By Thomas E. Mitchell, Jr.
Remember the popular network television situation comedy, “A Different World?” It followed the ups and downs of Black college students at a fictional historically Black college.
It’s definitely a different world for a group of Somali Bantu children and youth attending Clara Mohammed School (CMS), a private parental choice school, located at 317 W. Wright St.
Even with the expected ups and downs, as well as the lure of materialism and other negatives of Western culture, it’s a world the Somali students have enthusiastically embraced.
While life in Somalia for the Bantu, a sedentary farming people who reside in southern Somalia, has been plagued by civil war, starvation, displacement, genocide and racism, life for the fortunate ones who have come to the U.S. and Milwaukee, seems like paradise.
“Life in Africa and the United States is different,” said Osman Ahmed, 16, one of five Bantu Somali students interviewed recently about their old lives in Africa and their new lives in Milwaukee.
Osman was joined by Jamal Idow, 14; Habiba Mohamed, 17 and Isha Mberwa, 18. CMS officials would not allow the name of the fifth student to be used for what they cited as security reasons.
“In America there is plenty to do; go to school and food,” Osman continued, noting in Somalia and other parts of Africa, food is not plentiful and that some Bantu children go to school hungry or skip school altogether and go to the market in search of sustenance.
The other Bantu students interviewed concurred with Osman, saying America is the true land of opportunity where they can do anything from going to school to having fun with friends.
They had very little positive to say about Africa, particularly Somalia. Such sentiment is understandable when one hears the tragic and horrific stories the students shared of losing family members, villages being raided by Somali bandits, being driven from those villages and seeking safety in crowded United Nations refugee camps, the deaths of their mothers, fathers and other relatives that forced older siblings to assume the responsibilities of parenthood.
The students said the Bantu (which means, “Group of People”) are treated like second-class citizens. Bantu’s with African features—darker skin, larger noses and kinkier hair—are discriminated and oppressed by Somalis who are half Arabic and have thinner noses, lighter skin and straighter hair.
Even in school, Bantu children (who are fortunate enough to be able to attend school) are mistreated and given bad grades by Somali teachers, even though they do superior class work, the students said.
Osman described how his grandfather and uncle were ambushed by Somali bandits as they returned to their village after fishing.
The bandits made the grandfather and uncle clean and cook the fish, threatening to kill them if they found a bone while eating. One of the bandits did bite into a bone. Using a machete, they attacked the grandfather and dismembered his body.
Osman’s uncle, having barely survived his attack, crawled back to the village. Along the way he drank his own urine to keep hydrated. He eventually made it back to the village with the help of a friendly Somali who was a member of the Alliy tribe.
Upon hearing Osman’s uncle recount the attack, some of the villagers returned to where the remains of his grandfather lay and buried him.
The incident shook Ahmed’s family and forced them to seek refuge at a United Nations’ camp in Kenya before he and some of his family made their way to the United States.
Verda Sayles, an assistant principal at Clara Muhammad, called the Bantu students her “fiercest learners.”
“The kids are very eager to learn; they demand to learn. They seldom miss a day of school. They have plans for their lives (and) what they want to do and have. They have goals,” she said.
Sayles compared the Bantu immigrants to Black Americans after the Civil War who pushed their children to get an education; rightly believing it was their passport to a better life.
One of the biggest hurdles faced by the Bantu students—and for that matter the Clara Muhammad staff—was teaching the students English, a definite must-have skill if they were to succeed academically.
In fact, in teaching the students English, Sayles and the faculty discovered the Bantu have no written language or alphabet of their own.
The Bantu language is passed down orally. “To teach them the alphabet was a whole new challenge,” Sayles recalled.
Socially, the Bantu immigrants live as an extended family. From elders to babies, they depend on one another for survival; just as it was in the refugee camps and villages in Somalia.
The Bantu students have even taken the extended family concept to the next level. Sayles revealed that two years ago the male Bantu students organized themselves as a support group to help one another with problems they might have in and out of school.
“We work together to solve our problems,” Osman said.
That close-knit support and interdependence also acts as a shield that deflects the overwhelming negative influences of Western Culture.
Bantu adults and parents protect their young people by getting them married early. Not allowed to date, the youth marriages are arranged and the couples live with parents. It’s also difficult for Bantus to divorce.
Yet despite the best efforts of Bantu parents and adults to preserve and pass on their customs and traditions to their children, Basimah Abdullah, the high school principal at CMS, admitted sadly that American popular culture “is grabbing a lot of them.”
Bantu youth who shun their culture and traditions are themselves shunned, disgraced and ostricized by their families.
“You cannot embarrass the family,” Abdullah said. “The parents don’t want the corruption (of outside forces) to spread within the family.”
While the Bantu want the benefits of America, they don’t want to lose their culture, Abdullah adds. “They socialize with each other and take care of each other.”
The Bantu students interviewed seem to be resisting—either by choice or their parents’ insistence—the temptations American culture offers such as slang, clothing, music videos, television and movies. They’re content with more wholesome fare such as African music.
“(There are) no bad words in African music,” Habiba said. “African music talks of life and love.”
Habiba plans to finish high school and attend college to become a teacher. She wants to come back to CMS so she can “help kids realize better lives.”
Osman also plans to go to college to become an English teacher. He’d like to teach other Bantus English.
Jamal wants to be an engineer and build homes and skyscrappers in America and in Africa.
Isha wants to pursue nursing and go back to Africa. She also has an interest in teaching, adding she likes teaching children.
“We want to make our families proud,” Osman said.