Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Somalis of Lewiston

Retired FSO Curtis Jones sent me an article from the December 11 New Yorker entitled "New in Town: The Somalis of Lewiston [Maine]." I emailed him the following comments today:

Dear Curt,

Thanks for sending me the Finnegan piece. Overall, it's a splendid and heartening account of how these refugees are adapting themselves and their culture to life in the U.S., where they are certainly lucky to have landed (believe me) after escaping their awful difficulties in Somalia. The piece is particularly useful in its description of how so many Somalis have unfortunately managed to import their clan and sub-clan conflicts from home, playing them out here as if those same differences weren't the very ones that caused them to flee Somalia. But it's also encouraging to see how the younger and/or wiser members of the Lewiston community are seriously wrestling with those issues and successfully overcoming them.

I was frankly dismayed to read about the degree to which illiteracy in in general and lack of fluency in English in particular have been impediments to resettlement. Not so very long ago (in the 1970s), when President Siad decreed that the Somali language should be written using the Roman alphabet instead of Arabic, his government launched a huge and amazingly successful literacy campaign that gave the country one of the highest literacy rates in Africa. After twenty years of anarchy that essentially closed down the public education system, that "great leap forward" has evidently been nullified, to judge from the Lewiston Somalis anyway, and along with it the learning of English that had flourished in Somali schools.

Where I have difficulties with Finnegan's piece is the disproportionate attention he gives to the "Bantu" Somalis as a distinct and historically disadvantaged element in the community. There is no question but that these "kinky-haired" farmers, as some called them, were second-class citizens where they came from and were often discriminated against and even despised by "traditional" Somalis, as indeed farmers so often are by pastoralists elsewhere (snobbish Somalis used to boast to me of the country's homogeneity, claiming that 99 percent of Somalis were "nomads" rather than dirt farmers). And because they were the sedentary types who cultivated the land and harvested and stored their produce for market or for seed, they were the ones who suffered most painfully during the civil war when their lands were overrun and their stores looted by warring militias.

But I think it's unhelpful of the author to convey the impression that the "Bantu" (a term that was rarely used in Somalia) were treated as low-class "slaves" at home -- my driver was one and was so self-possessed that he used to insist on sitting in and injecting his opinions, sometimes contrary to mine, when I met with local officials around the country! In a way, Finnegan's focus on their complaints helps to perpetuate and even exacerbate the excess-baggage prejudices that Somalis brought with them as refugees.

On the whole, I'm amazed at how successfully the younger generation of Somalis have been in building new lives for themselves in the U.S., often in the face of serious obstacles (most notably the terrorism factor but also our own abiding racism). They're an energetic and resourceful bunch, and I find the Lewiston "experiment" to be very encouraging.

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