Focus on the return home of Somali Bantus

Sitting on a hard bench, wearing a smile on his face and soaking up the warmth of the early morning sun, Hassan Athuman Bamira appears to be at ease.

For Bamira, 9 November was a big day. He is the chairman of the Somali Bantus in Tanzania, and UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers, along with other officials, were visiting this "special" group of 3,336 refugees who have been allowed to settle in Chogo, a remote village in the northeastern Tanga region.

But Bamira did not allow himself to be distracted by the frenzy of activity, as people and four-wheel drive vehicles tore around the place. Last minute preparations were made and, to the wonder of the crowd, a helicopter landed in a cloud of dust, depositing Lubbers and his entourage.

Bamira concentrated on the more important matters at hand: helping a community resettle and rediscover its home, 200 years after being uprooted and after an additional decade of wandering and war.

"We are happy to be back, but we have to get on with things," he said. "We need to organise our lives, get ourselves established and start farming. The land here is fertile, but we have not really had time to farm."

The Somali Bantus are described as "special" refugees because they have been allowed to return home, to northeastern Tanzania, where they have been given land and will be offered citizenship.

Their forefathers were from the Zigua and Zaramo ethnic communities, who live in the area and, in the early 19th Century, were taken by slavers to work on plantations and industries in Somalia. In the 1830's, following droughts and in an effort to avoid famine others trailed after them, attracted by the allure of work in a distant land.

And, even after slavery officially ended at the turn of the century, the Somali Bantu remained in Somalia. Due to the physical landscape and the attitudes of other ethnic groups, the environment made for a difficult return home. Instead, they worked on plantations as labourers, some settled in cities and others were conscripted into the army.

A majority of Somalis are of Cushitic stock and are mainly tall, with sharp facial features while Bantus are mainly of a shorter and stockier build. The Somali Bantu, clearly distinguishable because of their features, were excluded from the traditional Somali clan network and, as a result, are often treated as second-class citizens, they say.

"When the civil war started, I was in the army, living in Kismayu, but I decided to flee in 1992," Bamira said. "The war was harsh and, as Bantus, we were treated badly. In Somalia, I had heard stories about home and so I just travelled here."

And over the last decade, at least 3,000 Somali Bantu have joined Bamira in Tanzania. In April 2003, because of their ancestral links, the government allocated them 21 sq km of land for their resettlement at Chogo and offered them citizenship.

During Lubbers's visit, the government was quick to remind them that they were indeed a special case and, therefore, had responsibilities.

"Because of your blood links, we have treated you specially," Ramadhan Omar Mapuri, Tanzania's home affairs minister, told the refugees on 9 November. "Unlike normal refugees, we have given you land. You should use this land and treat it like gold."

He added, "We are looking after you now, but you should not expect this to last forever. You need to be independent so you will be less of a burden on the host community."

While acknowledging the difficulties the Somali Bantu had experienced, Lubbers also highlighted the need for them to get on with their lives.

"I am aware that it is not all that easy because you have to organise yourselves and build houses and then begin your farming, but we will try and assist you," he said. "You are refugees but you will soon become citizens again. You have the right to assistance, but you have a duty to build your own lives."

Although the Tanzanian government has offered them citizenship, Bamira said that the refugees were cautious about accepting it immediately, preferring instead to wait until they were established in their new homes.

Aid to them is due to be withdrawn by the end of 2004, but the Somali Bantus fear that if they accept citizenship before that, the date of the discontinuation of aid might be brought forward.

The refugees have been receiving aid from UNHCR and the government in the form of building materials, basic education, food and non-food items, healthcare and water. But, with Lubbers in attendance, Bamira drew attention to additional difficulties.

"We have problems with water," he said. "Sometimes we go for several days without water because there is a breakdown in the main water supply. Because of the disruption to our farming activities during the move here and the setting up of the camp, the food rations that we receive are not enough."

Also on the list was a demand for the construction of a secondary school. At the moment, he says, primary school leavers walk long distances to a secondary school that they share with their Tanzanian neighbours.

But, more than anything else, Bamira, whose people are renown for their industriousness, has dreams that should ease the concerns of the UNHCR and the government.

"In Somalia, where we farmed fruit, there was an Italian company that gave us loans until harvesting. It worked well and we would like to see the same thing happen here so we can look after ourselves," he said.

"We have a good relationship with the people here. They see us as their brothers. Of course, there are a few people who are disgruntled about the fact that we receive assistance, but you can't help that. It is normal. We will all settle in," he said.