“Are you married?” the girl asks her tutor, not once but several times last week at the Cayce Learning Center, a converted low-income apartment across Fifth Street from Nashville’s largest and roughest housing project. The girl, like 65 other kids struggling to learn the English language there, has been encouraged by her parents to attend regularly to find help with her homework. Her name is Rahmo Munday. She is Somali Bantu—corn and sesame farmers, congregated along the Juba River in south Somalia, who were enslaved by the general Somali population until the mid-1930s and have never been fully integrated into that country’s society.
Rahmo is 14, an age when many Somali Bantu women begin to think about marriage, maybe to a husband who already has several wives. As one of hundreds of thousands escaping Somalia’s 15-year civil war, she has spent most of her life in a refugee camp in a desolate area of Kenya, where armed nomads have been known to roam the countryside, if not the camps themselves, raping women when they leave camp to search for firewood. Midnight shootouts are common. So are sightings of the murdered the next morning.
Rahmo seems to have escaped the camps without evidence of trauma, even attending United Nations-sponsored schools in the Kenyan camp, which she describes as “good and bad.” She is among the oldest students attending the Learning Center’s after-school program. Though she wraps her head in a traditional Muslim headscarf, called a hijab, she is Americanized in other ways. She wears a wristwatch and tennis shoes, sprinkles glitter on her cheeks, prefers Diet Coke to other soft drinks, and likes to look at photos of herself. She insists she’s from Chicago, though after persistent questioning, she agrees she’s never been there.
Her English, while improving, is no better than her little brothers and sisters. Her eighth grade homework seems insurmountable, especially to a tutor who must try to explain the difference between inertia, mass and volume. She resorts to guessing at answers. Still, she’s eager to learn. She gazes out the window and writes down the letters J-E-E-P. “What is this?” she asks, looking at a red SUV in the parking lot.
Rahmo and her friend, Halimo, who calls herself Happy Halimo, want to know if their tutor is married, if he has a dog, if he eats “pigly,” or pork. Halimo, the comic of the group, winces at the idea of eating pig, which the Islamic faith forbids. The two are “sisters,” they say, though they aren’t technically related and don’t always act neighborly. After Halimo annoys Rahmo as she’s trying to focus on a science problem, Rahmo scribbles on a page of Halimo’s homework.
The two girls will be counted on in the coming years to help tell the Somali Bantu story. There is a push among Nashville Bantus to form their own identity apart from the regular Somali immigrant population. The leaders of that push are hoping that by educating themselves, the Bantus, many of whom wouldn’t learn to read and write in their homeland, will be able to explain the years of subjugation they felt in Somalia and in the process incite a bloodless revolution the likes of which their country has never witnessed. “The world will decide who owns the country without any firing of guns whatsoever,” says Noor Ibrahim, a 22-year-old immigrant helping to found a Bantu nonprofit in Nashville.
Noor Jafar, who is believed to be the first Somali Bantu in this city, puts it a different way: “We can’t fight with the gun. We can fight with the pen. Right now, we think about our future. We cannot forget, and we do not forget.”
Nashville educators first began noticing Bantu children in their classrooms toward the end of last school year, but the real influx came in September, when Somali Bantu children replaced Latino children as the most visible minority at Cora Howe Elementary and other schools that teach federally funded programs for non-native speakers. Cora Howe educators are part teacher, part social worker. Coats and underwear are in such need that the East Nashville school keeps clothing supplies on campus. Social workers will arrange optometrist and doctor appointments when necessary. They hand out food to parents and stockpile backpacks full of supplies to ward off embarrassed kids arriving to school empty-handed.
In a school of 250 students, the Somali Bantus are among those most often in need. The Bantu kids show up to class with socks covering their hands or wearing sleeveless sundresses. They also have trouble with cultural references many immigrant children can identify even though they can’t speak English. Some show the effects of the Kenyan camps—either lashing out or becoming extremely introverted. “They haven’t had any formal training,” says Marietta Lowery, a grandmotherly second-grade instructor who wanted to teach immigrants after watching her son struggle with foreign cultures while her family lived abroad. “They’ve had no structure. They have survived amazing things.” She talks about one of her male students who had trouble arranging paperwork in his desk. “He kept stuffing and stuffing papers inside. He didn’t know how to organize. He didn’t know his desk from the one next door—all the things we learned from the time we went to church with mom and dad.”
Cora Howe teachers have struggled with some of the kids’ behavioral issues, but they downplay the significance and point out that Bantu parents have been quick to discipline their children. At the beginning of the school year, a Bantu kid misbehaved on the bus, yanking hijabs off the heads of young girls and generally making a menace of himself, which prompted other kids to act out too. The bus driver videotaped the child, which was shown to his parents and Bantu elders. The child’s grandmother decided to send him to a different school. Principal Teresa McCain took the extra step of showing Bantu children how to ride the bus by setting up chairs in her office and acting as a bus driver.
In early October, McCain began to notice a commotion in Cora Howe bathrooms. Bantu children were splashing themselves with water while some were spread out on the ground. Other students, trying to enter, were confused. It turned out the Bantus were preparing for noon prayer by washing their limbs. They were kneeling on the ground to pray. McCain consulted the school board and the Internet about what to do. She wanted to accommodate the kids but she wasn’t sure how to do it. Finally, she decided to set aside the school’s clinic, which has its own bathroom, for the children to pray in.
Towns like Holyoke, Mass., Lewiston, Maine, and Cayce, S.C., have told relief agencies not to send Bantus to their communities, fearing they will further exhaust an already-stressed welfare system. Relief agencies in Nashville have heard similar sentiments when immigrants are mentioned in news stories here. But McCain seems to relish her engagement with the Bantus.
“We wouldn’t trade them for anything in the world,” she says. “We have to learn their culture. They have to learn about us. It’s getting the communication thing going.”
Many of the Somali Bantu live along South Fourth and Fifth streets on Nashville’s east side, an area of congested poverty as much known for drug sales and murder as it is for anything else. The Bantus live in apartments in varying degrees of disrepair. And because there are so many Bantu per family, most households are crowded. Even so, they say their lives in America are already a success. They own cars. They have jobs. Ordinary things like computers no longer scare them. “We sleep good, we’re driving good,” says Noor Jafar, who moved to Nashville in 1999. “It’s like a dream, but it is not a dream.”
Jafar has a thick scar around his right wrist, a remnant, he says, of being strung up with rope for two hours while soldiers searched his house. When they let him down, a bayonet was sliced into his forehead.
Like many Bantus, Jafar works for Tyson Foods in Goodlettsville, laying meat out on trays for packaging. A math teacher in Somalia, he intends to return to college where he’ll study American and world history. He wants to own a house, and he wants his children to know a better world than the one his father and another knew. Both were caught in the crossfire of Somalia’s civil war. Theirs is but one of a countless number of tragic stories awaiting a skilled Bantu to narrate.