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'we're trying to re-create the lives we had': the somali migrants who became maine farmers

Posted: March 12 2021
Muhidin Libah, farmer and director of the Somali Bantu Community Association. Photograph: Greta Rybus/The Guardian

From The Guardian

A community of Somali Bantu farmers struggled for land security until the farm justice activists of the Agrarian Trust lent a hand.

Muhidin Libah stretched his arm overhead, tapping the head of a corn stalk and sending its leaves quivering in the August sun.

“About seven feet,” he guessed, comparing the plant to his 5ft 6in frame. Corn was one of the first vegetables he and about 40 other Somali Bantu families planted when they began farming in Lewiston, Maine, in 2014. That was a decade after Libah had landed in the United States as a refugee, and 23 years after he’d been forced to flee Somalia’s Jubba valley.

“I love corn,” he said. Ground down, it can be used to make injera, a spongy flatbread that came to Somalia from Ethiopia; muufo, a drier fermented flatbread; soor, a corn grits porridge known as ugali in Kenya; or dozens of other dishes from Africa. “We’re always trying to recreate the lives that we had back home.”

Libah’s community began arriving in Lewiston, an ageing mill city of 36,000 in America’s whitest state, in 2001. Today, their population measures 3,000, but their quest to make a true home was ongoing until September, partly because farming is a key feature of the Somali Bantu way of life, and their long-term access to farming land had been uncertain. When they first arrived, “We could see all this green land, all these farms,” Libah told me. But it was beyond their reach. “We did not know where to start,” he said. “We did not know who to contact. We did not have any money.” Since 2014, the community has had to re-establish itself on rented plots six times.