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Helping Somalia's Marginalized Minority

Somalia, November 5, 2007

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Jeremy Barnicle/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Two of Borini's Somali Bantus break up clay-rich soil so it can be moved and shaped into a flood levee. Photo: Jeremy Barnicle/Mercy Corps

Borini, Somalia — Even by Somali standards, the local Bantus have it tough.

Descendants of slaves taken from farther south along Africa's eastern coast, Somali Bantus look different than other Somalis (darker skin, coarser hair) and fall outside the traditional Somali clan system, and therefore have been a marginalized population for as long as they've lived here.

"These people have suffered greatly during the way," says Abdi Yussuf, who oversees Mercy Corps' work in Borini, a Bantu village. "Rape. Murder. The Bantus got it worse than any other group."

Somali Bantus are so threatened that several years ago the American government agreed to resettle about 12,000 refugees in the U.S. Recognizing the special situation of the Bantus, Mercy Corps has made them a priority for its work in southern Somalia — including here in the bright-green village of Borini.

Sprawling mango trees, maize stalks, banana plants and groundnuts sprout from fertile soil fed by the Juba River. Nature is more than dominant here: there are no roads, health clinics, latrines or even wells for water. Most residents of Borini live off what they grow, and pray that neither drought nor flood ruins the harvest.

"Bantus are the classic marginalized population," says Mohammed Wardere, a veteran aid worker who has worked all over East Africa. "They have no power and no one does anything for them."

There are two behaviors that make Bantus so vulnerable: they tend not to arm themselves, which makes them an easy target for militias and bandits, and they tend to settle near rivers, which in this part of Somalia flood regularly.

It's the latter challenge — flood protection — that Mercy Corps is helping address in this community.

I arrive in Borini to a riotous Bantu greeting: about a hundred children dancing and chanting, "Welcome, welcome, a visitor has come!"

As a backdrop for the kids' performance, the village's men are digging clay and the women are moving it to a rapidly expanding levee. Two men with pickaxes hack away at a massive clay-rich anthill and they have a call-and-response song going with the women below.

I ask a Somali colleague what the song is about. He says he's not sure, but it has something to do with "struggle."

The adults are participating in a Mercy Corps cash-for-work program, in which the community decides on a high-value infrastructure project and Mercy Corps provides technical guidance, tools and wages for the workers.

Borini, like some of its neighboring riverside villages, decided that shoring up its levees was the most urgent project. The rainy season is approaching and it's clear to me that without the levee, the spot where I'm standing would soon be underwater.

"Twice a year Borini is flooded," says Ayub Hassan, the village teacher and chairman of the village committee. "When we finish these cash-for-work embankment projects, we will be flood-free from then on."

About 40 people from the village's poorest households are paid $2 a day — the standard daily wage for manual labor in this part of Somalia — to build clay-core embankments in weak spots along their side of the Juba River.

Beyond protecting the homes and fields of Borini from flooding, the cash-for-work program is providing some much-needed income for families here.

"We used to eat one meal a day," says Omar Gedi Mohammed, as he and his wife Shukri usher me into their mud and thatch roof home to meet their four kids. "Now we are eating three, and the children have more energy."