Relocated to Maine, Somalis farm to support community

Laura McCandlish | 11/27/2013, 6 a.m.
When a persistent infection put farmer Batula Ismail in and out of the hospital this summer, her rows of carrots ...
Maine’s New America Sustainable Agriculture Project has helped nearly 100 recent immigrants grow from community gardeners into managers of a 30-acre incubator on a land trust-protected, 400-acre family farm. (Amy Temple photo)

When a persistent infection put farmer Batula Ismail in and out of the hospital this summer, her rows of carrots became consumed with weeds. In another town, her plot might have stayed that way. But Ismail farms collectively with more than a dozen recent Somali Bantu immigrants in Lewiston, Maine.

And her colleagues put off their own needy fields to crouch down together and hand-weed until Ismail’s frilly carrot tops emerged. As Ismail convalesced, her eldest daughter, a new mother herself, assumed daily farm tasks while Ismail’s eldest son delivered her Community Supported Agriculture shares and manned her farmers’ market booths.

Ismail and her fellow Somali Bantu refugees refused to let the weeds overtake their hard-won fields near the blue-collar town of Lewiston, Maine’s second largest city. That they’ve come to embrace farming as exalted work is significant, given the ethnic minority’s history. Farming was about the last thing Somali Bantus expected to do after fleeing their country, which collapsed into civil war in 1991 — especially in the U.S., where some 13,000 of them were resettled from Kenyan refugee camps by 2007.

For 200 years, the Bantus had toiled as subsistence farmers along the fertile floodplains of the Juba Valley in Somalia, where they had been brought as slaves from Tanzania, Mozambique and Malawi.

“In Somalia, farming is low-caste,” says Daniel Van Lehman, a Bantu expert who worked as a U.N. field officer in the Kenyan refugee camps and assisted early U.S. efforts to resettle the persecuted group here. “It’s like the untouchables in India — oh, let the Bantus do the farming. They did it because they had to. They were forced to do it by the Omanis, by the Italians, by the nomadic ruling Somalis and they’re forced to do it again today by the Al-Shabab warlords.”

In Maine, however, Ismail and her fellow refugees found farmers revered as community pillars. Ismail, who is around 42 (Somali Bantus don’t traditionally track their age or date of birth) is a grandmother of six and single mother of nine.

She came to Maine, by way of Baltimore, alone, as resettlement terms separated her from her husband, who had three other wives. Others flocked here from Atlanta, Dallas and Syracuse, drawn by affordable housing, good schools and, importantly, access to land. Now Somali Bantus farm and garden around the country, but perhaps nowhere as intensively as in Maine, where one of the greatest concentrations of Somalis — roughly 5,000 (about 1,500 Bantus) — resettled in Lewiston housing projects and abandoned multiplexes.

Even in a patriarchal, polygynous culture, Bantu women had long farmed in Somalia. They often controlled their own fields, accessed through landowning sons or husbands. But what is revolutionary now, here in the U.S., says Colby College anthropologist Catherine Besteman, is for such a low-income population to consume such an abundance of fresh vegetables they grew themselves, since the health of refugees generally declines under the influence of cheap fast food.

Resettlement agencies gradually realized farming could help these otherwise low-skilled refugees (who didn’t know how to drive and lacked literacy even in their native dialects) learn some English while improving their physical and mental health.