scattered
in so many different areas of Somalia. It would be enough to say that,
despite conspicuous differences within their legal status at the beginning of
the twentieth century, low castes, freed slaves and slaves were held an
unequal and inferior jural condition as compared to those considered ethnic
During the twentieth century this local system of distinction and social
stratification, initially based on a need for regulating access to natural
resources as well as for managing specialisation of occupations, has been
modified and divisions have been stressed as well as reinforced to fit within
different ruling systems.
Rationale for Labelling: Past and Present
Following the substantial flow of refugees since the end of 1990, for the
first time the international community appeared to became aware of the
existence of Bantu among the Somalis. However, in the history of Somalia,
this sort of ethnic category had been used by colonialists for political
purposes joining together all those Somali people who were skilled in farming
or in other practical works (people belonging to the occupational
castes). Such categorisation reflected and certainly emphasised an existing
local ideology which considers all agriculturalists of the Rivers (Shabelle,
Shidle, Makanne, Eyle, Elay Baydabo, Shanbara, Zigula, Gosha9, Mushunguli10,
etc.) together with occupational castes (Ybir, Midgan, Tumal, Gacansibir,
Muusa Deryo, Ribi, Bon, Kabtol, etc.) inferior groups as compared
to pastoralists. Disregard of both kind of people was part of the ideology
which magnified the image of pastoral nomads. Among pastoralists could
be found the bilis, i.e. “nobles” and among agriculturalists the “slaves” or
In the first decades of the twentieth century the Italian colonialists reinforced
such an ideology by mistakenly emphasising the pastoralists power
8. Cerulli gives some information about the jural status of such castes among the
Majeerteen (1959: 24-29) and the Marrehaan (ibid.: 77-82) and the Hawiye
(ibid.: 283-300).
9. The name Gosha points out at all riverine people of the Juba River.
10. Mushunguli is a mangled name for mzigula, i.e. person belonging to the Zigula
people; the term has been widely used to point out at all riverine people of the
Juba River, sometimes in a derogatory sense.
over supposedly ex-slaves. The fact that Cerulli puts forward a great deal
of evidence against the very inaccuracy of calling “liberti”, i.e. freed slaves,
the whole “negro” populations of the Shebeli and Juba Rivers corroborates
the argument. It seems that the diplomat was opposing a very common view
among colonial officers of the times11.
Despite internal divisions and distinctions, at the beginning of this century
Italian colonialists paid special attention to the descendants from slaves
for their skill in farming. The following paragraph illustrates how this
characterisation was linked to the problem of recruiting agricultural manpower:
“Hand power in the Benadir is scarce for a complex series of reasons
of a moral, economic and demographic kind: [. . .]overall there is a natural
slothfulness of pure Somalis towards work in the fields: only slaves and
freed slaves practice this dishonourable activity; it is only among them that
we gather the small amount of manpower which is available.”12
The categorisation of these people according to economic activities,
which was drawn in a local existing distinction, was consistent with the
viewpoint of the Europeans of the colony. This consonance resulted in the
reinforcement of divisions among people because Italians needed farmers
for agriculture in the colony. All free people who farmed by tradition,
whether slaves or ex-slaves or agriculturalists who had always been free,
were basically included into the same category.
Later, from 1925 to the end of Fascist Rule in Somalia determined in
1941 by the upwind of the British Military Administration, Italians continued
to base ethnic categorisations on economic activities, in order to
“recruit” people into forced labour to apparently build public infrastructures
(Serrazanetti 1933: 20) and work on farms (Del Boca 1992: 203).
Although they knew that many different lineages and group identities
existed among the riverine agriculturalists, Italians did not hesitate to lump
them all together into a unique whole of those who could be of some use
as forced manpower. An informant imitated an Italian scolding Gosha
farmers who attempted to escape conscription with the following words:
“I do not accept your saying ‘I am a Mushunguli’, ‘I am a Bartire’, ‘I am
a Shabelle’, ‘I am a Cawlyahan’, ‘I am a Marexan’. These do not exist for
you. You are lying. You are all Mushunguli Mayasid [Bantu]. You have
to participate [in forced labour]” (Besteman 1994: 52).
In reality, for the farmers who live along the Rivers in Somalia, claiming
membership in a Somali lineage, such as Marrehaan, Cawliyahan, Bartire,
etc., can mean two different things: belonging to a group which is under
11. Such argument is supported in all three Cerulli’s volumes titled Somalia (1957;
1959; 1964). However, a direct statement can be found in CERULLI (1964: 87-
88). The author describes the nature and the historical development of certain
relations of patronage and adoptions established between stable agriculturalists
“negros” and pastoral lineages (ibid.: 75-84).
12. In Bollettino della Societa’ Geografica Italiana, 73, 1910 (English translation of
the author).
a relation of adoption, patronage or alliance with a certain Somali lineage/
clan or descending from ancestors who had been slaves of people from that
lineage. In fact, people might call themselves with the name of their masters;
this was, for example, the case of those who had been taken as slaves
when they were children, because they did not know their original family
names13. In the first instance, the claim can aim at defending one’s rights
as people protected by a Somali lineage/clan because in some sort of alliance
with it or because descendants of ex-slaves of such lineage/clan. On the
other hand, for those Zigula who had obtained their freedom in the territory
of the Juba River by winning the war over the Ogaadeen at the turn of the
century, the claim of being a Mushunguli (a mangled way of saying Mzigula,
i.e. Zigula person) could be part of a strategy to obtain the same rights as
“pure Somalis” who were not forced to work in the Italian farms. In other
words, claiming a Mushunguli identity might aim at enabling supposedly
slave descendants to claim the same status as descendants from free people,
like the “pure Somalis”. Under such claim lies the very criteria that authority
and dominant position of a group could be based on the autonomous
control of a territory by a group and not on the status of people by descent.
Finally, the very fact that people claimed such alliances in front of the
Italian officer suggests that conscription to forced labour was organised by
stressing traditional criteria of alliance and authority; the Somalis with pastoral
origins were co-opted in subduing to such labour people with agriculturalist
Unfortunately, the nature of slavery in Somalia at the turn of the century
has not been studied in depth as yet; however, scattered information suggests
that mobility among social strata followed criteria nowadays imponderable.
For instance, among the Majeerteen the sultan could free a male slave and
such slave could then marry a free Somali woman, unlike other freed slaves
(Cerulli 1964: 24). And yet, Borana captives were made slaves by the
Marrehaan: however, if a Borana woman was taken as a captive, then married
a Marrehaan and thereafter delivered a child she became free and equal
to any other wife of the Marrehaan (id. 1959: 83).
The fact that a certain mobility from one social strata to another for
individuals and groups existed in Somalia has been overlooked; all “agriculturalists”
were homogenised under the label of “liberti”, “freed slaves”, and
became farmers who could be forced into labour.
Along the Shebeli and Juba Rivers, agriculturalists men and women, all
considered to be slave descendants or related peoples, were recruited
through forced corvées and mostly under the Bertello farming contract (Del
Boca 1992). So called “pure Somalis”, possibly bilis or “nobles” were to
choose people belonging to those groups who were under their control to
13. Nowadays, people who act this way are called in Somali shegato. This term
in Somalia is also used to point out at recent patron/client relationships (LEWIS
1969: 86).
be forced into such corvées, under pressure of the colonial government.
Chiefs of “docile” and “dedicated” clans had to send a set contribution of
manpower to the estates (Serrazanetti 1933: 10-11). In other words, Italian
colonialism supported the ethnic division of the Somali population by economic
activities, which stigmatised agriculturalists in many aspects.
A singular phenomenon which reinforced only one kind of ethnic identity
created a gendered and unequal one: agriculturalists men were co-opted
into a policy that restricted agriculturalist women’s freedom in marriages.
Men to be conscripted into forced labour were given the right to choose
any woman they wanted as a wife, without her consent or that of her relatives
(Declich 1995b: 111-113; Menkhaus 1989: 259). New young couples
without children were preferred in the estates. The regulation waved new
husbands from paying marriage transactions for the spouses (Serrazanetti
1933: 11). Fathers were co-opted into ceding their daughters under threat
of being conscripted themselves or their sons (ibid.). It is amazing that,
in order to restrain reactions of men against conscription such an abuse of
power over women should be authorised to them. Indeed, several demonstrations
against conscription were held in the lower Juba area14; yet, many
conscripted escaped from estates every where in Somalia (Serrazanetti
1933); however, as informants from the Juba area hinted at with irony,
without the company of a woman most young men would have run away
from conscription.
With Independence (1960) and following the Socialist Revolution
(1969), some expressions of tribalism were banned and laws prohibited the
use of words which highlighted or signified racial disdain such as addon
(slave), Midgan and Ybir (names of some occupational castes), and jareer
(i.e. person with curly hair, hinting at a progeny of slaves)15. Despite the
apparent effort to eliminate racial discrimination within the country, in practice
discrimination continued and worsened with the eruption of the civil
war at the end of 199016.
A local system of oppositions among the others characterises nowadays
membership in groups and is matter of distinction within people. A first
subdivision distinguishes jareer from jileec. The jareer are those who are
said to have curly hair and large noses; these features clearly identify them
as originating from East Africa, and associates them with descendants from
slaves who are believed to deserve scorn. The jileec are said to be Somalis
with straight hair and a long-limbed build. The classification jareer/jileec
is based on physical characteristics although not all those who in principle
should look like jileec because of clan affiliation have a clear semblance
14. Fieldnotes, 1988.
15. See “Legge sull’eliminazione di alcuni termini indicanti sottocaste”, in Bollettino
Ufficiale, Legge No. 14, 23 maggio 1961, Mogadiscio. See also PESTALOZZA
(1973); and Prima carta della Rivoluzione, 12 Ottobre 1969, art. 5.
16. See, for instance, “Land Tenure, the Creation of Famine, and Prospects for Peace
in Somalia”, African Rights, October, 1993.
of jileec. In fact, if ideally intermarriages between jileec and jareer do not
occur, in practice during the centuries several dynamics, among which some
have been described above, have fostered an intermingling of the members
of the groups in different ways according to the geographical and political
circumstances. The jareer/jileec classification, therefore, is an imprecise
one but remains a sensitive issue in terms of identity for the Somali people:
it takes a positional meaning depending on the geographical and cultural
context in which it is mentioned. For somebody living along the Juba River
a jareer who had sleek hair, because of one of her/is ancestors, might be
considered slightly an outsider if not proving special commitment with the
jareer’s way of life. On the other hand, the very fact of living among
jareer makes of such person a jareer in the view of jileec. The jareer are
believed to come from agricultural families, whereas the jileec are most
often of pastoralist origin. Before the outburst of the civil war in 1990
such distinctions were already stereotypical. However, in the context of
daily life relationships, these continued to be powerful distinctions which
were used to marginalise jareer from access to jobs, benefits, education and
family networks. Yet, descendants from families of ex-slaves in Mogadishu
enjoyed some form of protection from the descendants of their relatives’
Among the jareer of the riverine area of the Juba, however, other
oppositions existed and people classified themselves into many other
categories with specific positive and negative connotations. Oral traditions
of the Zigulas, for instance, record their liberation from enslavement by
escaping en masse, using this to explain why they have kept their Zigula
language (Declich 1995b). The Somali Zigula—people who speak the
Zigula language—call those who no longer speak a Bantu language “Mahaway”,
which is a scoff at their pronunciation of the Somali language. The
latter, on the other hand, call themselves Shanbara or Shanbarani which
means, descendants from five original brothers who belonged to east African
groups such as the Yao, Makua, Nyasa, Nyamwesi and others (id. 1987).
The word “Bantu” to identify riverine peoples of Somalia was used in
colonial times by racist anthropologists, like Puccioni (1937). The term
“Negro” was instead used by more accurate Italian colonial officers, among
whom the most famous are the lawyer Massimo Colucci (1924) and the
orientalist and diplomat Enrico Cerulli. The latter, was in charge of studying
Somali dialects at the R. Istituto Orientale in Naples in 1916 (Cerulli
1959: 9) and spent years in the Shebeli valley in Somalia during the first
half of the twentieth century (1919-1922). As he attended a great deal of
dispute settlements in those years, his reports are invaluable for the details
he attaches to the many cases he describes. Puccioni was a member of the
school of anthropology in Florence which advocated scientific reasons for
the inferiority of the Bantu as a human “race”. Cerulli, using a more accurate
approach to the study of the Somali people, clarifies that not all Somali
“Bantu” were, indeed, descendants from slaves; rather, they were farmers
who had originally inhabited the riverine areas that were later overwhelmed
by Galla (i.e. Oromo) and further Somali (Cushitic language speaker) pastoral
populations and runaway slaves (id. 1957: 161-163). The fact that they
no longer spoke Bantu-based languages did not mean that they had been
slaves. As such, Bantu had become a minority in an area largely inhabited
by pastoral Somalis and because of their physical semblance to those who
had been brought as slaves from the East African Coast, they had all been
identified as descendants of slaves.
Nowadays, within the civil war in Somalia and in the refugee camps,
several factors foster the creation of a new ethnic consciousness and its
internalisation by those who have been called jareer in Somalia. One such
factor is the definition of different levels and strata of beneficiaries for the
distribution of humanitarian aid, with the aim of providing equal access to
all, in the refugee camps.
The Construction of Bantu Ethnicity in Refugee Camps
As they arrive in reception areas newcomers are divided into groups usually
by lineage, ethnic group, or village of origin (Declich 1995a) and, therefore,
“if necessary, by clan” (Gallagher & Forbes Martin 1992: 18). The registration
form which is used by UNHCR includes the tribe/clan/sub-clan as information
to be gathered about the people who register17. In much literature
about Africa the very concept of “tribe” or “clan” has been largely criticised
for being inadequate, imprecise and a result of colonialists’ constructions
(Iliffe 1979; Hobsbawn & Ranger 1984; Southall 1970; Vail 1989).
Although the meaning of the words “tribe” and “clan” may still be unclear,
such classification, apparently, is nonetheless useful in order to confer some
control and order to the camps, as well as to allow people who trust each
other to settle together. Nevertheless, the use of such classifications definitely
reinforces certain criteria of hierarchy by lineages. Somalis from a
pastoral background are known to be subdivided into patrilineages and the
process of registration in the camps may strengthen patrilineal ties, even
among those Somali groups for which such ties are not otherwise very
People who do not have clear affiliation to Somali patrilineages and
who have curly hair are now classified through a process of registration as
“Bantu” by the refugee camps authorities. Such classification, has been
applied by the UNHCR despite the fact that only a few of them actually
speak a Bantu-based language (Declich 1995b). Ironically, the “Bantu”
categorisation helps the jareer to increase their visibility in the camps, in
which they would have been otherwise marginalised because of racial
discrimination. However, the category “Bantu” was completely unknown
17. Branch Office for Kenya-Nairobi, Registration Form, UNHCR, n.d.
to them before arriving in the camps. People I knew from Somalia, had
never heard the word “Bantu” before, and said “we are now Bantu, we, the
Zigula, are called Bantu here in the camp”. In an attempt to endow the
jareer with some ethnic dignity and recognition, a field officer classified
the Bantu as “Mushunguli” (Lehman 1993); a project manager identified
them as Shanbarani—a name farmers of the Juba River who only speak
Somali language give to themselves—, because the women she interviewed
identified her group as such and distinguished such group from other Bantu
in the camp (Musse 1993: 13). The different names people have used for
themselves in different contexts in Somalia have been discussed elsewhere
(Declich 1987; 1995b).
In the camps close to Daddab, the fact that Bantu are considered to be
a different sort of people from pastoralist Somalis allows camp authorities
to identify them as one vulnerable group. Otherwise, they would risk not
receiving the benefits to be distributed. If the Bantu were mixed or hidden
among other Somalis, they would risk starvation, because their food would
be simply looted. Due to their ill-regarded descent, they have been poorly
treated by other Somalis in Somalia and in the camps and have became
preferred target of bandits. In keeping with occasional reports by observers
that a large number of Bantu have arrived at the frontier in very weak shape
(Gallagher & Forbes Martin 1992: 19), conversations and reports of officers
working along the Juba River during the war18 confirm that the newlyascribed
Bantu categorisation—that had become widespread after 1990 as
a result of forced displacement—has been important in affording them visibility.
The label of “Bantu”, however, has no precise meaning aside from singling
out those who do not belong to Somali patrilineages, and thus, is a
sort of device used by humanitarian agencies in order to identify this particular
kind of beneficiary. On the other side, those who are called Bantu,
even if they never defined themselves as such before then, for the first time
in the camps meet vested interests in being pulled together under the same
umbrella name. Not the jareer classification, as it was used in Somalia,
nor the fact of being all agriculturalists, had been strong enough reasons
to foster a common consciousness among these marginalised people in
Somalia. In the camps, however, it has become clear that these people are
a minority group and would have problems in receiving benefits if these
were to be channelled through key persons among the Somali patrilineages.
Moreover, such non-affiliation has already put them at risk in Kenya
due to lack of responsibility/guarantee in terms of bloodwealth. At the
beginning of their stay in the camps, the Bantu became an easier target than
others for bandits and/or thieves and women were raped in such occasions.
18. “The nightmare continues. . . Abuses against Somali Refugees in Kenya”, African
Rights, September, 1993. See also “Somalia. Human Rights Abuses by
the United Nations Forces”, African Rights, July, 1993.
Different groups of bandits and thieves, both Kenyans and Somalis, were
raiding the refugee camps especially attracted by the distribution of items.
In order to defend themselves, the Bantu had to arrange to reside next to
each other in the three camps, and, autonomously fenced their quarters with
thorny shrubs to constitute fortified compounds19 (Lehman 1993: 6). Moreover,
they made bows and arrows and kept stores of stones to scare bandits
and thieves who, for this reason, became afraid to approach their compounds.
Downplaying Female Gender in the New Ethnic Construction
Undoubtedly, identifying the Bantu as a different ethnic group from other
Somalis may help them to be protected, and to receive a share of the benefits
provided by humanitarian agencies which they need in order to survive
displacement. In other words, this strategy worked as a way to defend their
access to benefits, incentives and, ultimately, human rights. In fact, by
being allowed to settle together in one area of the camp, the so-called Bantu
can benefit from channels of distribution managed by their own representatives,
rather than by other Somali groups. However, it is exactly by claiming
such equal access to benefits, combined with the “emergency” situation,
that officers in the camp make choices which downplay the importance of
women’s roles in crucial decision making processes. I would like to dwell
on the usual procedure that officers apply to foster some participation in
decision making in the refugee camps. This entails singling out those seen
to be responsible persons, who wield some authority and control over groups
of people, to be recognised as heads of clusters of compounds within the
camps. They become councillors of sorts, who represent the wishes of the
groups. Using such a method and participatory approach, a group of Bantu
male elders were settled together in the refugee camp of Dagahaley.
In March 1994, I had the chance to meet them. They were identified
as the ones responsible for clan subdivisions among the Bantu refugees.
The elders had prepared a statement about their wish to be resettled in
Tanzania, where they hoped to find land, start agriculture, and reconstruct
a living. Yet, also to some UNHCR representatives resettlement in an African
country appeared to be a concrete, plausible, and durable alternative to the
forced displacement of Somali Bantu. The area along the Juba River was
not peaceful enough for repatriation, nor was a safer situation envisaged in
the near future. Some Bantu lands had been invaded and most of the Bantu
who remained were forced to share crops with newly arrived masters20.
Moreover, the racial discrimination these people had suffered in Somalia
and would have to face again if they returned there, were other considerations.
The concern of the UNHCR’s officers for this marginal group was
19. See Africa Report, May-June, 1995: 25.
20. Ibid.: 5.
perfectly understandable and praiseworthy and a good reason for considering
their resettlement in another area where they could practice agriculture
again. Daddab is located in a dry area where scarcity of water prevents
cultivations from taking place on a large scale. It is likely that most of
the Bantu, if asked, would have endorsed the idea of finding a resettlement
area in another African country for their families.
What was questionable, however, was the criteria of “representativeness”
which was used to gather this group of male elders. The elders were
supposed to represent each of the lineages/tribes/clans, or whatsoever these
unexplained words meant, among the Bantu; the nature of such “ethnic”
sections for the Bantu was not clear to the field officers of the camp. Yet,
the Bantu themselves, had learned in Somalia that it was safer to keep
underneath, without disclosing, their own traditional ways of being; rather,
they should adapt publicly to what they were requested to be in order to
be accepted among the Somali (Declich 1995b). The officers, therefore,
assumed that, at registration, new arrivals to the camp declared their clanic
subdivision, and that these were structured, more or less, as they were
among Somalis. The assumption was that their “clans” must have been
something like patrilineages. Accordingly, in order to foster a participation
process representatives should be selected by field officers for each of the
subdivisions (mviko and/or kolwa) of the “Bantu”: Makua, Yao, Nyasa,
Zigula, Zalamo, etc. The point is that these “representatives” had never
been recognised as such in Somalia because a pyramidal structure based on
linear descent did not exist. No one, for example, during fieldwork in
Somalia had ever claimed to be the chief of the Zalamo subdivision, which
was a very small group of people. I suspect that the name Zalamo was,
possibly, a loan word from the Tanzanian group living in the vicinity of
Dar-es-Salaam, with whom the Bantu of the camp attempted to establish a
fictive connection. In other words, in consideration of previous data about
them in Somalia, I had the clear impression that through the camp’s experience
those elders had been given the chance to negotiate their own power
space within their group.
The choice which the officers made, although driven by an understandably
scarce knowledge of the kinship system of the Bantu, seemed to me
even more cryptic because I knew the nature of the lineage system among
the so-called “Bantu”. These Bantu do not have patrilineages, nor do they
have chiefs who wield power over people of the same patri-lines. The
mviko groups are mostly matri-kin groupings, namely, group of people
united by the fact of recognising common female ancestors, deputed to the
management and organisation of mviko rituals; the heads of such rituals are
not necessarily men and most people can claim belongings to mviko of the
father’s and mother’s line (id. 1994: 199, 203-204; 1995b: 107-108). As
rituals are important in a public context, mainly because of their prophetic
aspects, people involved in the organisation of such rituals, men or women,
have a certain influence, sometimes a strong one, in the public life of their
group. From an individual point of view, although the matri-kin grouping
of the mother is the most important to anybody’s life, people can also claim
belonging to the matri-kin grouping of the father, depending on the situation
and the need for certain rituals. While the kinship system provides an
opportunity to emphasise both the mother’s and father’s lines, in the camp
only the father’s line was given recognition by the UNHCR authority.
One could claim that all criteria of representativeness are questionable
in one way or another because they always exclude someone from direct
decision making; yet, some sort of screening, as well as negotiation of
power, occurs in any case. This commonly occurs among refugees. For
instance a recent article argues that the elite of refugees from Burundi
eventually acquire a special role (Sommers 1995). However, it is not at
all clear why women should be the ones who become marginal in the new
invention of political representatives.
Certainly the plight, constraints and risks of remaining in the vicinity
of the camps and the general context has reinforced the common feelings
of Bantu men and women, that they were all once marginalised, and that
they were sharing similar needs and desires for the future. It was the first
time, in fact, since fieldwork in Somalia, that I had seen Zigula and Shanbara21
joining together towards reaching the same aim and supporting the
same requests in a non Muslim religious context. During peaceful times
in Somalia, divisions were also emphasised, at times (Declich 1995b), in
order to describe one’s identity and difference. However, for some reason,
possibly shaped by the situation of emergency, women in such a new ethnic
unity were not provided for as public actors, nor even given the chance.
In other words, a new ethnic invention was taking place and male elders
were called to publicly construct it, leaving apart women.
When such processes occur in the field, it is difficult to disentangle
what really happened while the participatory process was being established.
If questioned about the way the elder representatives were selected in a
group, managers commonly give many good reasons why men had to be
chosen, neglecting women. Explanations such as “. . .when we did ask for
representatives from the Bantu, we were pointed toward these men”, or
“women would have been more at risk if they were put in such a group of
elders” or “this matter was a concern of the male elders and we got them
together in order to give them voice” or “the issue of resettlement is such
a difficult one that there is more chance to succeed if male elders present
the requests for resettlement” are put forward. However, by knowing the
nature of matri-kin groupings among the Bantu and the non-existence of
patrilineages like those of other Somalis, a question arises about whether
none of the field officers 1) thought about looking for both, women and
men representatives and 2) knew that women, as well as men, discuss
whether they prefer to be resettled in Tanzania or somewhere else. More-
21. For clarifications about such ethnic groups see DECLICH (1995b and 1987).
over, women were among the people who most felt at risk of being raped
in the camps, especially if they found themselves without partners; it would
seem logical to have female elder representative of them to be involved in
decisions about leaving the camp.
At any rate, as a result of all these conditions, the group of elders who
were called together to analyse the feasibility or interest of a goal such as
a group resettlement, only included men. In other words, no women elders
were summoned to discuss the issue nor were women elders consulted to
give their point of view on the idea of resettlement for the entire group.
Women were left to speak among themselves about possible resettlement
without be given a public space to express so, unlike male elders. The
pattern of male representation established among the Somali Zigula during
colonial time and followed by the Somali governments was repeated by
representatives of the international community in the very person of the
UNHCR’a officers.
Besides the actual marginalisation women experience in such a decision
making context for the specific issue of resettlement of the group, an important
point is the influence such a choice may have on those women for the
future. Elder and younger mostly uneducated women who for the first time
enter an “international” context or community so directly may believe that
in what they see as “modern” social contexts is not appropriate that women
decide over the movement of their group or have not the right to do so, as
it is shown to them by the officers of the humanitarian aid system. For
the first time in centuries, the Bantu found themselves in a context where
they are not discriminated against as a group. This brought about a relaxation
of social tensions within the Bantu community so that, for example,
women did not pay much attention to their public role being downplayed.
The point is how influential can be such a negligence over the confidence
of those elder and younger women as regards the appropriateness of
their actions in the new international context, their appropriateness in such
context and their right to decide over the movement of the entire group.
In other words, the crucial choice of neglecting women elders was made
with the commendable aims of supporting the rights of the “Bantu” group
to seek a durable solution to displacement and of encouraging participation
within the camp’s decision making system. Nevertheless, this choice had
influential structural effects on power relations between genders within the
public domain.
Whether unintentional or for reasons deemed to be acceptable, the organised
provision of international humanitarian aid wielded considerable power
in the group’s gender relations, affecting both authority and personal identity.
First, the procedure recognised the authority of male elders as important,
while ignoring female elders in the camp; in fact, male elders were
called to discuss the future plans and movements of the whole group in a
plight, whereas female elders were not consulted and, therefore, excluded
from public authority, with few chances to reverse the decisions. In the
“Bantu” villages in Somalia, there were certain aged women with special
authority as regards either ritual performances or other activities at the village
level. It is not clear the reason why this sort of leaders were not
singled out rather a new sort of ethnic chiefs was supported and given
authority through the participation exercise. Secondly, only one kind of
individual identity was reinforced and imbued with the status of being “relevant”:
that which highlights membership in matri-kin groupings, as if they
were patrilineages. In other words, the personal identity which is recognised
as relevant within the camp is one for which the representative must
be a male elder. Importance was attributed to the matri-kin group of the
father, rather than the reverse.
In conclusion, a rationale which was, perhaps, unconscious, underlined
the procedure for managing camp’s issues. Camp personnel assumed first,
that the “clanic” system of the Bantu, whatever this could mean, was strictly
patrilineal, and second that, in patrilineal systems, women have no rights
or choices to decisions about where to move with the family or group in
future years. This of course would even be a misunderstanding in treating
the actual patrilineal Somalis this way. All these assumptions, embedded
in the procedural system of the UNHCR, concretely disempowered women in
their possible future “resettlement” in Tanzania or elsewhere. Ironically,
this happened also to Bantu speakers among the Somali Bantu, such as
the Zigula, who maintain strong oral traditions about their previous forced
displacements. In such traditions, women had an important role: the most
famous personality in their oral narratives is a woman heroine, Wanankhucha,
who lead the largest groups of them away from slavery. She is said
to have been a prophet and diviner (mganga) who organised the flight from
the Somali villages where the Zigula had been captives. She is remembered
as having fostered community feeling among the Zigula by organising
repeated performances of traditional Zigula songs. During the flight she
was able to help the Zigula avoid danger by means of her divination and
visions (ibid.: 105-108; Cassanelli 1987: 221; Grottanelli 1953).
Powerlessness and Persecution of Women by Rape
In interviews with women and men in the refugee camps, most of whom
had been my acquaintances in Somalia five to eight years previously, the
major factors which they then asserted provoked their flight from Somalia
became clear. Especially, at the end of 1991 and early 1992, raids by
armed thieves and bandits increased. Refugees remembered that, in order
to obtain money, food, clothes and other available items, bandits did not
hesitate to commit crimes of many sorts and would threaten, kill, and/or if
the victim was a woman, rape, those who did not surrender.
Rape had become so frequent that, whenever women left the village to
fetch firewood, they risked multiple rape. Almost all of the twenty women
interviewed had been raped once, yet, parties of bandits commonly groupraped
individual women. Another way to convince victims to surrender
their property was to rape a woman in front of her relatives. Description
of the brutal cases which occurred would be endless and I only mention
one such narrative story here. One woman recounted that she would never
forget the image of her friends chased by bandits. They were two sisters
one of whom was pregnant. The women attempted to escape from gunmen,
who wanted to rape them, by running towards the river. The pregnant sister
could not run fast enough and was shot dead; the other sister, however,
managed to escape by crossing the crocodile-infested water. Suffice it to
say that rape was always mentioned by both women and men as a very
good reason to seek a safer home.
A male acquaintance of mine from Somalia explained why he had
decided to flee. After repeated theft of food from his household, the choice
was to flee or to remain at home without food and endure the regular rape
of young women (daughters, wives, nieces and granddaughters) before his
eyes. Adolescent females of thirteen to fifteen years of age were at the
greatest risk of rape. Bandits generally preferred to rape young women.
If they happened to arrive at night, bandits would rape both younger and
older women, but if they arrived during the day they would only pick the
younger ones. This acquaintance reported that before the 1992, when he
flew from the Juba, in his village of origin, not less than two hundred
women were raped out of approximately 1,500 female inhabitants. He
warned me that many women do not admit to having been raped, because
they are ashamed.
Although, in 1994, the camps surrounding Daddab were still rather insecure
for women, who continued to be raped when they left the camp to
collect firewood or when bandits would attack the camp to steal22, such
sexual persecution seemed to be less common than when the refugees were
settled along the Juba River.
Another striking memory was that bandits would steal everything, even
clothes, often leaving the victim almost naked. More than one woman
claimed that her clothes had been stolen after she had been raped. This
practice demonstrates that assailants had reached an exceptional and excessive
level of cruelty. Leaving someone who has already been abused, without
anything, even clothes, marks a wish to render this person completely
defenceless, i.e. unable even to present herself among other human beings.
I was told that a new cloth was one of the very few commodities that
people, who could prepare their “luggage” before escaping from Somalia,
carried with them; in order to avoid theft, this was hidden among the old
rags they used to wear in Kisimayu. The possibility of wearing a nice,
22. See Information Bulletin, UNHCR, February 1994: 7; Refugee Women Victims of
Violence. A Special Project by UNHCR, UNHCR, October 1993: 4; Information
Bulletin, UNHCR, June 1993: 10. See also MUSSE (1993).
clean and “respectable” cloth was viewed as an important part of one’s
identity. This symbol of clothing parallels its significance among women
victims of violence in the refugee camp. As social workers have noted,
women who were forced to continue wearing the same clothes in which
they had been assaulted, faced severe psychological problems23.
The experience of rape and the prospect of facing it again permanently
alters women’s hopes for the future and, specifically, their plans about
where they would like to settle next. One woman said: “We saw such
terrible things. They raped everyone; I would like to return to Somalia,
but the very idea that the war could begin there again, stops me.” Another
woman emphasised the point that the memories of the violence that she
witnessed and suffered could jeopardise her future pregnancies.
In short, starvation and sexual violence, perceived as persecution were
mentioned as the most important factors for fleeing Somalia during war.
The rape of women created a context of powerlessness for both men and
women during the war. Although sexual persecution was directed towards
women, men were also humiliated by being forced to watch their relatives
raped in front of them. Such feeling powerlessness was in addition to the
usual impotence which characterises life conditions refugee camps.
Some Characteristics of Powerlessness:
Alteration of Production/Reproduction Relationships
One characteristic of Somali refugees in Daddab is that they have undergone
a process of alteration in the production/reproduction relationships within
the group. Refugees in the camp cannot produce for their own consumption
nor is any improvement envisaged in the immediate future. This entails
different problems depending upon the main economic activity of the Somali
group involved. Whatever the main economic activity of the group, whether
pastoral or agricultural, people without a means of production are unable
to maintain the roles which are usual to gender in daily life. For instance,
female farmers who are used to grow vegetables and sell them in the market,
find themselves without the activity which allows them some control over
their income; male farmers who do not have a plot of land where to grow
staple food have no means to provide their wives with the prescribed daily
maintenance. Pastoral women without camels are in trouble because their
usual activity of distributing and selling milk is not possible any longer and
young men are not ascribed their traditional responsibility of grazing cattle
in the bush. In other words, most of the activities women and men of
different ages perform daily are no longer possible.
In the camps, both pastoral and agricultural people have no work and,
almost literally, nothing to do during the day. For agriculturalists in 1994
23. See UNHCR, October 1993: 4, op. cit.
there was not enough water to practice agriculture, and the few small gardens
which had been set up by NGOs to produce vegetables could not be
expanded because they consumed too much of the little water resources
available in the camp. Traditional means of production for agriculturalists,
such as the availability of fertile land to cultivate for both male and female
farmers, were not forthcoming. Similarly, pastoral people had no way of
maintaining their productive activities: most of the families had lost their
camels and cows, and women no longer had goats. Even if all pastoral
people had been provided with animals to raise, these activities would not
have been sustainable because of obvious environmental constraints. There
was neither sufficient water nor grass in the area for many big herds of
camels, cattle or sheeps/goats.
For the refugees, permanence in the camps means passing through a
stage in which both men and women are deprived of the chance, albeit for
insurmountable reasons, to maintain their productive roles. Such conditions
put them in a rather weak position. In fact, the absence of productive roles
in a refugee camp not only aggravates the lack of food and commodities
that could be produced and then exchanged or sold: this absence also causes
refugees to lose the daily life context in which their actions have some
effects that they can control and to lose the sense that they can support
themselves through their own work. In these terms, the very few productive
activities in which Somalis could engage affected women and men equally,
in terms of the control on their own lives. Although women continued to
perform some of their “domestic” activities like cooking and taking care
of the children24, it should not be underestimated that Somali women, both
from a pastoral and an agricultural background, have always played an
important role in productive activities as well. This role used to give them
some control over the production of food for household consumption, as
well as leverage in household decisions; cooking and distributing food that
has been autonomously produced is different from doing the same with
scarce rations, received from outside authorities. Such a feeling was epitomised
by a common saying: “When we go back home we will not even be
able to prepare tea for our own pleasure.”
The change in the system of supplying goods for their survival created
opportunities to renegotiate the control of provision and distribution channels;
moreover, also provided a new arena for such renegotiation. This was
because the control over resources, which was at the base of power
dynamics within the group and between genders, no longer went through
the same channels. Moreover, the new channels for distributing goods
become arenas in which hopes for a future and survival are at stake.
Individual and social dynamics were transformed by the arrival of convoys
carrying food and non-food items for the supply of the camps. In
1994, the number of assaults and attacks on the camps by bandits increased
24. As also reported in GALLAGHER & FORBES MARTIN (1992: 23).
on the days assigned to food distribution, when distribution vehicles were
kidnapped and bandits attacked convoys transporting provisions. It was
not only UNHCR that had to adopt measures to control and protect food provisions;
each group of refugees and/or families also had to take particular care
to defend their supplies. When provisions were available in the households,
they had successfully avoided many chances of being stolen. The power
wielded by distributors was magnified in relation to the powerlessness existing
in the camps.
Distributing Benefits. . .
It is precisely in the mechanisms for distributing benefits that outsiders,
such as humanitarian and emergency aid agencies, become important and
terribly potent in managing new sources of power, in predetermining opportunities
and in offering capabilities (Sen 1994: 63-67, 1993: 86-87) to one
individual in preference to another. Benefits do not only include goods
needed for survival, such as food, housing and cooking material, but also
other incentives, such as employment opportunities, which can change a
refugee’s life forever.
One case in point is illustrated by the story of a Zigula woman who
had been a teacher and farmer when she lived in Somalia. I met her again
after seven years in the Ifo camp where she was appointed as a social
worker, because she knew how to read and write. Among Somali farmers
this is a rather rare skill because, after literacy campaigns in the 1970’s,
the level of education in rural areas was not been maintained; the woman
had been educated by missionaries when she was a girl and had been chosen
because she was an orphan. Between 1986 and 1988, in many villages of
the Lower Juba district in Somalia the schools opened for just a few days
due to the low salaries teachers received. As the school was opened only
sporadically until the war broke out, the teacher had not practised her skills
much in recent years; at the time, I almost doubted that she remembered
how to read and write.
After having escaped from Somalia where she had left her husband,
however, and after having spent two years in the Ifo refugee camp together
with her five children, she had undergone remarkable changes. She spoke
much better Italian than she had six years previously in Somalia, was learning
some English, and spoke Kiswahili as well. She was eager to find a
way for her children to study, because she realised how important such
skills had been for her survival after displacement. While working as a
social worker, she had been sent to Tanzania for a short training course on
bookkeeping and micro-credit for small enterprises; when I offered some
money for the time she had spent accompanying me in the camp, she wanted
me to show her a dollar bill, because she had never seen one before since
mostly only trade men dealt with this currency. She considered whether
she should ask me for Kenyan shillings or US dollars, and asked if dollars
could be used anywhere in the world and if Kenyan shillings were valid
in Europe. Moreover, being a social worker, she was in a key position to
distribute commodities in the camp. Since it was she who made the lists
of the families, she controlled how many items would be distributed to each
person on distribution days.
In other words, she used me as an informant since I had no vested
interests in manipulating her and she took every opportunity to obtain new
or better jobs. As a social worker, she was lucky to find herself in the
right position to strategise in the distribution of commodities within the
camp and, like other social workers, she played the game. She had been
chosen as a social worker because she had the skills and was a single woman
with children.
Micro-mechanisms of Empowerment and Disempowerment
Simple and basic mechanisms like those described (new ethnic construction
and job incentives) may appear small and rather irrelevant as compared to
the need to solve problems as quickly as possible in the disrupted situation
of a refugee camp. Some rationales for actions and choices are based upon
the need for moving fast in order to solve problems. Other actions are
justified as avoidance of problems connected with including women in the
decision making process, whereas particular attention should be given to the
effects of empowerment or disempowerment entailed in most actions taken.
Whatever the choices made, in fact, they carry long lasting consequences
in the power relations between genders within a group. Many writers25
have highlighted the powerlessness that a camp’s life entails for male and
female refugees. In this context of powerlessness, actions undertaken by
those who manage the camps may have the strength to support or devalue
certain groups or classes of people. Because people, women in this case,
are in so powerless context do not complain nor find opportunities for resisting.
The gravity of the situation, combined with the expectations created
by the very recognition of a group of male elders by camp authorities could
become strong enough reasons for female refugees not to complain about
the lack of recognition of their role. This may be true especially for people
like the Bantu who, after having been marginalised in their country for more
than a century, are particularly pleased that outsiders have finally shown
some trust in the group. Their desire for a future without war might be
even stronger than for others, as well as their willingness to surrender their
traditional power, if they can avoid the persecution they have undergone
in the distant and recent past.
25. See one for all HARRELL-BOND (1986).
Tribal Labelling as a Way to Strengthen Patrilineal Hierarchies?
In a refugee camp, therefore, people are categorised by “tribes”, not very
differently from the way they were during colonial times, because of insufficient
knowledge and for practical reasons on the part of camp authorities.
The consequences of labelling, however, may differ according to historical
contexts. In Somalia at the beginning of the century, the ethnic categorisation
“Bantu” satisfied the need for singling out a class of agricultural labourers.
There were no distinctions by gender and such categorisation served,
during the Fascist rule in Somalia, to conscript people to forced labour and
“Bantu” women to forced marriages and forced labour (Declich 1995b:
111-113). A question rises as to whether a tribal classification should imply
supporting the authority of men over women or whether there can be different
and more accurate patterns of actions.
In a refugee camp, ethnic classifications seem to satisfy the need for
defining beneficiaries of certain commodities (food and non-food items of
humanitarian aid in this case), as well as for fostering an “equal” distribution
of benefits. However, a tribal label may not meet the interests of all beneficiaries.
Rather, humanitarian and international agencies may support or create
a new hierarchy among people, through tribal classification, in order to
be able to distribute benefits.
In conclusion, humanitarian aid systems act through organising and distributing
commodities, food and shelter materials in camps. The benefits distributed
(e.g. food, housing, etc.) become not just goods needed for survival,
but potential opportunities for camp residents to renegotiate their power,
within the camp. Power within the camp, however, may also mean power
in the future, after the camp’s life.
The situation of powerlessness which is created in a refugee camp
endows the humanitarian aid system with considerable power over refugees’
lives. In such a context, refugees need recognition from the outside because
one of the traditional systems of managing power, based on the control of
the means of production, is no longer in their hands. Key positions of
control in the distribution of commodities and decision making in the camp
become sources of power. When these are held unequally by men and
women, such positions already have an a priori influence over the future
development of gender relationships within a group. Although people react
differently to similar pressures based upon a variety of factors, such as their
traditions, cultural background, and historical experience, processes in a refugee
camp may favour certain groups and objectives over others. This is
especially true with regards to new opportunities and benefits, etc., presented
to men and women after displacement.
Because people respond differently to similar options and opportunities,
it is not possible to forecast with certainty subsequent cultural changes; it
is important, however, to highlight the micro-dynamics which endow some
people with authority and disempower others.
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The provision of international humanitarian aid, far from being a neutral intervention
in the forced migrants communal identity, is an especially directive intervention characterised
by a set of standard procedures. Some micromechanisms within such procedures
act as to foster ethnic reinvention together with empowerment of certain
groups and individuals among the refugees.
In the following article the case of the Somali Bantu refugees is analysed and
ways inter-gender relations are strongly affected by the process of receiving aid during
forced migrations are described. The very organisational procedure through which
humanitarian aid is provided act as empowering and disempowering groups and
individuals among the migrants; such procedure often pushes inter-gender power
Invention de l’ethnicité et modification des rapports de genre chez les réfugiés somali
du Kénya. — La fourniture d’une aide humanitaire internationale, loin de représenter
une intervention neutre sur l’identité des migrants déplacés de force, constitue en fait
une série de procédures standardisées et apppliqués de façon extrêmement directive.
Certains mécanismes internes à ces procédures contribuent ainsi à favoriser la réinvention
des identités ethniques de même qu’elles renforcent le pouvoir de certains
groupes et individus parmi les réfugiés. Dans cet article on analyse le cas des réfugiés
bantu somali et on décrit la façon dont les relations de genre sont affectées par
le processus de distribution de l’aide. Les procédures par lesquelles transite l’aide
humanitaire se traduisent par l’affermissement du pouvoir de certains groupes de
migrants au détriment d’autres groupes et favorise les ruptures d’équilibre entre
les genres.
Keyword/mots-clés: Kenya, Somalia, Bantu Somali, ethnic reinvention, forced migration,
gender relations, humanitarian aid, persecution, refugee camps/Kenya, Somalie,
aide humanitaire, camps de réfugiés, migrations forcée, persécution, réinvention
ethnique, relations de genres, somali bantu.

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