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close this bookCERES No. 140 (FAO Ceres, 1993, 50 p.)
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View the documentBiting the hand that feeds

Biting the hand that feeds

By Todd Shields

The horrors of war and famine in Somalia have been paraded on every television screen in the world-but few reports have noted an ominous fact:

The worst of the country's clan violence was visited upon two mainly agricultural groups, the Cushitic Rahanwein and non-Cushitic Bantu, who between them provided Somalia with much of the pre-war food security it enjoyed. No matter how much food aid is delivered or how thoroughly American Marines and French Legionnaires enforce calm, the Somalis' selective decimation of these two groups may have helped doom the nation to chronic food shortages for years to come.

As far back as October, the discrimination was evident.

Beyond reach

Inside an abandoned walled compound in the port city of Kismayu, some 200 to 300 people huddle under rude twig-and-plastic shelters.

Visitors appear. Elders display matchstick-thin children, and for lack of a common language appeal mutely for food. At pains to demonstrate their need, they gesture at a boy, perhaps eight years old, who lies weakened on the ground. An ulcerated sore mars his upper thigh; flies graze upon the wound.

There is food in the port, and the group's need is clear. But because they are Bantu, members of Somalia's most disadvantaged minority, they will remain temporarily beyond reach of help.

“I can't bring them food,” says a relief worker. “If I do, it'll just disappear over the wall tonight” as armed Somali groups loot the Bantu's food.

What is needed first, he explains, is explicit permission from the town's relief committee, which doesn't meet for several more days. Until then, the Bantu will remain foodless. Judging from their condition, it seems likely one or several children will die in the meantime.

The forlorn group's difficulties have been replicated thousands of times during Somalia's long months of hunger. An agricultural people in a nation of pastoralists, the Bantu have faced special hardship in the country's crisis. They are often the first to suffer pillage, and the last to receive relief, as other Somalis who consider themselves ethnically superior deny their compatriots.

The problem of discrimination-in a country that long considered itself ethnically homogeneous-ranges further than the problems suffered by the Bantu. In a real sense, Somalia's famine has been abetted, perhaps even caused, by the system of clan lineages. In a militarized and atomized society, the Bantu and other farming people considered lacking in prestige suffer heavily at the hands of the “purer” clans who traditionally dominate society.

Somali society is built on lineage, with some groups able to trace their ancestry back to a single founder. Asked their identity, Somalis recite their forbears the way Europeans recite their street addresses. The system is an adaptation to the harsh conditions of semidesert grazing lands, where the family is the social safety net of last resort. Loyalty to family is the bedrock of identity, while loyalty to larger groups, sub-clans and clans, is less ingrained.

In bad times, it's harder to trust those who are, genealogically, farther away. The circle of trust retracts; those who are not of your group become adversaries, as in the proverb: “I and my clan against the world; I and my brother against the clan; I against my brother.”

This tendency to schism stands against the cultural picture of a Somalia with one language, one religion and one culture. And it goes far to explain the nearly incomprehensible array of armies and militias that have fought across the land, reducing it to penury much as medieval armies once sacked towns and farming districts in their campaigns across Europe.

Unhappy circumstance

Especially hard-hit has been the rough triangle that holds most of Somalia's arable land. The area comprises the valleys of two rivers, the Jubba and Shebelli, and the territory between. In unhappy historical circumstance, it sits between two implacable opponents.

To its west is the traditional home of ousted President Mohamed Siad Barre's Marehan people, a sub-grouping of the large Darod clan. To the triangle's east and north are the Hawiye people, who in early 1991 ejected Barre from the capital, Mogadishu. Much of the continual fighting since then has ranged back and forth across the agricultural triangle, as Hawiye and Darod armies pursue one another over what, to them, is foreign territory.

Caught in the crossfire are the Rahanwein. Like other Somali clans, they are of Cushitic stock. But unlike the others they have adopted agriculture. In their centuries upon the land, they've developed a separate dialect, as different from mainstream Somali as Spanish is from Portuguese. Throughout Somalia's history as a modern state, the Rahanwein have held inferior status, putting forward few important politicians and enjoying little in the way of patronage and position. Their powerlessness has left them with few guns and little organization in the face of the country's disintegration.

“They still lack self-confidence,” says Murray Watson, an ecologist who has lived and worked in Somalia for 13 years. Other clans, he adds, hold the pastoralists' common disdain for those who till, much as cattlemen disdained “sodbusters” in the American Old West. “If these guys are cultivators, and their fathers are cultivators, they'll look down on them.”

With the collapse of the state, old prejudices took on deadly consequences. Barre retreated across Rahanwein land, with the Hawiye in pursuit. Three times in the next 15 months Barre's Darods counter-attacked, striking deep into Rahanwein territory and twice reaching Afgoi, a town just west of Mogadishu. Each time they were driven back.

With each advance or retreat, marauding armies and their thousands of armed camp followers looted and pillaged without restraint. This was partly because the armies received no rations and had to loot to survive. But, say relief workers, the scale of the disaster has a deeper explanation. The supposedly inferior Rahanwein were owed neither respect nor protection.

Destruction was systematic, with wells, ponds, grain stores, seed and livestock consumed, carried off, killed or destroyed. In an especially cruel stroke, two of Barre's offensives took place in April, the most important planting month of the year. “It was almost a burnt earth policy,” says Rhodri Wynn-Pope, a Mogadishu-based worker for CARE International who has travelled the region.

John Rogge, a University of Manitoba consultant who surveyed the region for the United Nations in August, found virtually no cultivation had taken place for more than a year. “Seed and food stocks, as well as almost all other means of production, were systematically looted by both opposing militias as they crossed the area,” he writes “Livestock herds, once numerous, are now totally depleted from looting, disease and distress selling....the area has rapidly degenerated into the most acute famine belt in the country.”

Dark notoriety

Most of this year's photographs of emaciated, dying children have come from this region. Its capital, Baidoa, has achieved dark notoriety, with 300 or more people dying there each day despite the presence of relief groups and emergency food. Help came too late. The international effort could reach Baidoa only after fighting had subsided.

In April 1992, the Hawiye pushed the Darod to the western side of the agricultural triangle. In the ensuing relative calm, relief groups penetrated the area and distributed seeds and emergency rations, hoping farmers could plant in October for the lesser of southern Somalia's two rainfall seasons. But a fresh Darod offensive in October raised fears that warfare would again engulf the region, making planting impossible.

The cycle-fighting causing famine, which leaves the gun as the only means of obtaining food, leading in turn to more looting-struck other areas of the country before it laid low the Rahanwein. The Bantu, whose status is even lower than the Rahanwein, were among the earliest victims. Descendants of slaves who once worked plantations along the southern Somali coast, they've suffered pervasive discrimination and marginalization-so much so that one Westerner with long experience among them was moved to say, “racism is a real factor in Somali society.”

The Bantu were underrepresented in government, including local government and in education. While 90 per cent of the Bantu are farmers, they've managed to place few students in Somalia's agricultural schools. A common Somali word says much of attitudes toward these people. They are called addoon, which means “slave.”

The Bantu were brought to Somalia from territories ranging from present-day Mozambique to Tanzania, as part of the slave trade organized by the sultans of Zanzibar. Many escaped from coastal plantations in the 19th century and established small villages along the forested riverbanks-thus another name by which they are often known: gosha, or people of the forest.

For a time, the Bantu established an independent, and in some respects flourishing, smallholder farm economy. But relations with surrounding Somalis were always fraught with danger, characterized by one scholar as an endless round of raid and reprisal, with the risk of re-enslavement always present.

Colonial rule obviated this risk. But as the modern state expanded government plantations were created. The Bantu increasingly saw their best land expropriated-either for state plantations or for land-grabbers who manipulated new land tenure laws-and saw their area invested by ethnic Somalis. Many became even further marginalized, forced into unremunerative wage labor on the new state farms and reduced to routine dependence on what were once considered famine foods.

Pervasive domination

“You just had this pervasive domination of society,” says a Western commentator who, in hopes of one day returning to the Jubba Valley, requested anonymity. “Militarily, these people were nothing, and politically they were nothing.”

As with the Rahanwein, the Bantu's powerlessness produced dire consequences once Somalia fractured into competing militias. Unable to resist outside force, they at first maintained a precarious neutrality as armies swept through their territory. Soon, they became targets.

The lower Jubba Valley, home to the so-called “free” Bantu who have never entered a client relationship with a Somali clan, has been closely studied. “The Gosha have been hit harder by looting than any other social group in the area,” writes Kenneth Menkhaus, a University of South Carolina scholar who lived in the lower Jubba in 1988 and returned to assess its misfortunes. “Few villages have been spared repeated attacks by armed men....Food reserved and livestock have been taken away, as have money, appliances, pumps, cloth and anything else of value.”

By the time of Menkhaus's return visit-July 1991-the war front between the Hawiye and Darod had passed through the lower Jubba four times. Since then, the region has seen continual military activity, with its principal city, Kismayu, changing hands at least twice.

Each wave of conflict further impoverished the Bantu. But even more damaging were the periods of occupation by either army, both of which view the local farmers as non-Somali. “In every case (these periods) have been accompanied by widespread looting and structural damage, assault and, increasingly, massacres,” writes Menkhaus.

Bantu in other areas suffered similar fates. Workers for the International Committee for the

Red Cross (ICRC) estimated that 90 per cent of the Bantu on the middle Shebelli-roughly the area upstream from Mogadishu to the border town of Beled-Weyn-have been dislocated. The Bantu of the lower Jubba began moving from their homes in large numbers in July 1992, after their reserves were finally exhausted.

Once the Bantu move, there are special problems in trying to assist them. Relief workers often face blithe denials from local Somalis that any Bantu are in their area, and say they must apply pressure to ensure that Bantu are included in food distributions.

“If you are not there to make sure the food gets to them, they may receive only a small, small share,” says Erwin Koenig, a technical adviser with the ICRC.

Rogge, who surveyed many stricken areas in August, found the Bantu's plight particularly bad. They were, for instance, in the worst condition of those seeking food in Beled-Weyn, a fact that indicated a more profound disaster.

“Most of the Bantu villages south of Beled-Weyn are almost totally deserted and in others the remaining population is in desperately poor condition,” Rogge writes. “The displaced Bantu are unwelcome and receive low or no priority for food distribution....Likewise, lists of villages provided last season by local authorities to the ICRC for seed distribution contained only a few token Bantu villages.”

Such discrimination, to be expected when viewed through the distorting lens of the clan system, is nonetheless profoundly counter-productive. By destroying these supposedly “inferior” people, Somalis are destroying their own future food supply.