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Pride and Prejudice in Somalia

By Heikal I. Kenneded
Wednesday, October 10, 2018

The heinous atrocity committed against Ahmed Muqtar Salah (aka Dowlo), a Somali Bantu who was reportedly stabbed to death and his body burned while still alive by the family of his nephew’s in-laws was a bloody reminder of how far Somalis have to go on accepting each other. While attacks of such barbarous nature are unusual in Somalia; nevertheless, cultural marginalization and tribalism against the so-called minority communities is still prevalent in a country that claims to be a homogenous society with one religion - Islam. In fact, marrying across cast lines is still a taboo that anyone who dares it risks of being disavowed by his or her family, especially marrying from a “lower” caste. This reprehensible murder took place after a young couple secretly eloped without the consent of the bride’s family, protesting their daughter’s marriage to a Bantu husband, the bride’s mother accompanied by several other relatives torched to death Mr. Dowlo at his garage, simply because he refused to divulge the whereabouts of the married couple.  It is now sadly unclear how to rectify such wanton violence against the Somali Bantu community who live in fear of such repercussions whenever they claim their equal rights as other Somalis.

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This tragedy took place between two neighboring families who lived in the same vicinity “xaafada” for several decades. Unfortunately, in a country like Somalia vigilante violence is frequently committed with impunity, which is the primary obstacle to a lasting peace. This was no different from the atrocious honor killing practiced in most of the Middle East and some South East Asian countries, where couples who go against the practiced culture and marry outside of their caste are instantly killed by the closest relatives due to a perceived believe to have brought dishonor on the family.  In fact, discrimination and prejudice against the Somali Bantu communities, especially when it comes to intermarriage has been prevalent in the Somali culture since the dawn of history. Perhaps the most striking aspect of this latest horrific act is the barbaric nature the perpetrators carried out to express their prejudice against the uncle of the groom. The problem with societal prejudice and discrimination against certain communities is that it severely deprives the safety and potential opportunities of these marginalized communities. For instance, the social disapproval for intermarriage carries a disparaging stigmatization that precludes them interacting with the larger society and participating the existing socioeconomic market and they’re eventually forced to toil on the margins of the economy, not to mention the lack of getting access to proper education. To put it in perspective, we all know it’s wrong and much more importantly un-Islamic but continue to practice it out of shame and incongruity.

The bitter truth is that the Somali society is hypocritical of their retrograde practices of tribalism and marriage discrimination when it comes to intermarrying with so called minority groups, including the Somali Bantus. Part of the putrid odor emanates from the ongoing discrimination against these communities who are merely marginalized for their looks or past grievances for telltale stories committed by their ancestors. As such, most of the minority communities experience discrimination and restrictions in most fields, including lack of education, illiteracy and high unemployment rates. It is well documented in the history annals how Somali Bantus are treated as second-class citizens in their own country and barred from most socioeconomic and political opportunities. Their collective history of persecution as ethnic and communal minorities in Somalia, especially widespread atrocities committed against them during the civil war is a dark stain that will permanently remain in the soul of the Somali being.

Since there has not been any credible census in the country for the past half-century, Somalia is technically described as a nation with no minorities. The so-called Somali minorities are either predominantly agro-pastoral communities in the south, or artisans, such blacksmiths, leatherworkers, and hairdressers - in the north of the country who were marginalized by the predominant nomad clans. In this regard, the Somali Bantu communities have been falsely labeled as minorities and thus marginalized for decades due to their different lineage from other allegedly predominant clans. In other words, these communities have faced all kinds of domestic violence and abuse at the hands of “dominant” clans, even more during the civil war, when their land and farms were forcibly misappropriated by other warring clans who were the key war perpetrators. These communities especially those in the south have suffered some of the most unspeakable violation of their rights, including widespread rape and the systematic looting of their properties. It is estimated that one quarter of the Somali Bantu communities were annihilated during the civil war, while a great majority of them were internally and externally displaced and ended up in refugee camps.


The Somali Bantu communities primarily live in the Lower Juba and Shabelle valleys, where they have farmed and tilled the land for livelihood for the past century before they were recently invaded other Somali warring faction who expropriated their land, and in some cases enslaved them. Because they are considered lower caste than other nomadic clans, Somali Bantus and other marginalized communities of descent-based caste perform skilled services in the cities, which are traditionally considered "unworthy" or exceedingly menial, and for very little pay that amount to servitude. In result, most of these marginalized communities are trapped in a vicious cycle of extreme poverty, illiteracy and oppression. This includes severe under-representation in leadership positions and obstacles to political participation, which among others limit their access to essential services, such as proper healthcare and rightful land ownership. Indeed, human rights abuses against Somali Bantus borders that of the India’s “Untouchables” who are relegated to the lowest jobs, where they live in constant fear of being publicly humiliated and dehumanized with impunity by other major tribal groups seeking to keep them in their place. In fact, even during the last functioning regime, many of the crimes committed against these communities used to go underreported due to fear of reprisal, intimidation by their neighbors, or simply the knowledge that the police will do nothing.

Given the lack of strong judicial system in the Somalia, most of the predominant clans take the law into their own hands and commit such horrific crimes with impunity. Thus, the Somali federal government has to step up and commit to putting an end of the criminal marginalization and subjugation of defenseless Somali Bantu communities and others alike. In other words, more must be done to reintegrate these communities into the wider Somali society for them to achieve their potential because it is a disgraceful disregard for human rights to keep them in the shadows and their right trampled by wanton vigilantes. Otherwise, the search for a lasting peace in Somalia will perpetually remain elusive and problematic, as long as the government fails to address this structural violence that has greatly contributed to the intrastate crisis of the country, in the first place. Finally, both local and international human rights activists have limited themselves as concerned with gender inequality in Somalia by merely concentrating on relatively minor issues, such as setting up quotas for the number of women in the federal parliament and bestowing excessive praise when such minor reforms are put in place. Nevertheless, they have not tried to tackle the real elephant in the room, the elimination of systematic discrimination against minority communities. The time is long overdue for them to do so.

If you wish to help, a fundraising website has been setup to help the large family left behind by Mr. Dowlo: https://www.gofundme.com/weareallequal-justice-for-ahmed

Heikal I. Kenneded

[email protected]

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