Somali Bantu in Maine rethink American agriculture

By Katy Kelleher
Photographed by Greta Rybus

On last Saturday at Little Jubba Central Maine Agrarian Commons, Ali Hamsa and Muhidin Libah took a break from building a fence around a goat pasture to share a laugh at the most annoying kid in their herd. “She’s distant,” Libah explained, in English. “She doesn’t get along with other people. Hamsa made a joke about the scruffy goat in Maay Maay, the language of the Somali Bantu people, and Libah laughed. As they continued to work, chatting in their native language, their banter had an easy, relaxed pace that even a non-speaker could appreciate.

Farmland was abundant where the two men once lived, in Somalia’s fertile Jubba River valley, where genocidal violence displaced thousands of Somali Bantu in the early 1990s. If you wanted to farm there, says Libah, all you had to do was fill out a form at a permit office and select a plot. “It’s not like America,” he says of his homeland. “Maine is more rural than most places, but it’s so much more rural than Maine.

Top left: Hilowle Aden, Suban Waledi and Hawa Rage. Bottom left: Hassan Mohamed (right) and Mohamed Mohamed. Bottom right: Moussa Mohamed. Click to enlarge.

Somali Bantu families began to settle in Maine, mainly in Lewiston and the surrounding area, in the mid-2000s after the United States agreed to a resettlement program. Ethnic minorities in Somalia, the Bantu arrived a few years after the first wave of ethnic Somalis arrived in Lewiston. Many decided to continue farming on plots leased from private landowners, but long-term rental proved elusive. Libah arrived in Maine in 2005 after more than a decade in a Kenyan refugee camp and almost immediately founded the Somali Bantu Community Association nonprofit. Over the next 16 years, he cultivated five different properties.

Ahmed Baraki at work planting seedlings.

Then last year, after a crowdfunding campaign that raised $ 367,000, some 200 Somali Bantu Mainers took possession of 104 acres in Wales, just northeast of Lewiston. The deed is owned by the Agrarian Trust, a national non-profit organization dedicated to deconcentrating land ownership and providing long-term access to land for the next generation of farmers. For the next 99 years, the farm called Little Jubba will operate as a collective run by a small council of farmers. Its members will grow food for their families and sell it at the market. This year, they have established cover crops. They brought in goats and started dividing up the lots. Plans are in place for a community hall, commercial kitchen and more.

Abdullahi Yarow, property manager of the new farm, Wales.

For Hamsa, putting up a pasture fence on weekends lays the foundation for a new life. In Somalia he was a farmer. He had 10 acres and made a living selling produce at the market. He moved to Maine in 2016 and now does the dishes at the Harraseeket Inn in Freeport. He wants to one day run his own farming business again, to support his family by working where his talents apply, and Little Jubba offers that promise. “We value this land,” he says. “Here we are the owner, the consumer, everything.”

The farmers plan to make Little Jubba a multigenerational community space. While the majority of the land will be planted with corn, peas, squash, green vegetables and other crops, some farmers have requested that there also be equipment for children to play while parents work in the area. the gardens. Farmers also set aside space for cultural events, like drumming and dancing, gatherings that can be difficult for a community that largely lives in apartments in the Lewiston area. (“We will not do anything without alerting our neighbors,” Libah hastens to add. “We will call them and tell them – and invite them.”)

Little Jubba farmers have also pledged to keep part of their lawn area. In Somalia, it is normal to rest at midday, lying on the grass in a shady place. However, this is less accepted in a city park in downtown Lewiston. Many Somali Bantu appreciate having a place where they can simply relax without being woken up by police officers or questioned by white passers-by, Libah says. “We don’t always feel safe,” he adds.

Ashley Bahlkow is a program advisor for the Somali Bantu Community Association, which formed the Little Jubba Central Maine Agrarian Commons with the Agrarian Trust. “Think about the refugee resettlement process and what that means for an agrarian culture,” she says. “It’s about resettling people with few resources and in urban areas, because that’s where some of the scarce resources we offer exist, like public transport. The importance, she said, of “the simplest thing: lying on the grass” cannot be overstated.

“That’s a big part of what this community wants,” says Bahlkow. “The Wales property looks like an achievement of this in a very profound way.”

From left to right: Gamana Yarow, Ahmed Baraki, Hawa Rage. Click to enlarge.

Muhidin Libah, Founder and Executive Director of the Somali Bantu Community Association.

VSCollective farmland has a turbulent history in America, says Ian McSweeney, director of Agrarian Trust. In Europe, especially in France, jointly owned farms have thrived for decades. The closest thing to the United States, meanwhile, is a strong network of land trusts focused on purchasing land and easements for conservation and recreation, as well as organizations working to provide owned housing. to the community. “A lot of our model,” says McSweeney, “is based on community land trusts and adapting that structure to agriculture.

In addition, the ownership and tenure of American farms has been shaped by generations of racial discrimination. Almost 70 percent of American farm workers are not white, according to census figures, while some 96 percent of American farm owners are white. Discriminatory policies helped condemn the country’s first community land trust, a black agricultural cooperative called New Communities, founded in Georgia in the 1960s. When a major drought hit the area in the 1980s, the USDA granted loans and assistance to white farmers while denying this to new communities, then finally grabbed the community deed. In 1999, when the agency settled a class action lawsuit brought by black farmers alleging systematic discrimination in the 1980s and 1990s, former New Communities members received the largest payout.

Dismantling racial inequalities in land ownership is a pillar of the Agrarian Trust’s mission, and Little Jubba follows a model for which New Communities laid the groundwork. After purchasing it with donated funds, the Agrarian Trust donates the land to a locally managed land entity – in this case, the Little Jubba Central Maine Agrarian Commons. The municipal council then rents the land to farmers or groups of farmers, at rates that the market does not influence, for renewable terms of 99 years. While the Agrarian Trust provides institutional support (including legal and financial services), the council of communes retains decision-making power over the use of the land, and the regulations prohibit the sale of the land.

Little Jubba is one of 10 new Agrarian Commons projects that the Agrarian Trust is seeding nationwide, from West Virginia to Washington. This is an ambitious effort that “will only be successful if every farm is unique in its place,” says McSweeney. “It has to be on a human scale.

Lana Cannon Dracup is the Director of Agricultural Operations for the Somali Bantu Community Association. In recent years, she has worked with the community on leased plots at Auburn’s Whiting Farm, where work continued this summer as Little Jubba farmers prepare land in Wales. Dracup’s role is ostensibly to teach Bantu farmers, but she has found that often “these prescribed roles are reversed.” For example, she says, she never thought she would grow okra in the Maine climate.

Right: Hawa Hassan. Click to enlarge.

“But the conditions at Whiting worked,” Dracup says, “and we had such a good harvest last summer.” She saw farmers sow flint corn seeds, imported from Africa, then wait patiently to see what happens. Like okra (and Egyptian spinach and amaranth), corn has been a hit. “This year we’re going to try some white melons that they told me about,” she says. “We want people to develop what they know well. “

And yet, the goal is not to recreate the Jubba Valley in the hills of Wales. Bantu farmers learn new skills, eat new foods and speak new languages. Dracup watches them put in their gardens, each taking different approaches, many experimenting. “I’ve noticed that some farmers have the nicest way to grow corn, with five feet between each bunch,” she says. “Then they intersperse things underneath: tomatoes, squash, rustic greens, melons, onions. The practice ensures that the bottom crops get plenty of sun in the spring and shade in the summer. “It creates a microclimate,” Dracup says. “It retains water and keeps all plants healthy.”

Top left: Ali Bule. Click to enlarge.

In a sense, that’s what Little Jubba does: create a microclimate, a space where people can grow, learn, flourish, and integrate into the United States without getting lost. The children of farmers grow up as Americans – “all children speak English,” says Libah, “but only a tiny fraction of the adults in our community do” – but it is important for their parents that they learn the culture Somali Bantu as well. In Little Jubba, children can watch their parents’ farm. They can eat produce rarely found in American supermarkets and listen to music played by their neighbors. Meanwhile, Hamsa hopes non-Somali Mainers will come to the farm stand and join the CSA program, engaging with the farmers of Little Jubba. “We will increase our cultural existence in America,” he says. “We can grow African cultural foods and sell them. I want people to know that we are participating in the economy.

As Hamsa and Libah neared the completion of their goat fence, Libah offered another sighting. “We are very hard workers,” he said, admiring their progress. “If the opportunity presents itself, we will be successful community partners. We will be proud Mainers.

Down East Magazine, August 2021

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