Collaborative Anthropology Comes to Life: Catherine Besteman and the Somali Bantu Experience


The story of how the town of Lewiston, Maine, became home to more than a thousand Somali Bantu refugees in the mid-2000s is nothing short of captivating. Equally so is what happened when anthropologist Catherine Besteman reunited with former friends and research participants in Lewiston nearly 20 years after her fieldwork in southern Somalia and the 1991 descent into civil war that all but wiped the village of Banta—the refugees’ home and Besteman's field site—off the map.

Since rediscovering one another in Maine in 2006, Besteman and the Somali Bantu community have together created a vibrant example of collaborative anthropology that almost seamlessly combines grassroots activism and empowerment with public education and critically engaged ethnography. The range of projects (most of them ongoing) is vast but coherent and has been defined by the priorities of Somali Bantus and the various social, political, and policy-related challenges associated with their integration in Lewiston.

The challenges facing Somali Bantus and Besteman as “their anthropologist and their advocate” (Besteman 2010) have been enormous. Besteman's earlier scholarship on Somalia, anchored around the history and experiences of southern Somali Bantus who for generations endured race- and class-based discrimination and marginalization, challenged hegemonic explanatory and interpretive models of Somalia as both culturally homogenous and dominated by the structural logic of kinship and clan (Besteman 1996, 1999). Moreover, in the mid-1990s, most analyses of the Horn of Africa seemed to exemplify contending nationalist positions or to reify the very identities in whose name wars were waged. In contrast, Besteman's work demonstrated the de-essentializing power of critical anthropology. Her work broke new—if contested—ground in Horn of Africa studies while also responding to damaging U.S. interventionist foreign policies and popular images of Somalia as a primordial, lawless nation of tribal warlords and hapless victims. This critical and courageous approach also inspired a younger generation of anthropologists working on the Horn of Africa to employ rigorous and empathetic ethnography to address the vituperative conflicts in the region and transcend forms of scholarship that all too often reflected and solidified them.

Shortly after Besteman concluded fieldwork in southern Somalia, the government of Siad Barre collapsed. Amid the devastation of the 1991 civil war and subsequent violence, more than 160,000 Somalis fled to Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. Among them were Somali Bantus, the southern minorities descended from East African populations enslaved by dominant Somali groups in the 1800s. The discrimination documented in Besteman's work was replayed in Dadaab, and after a decade of seeking unsuccessful solutions, the U.S. government agreed to designate Somali Bantus as a resettlement priority group. Approximately 10,000 Somali Bantu departed for the United States between 2004 and 2006. Many were initially sent to cities like Atlanta, Columbus, Denver, and San Diego but subsequently migrated to Lewiston, a town deliberately chosen by Somali Bantu leaders for its quietude, low crime rate, good schools, affordability, and robust employment and social-services sectors. Here is where Besteman's collaborative anthropology with her Colby students and Somali Bantus began.

The most visible and widely accessible aspect of their collaborative work has been the Somali Bantu Experience website (, a rich and multilayered showcase of both Somali Bantu life and the ethnographic work Besteman and her students have done together with community members. Featuring hundreds of photos that juxtapose life in southern Somalia before the war (many of them taken by photographer Jorge Acero, who lived in Banta in 1987–88) with community life in Maine, viewers are immediately shown both the continuity and rupture that characterizes refugeehood and integration. The website is organized according to broad subject tabs with brief paragraphs and links to longer accessible narratives that emphasize the transcultural experience of life in Somalia and in Maine. Topical pages beneath each tab contain further narratives and rolling slide shows, accompanied by links to clips of audio, visual, and combined audiovisual files that feature Somali Bantu community members speaking about their lives and experiences. A “Resources and Information” tab contains useful facts about refugees and resettlement procedures in the United States as well as maps for educators and lesson plans for use in elementary schools, many of them interactive with the website. Under “Images and Audio,” viewers find a treasure trove of almost 700 photos of pre–civil war southern Somalia and audio clips of Somali Bantu elders speaking on various issues. These are juxtaposed with a tab for “Contemporary” images and audiovisual clips, with Somalis speaking in English about the experience of transition to life in the United States. In addition to educating non-Somalis, the website is also an important archival resource that helps young Somali Bantus understand their collective past.

Although easy to navigate, the website is complex and layered, sometimes overwhelming and occasionally uneven in the quality of the audio and video, which are essentially snippets of raw data. As a work-in-progress, however, the Somali Bantu Experience website provides an excellent example of collaborative anthropology. By training Colby College students and Somali Bantu community members in the methods of ethnographic interviewing and analysis, Besteman has helped anthropological tools become sources of documentation and critical self-reflection for Somali Bantus in Maine and their U.S. counterparts. Although the site does not track visitors, Besteman anecdotally reports that the site has been used by many schools in Maine for teaching about immigration and refugees as well as by refugee communities and refugee resettlement staff all over the country. She also notes that dozens of scholars working with refugees or interested in visual anthropology have made use of the site. In addition, Somali Bantus from the middle Jubba have reportedly searched the photos on the website for relatives.

In addition to the website, Besteman, Somali Bantu community members, and Colby students have crafted a traveling museum exhibition to educate Maine schoolchildren about the Somali Bantu community and the history of immigration to their state more generally. The exhibit was also featured in 2009 at the Museum L-A (Lewiston-Auburn) entitled “Rivers of Immigration: People of the Androscoggin.” In 2008, Besteman and colleagues developed an English Language Learning (ELL) book entitled A Somalia Album, funded by the Maine Humanities Council, which features Acero's photographs and simple text in English, Somali, and Maay Maay.

In collaborating on various media articles and research reports, Besteman and Somali Bantu community leaders have worked to dispel anti-Somali and antirefugee myths and discourse in Maine and the United States more broadly. Two examples include Besteman's coauthored article with Ismail Ahmed and Rilwan Osman entitled “The Top Ten Myths About Somalis and Why They Are Wrong,” published in the Twin City Times, on July 1, 2010, and a “Refugee Economic Impact Study” (n.d.) compiled by Besteman and Ismail Ahmed. All of the above respond effectively to negative portrayals of Somalis and antirefugee, anti-immigrant sentiment more generally. In wider efforts, Besteman has also participated together with Somali Bantu parents and community leaders on various local and state committees, working as a mediator, advocate, and cultural translator in settings ranging from schools to health clinics (see Besteman 2010).

Finally, through her own honest and critical reflection on a “strategic anthropology where we put our effort into things we can do well that will have the most impact,” Besteman has helped to hone a rich methodological and theoretical approach to public anthropology (see Besteman 2010). Her commitment to placing anthropology at the public service of “marginalized communities that may not envision themselves as activists but are trying to make a space for inclusion in the broader society (but on their terms)” is both an ethical imperative as well as an effective step toward further breaking down the persistent “two-tier system” of academic and applied anthropological work. If public, engaged, and collaborative anthropology is flourishing in both its rigor and relevance, Besteman is clearly a leading figure in this endeavor.