WALES, Maine — Seventy-two-year-old Ahmed Baraki leans forward, his back parallel to the ground, and vigorously rakes his “yaanbo,” or hoe, loosening the weeds that cluster around the young cabbage and Boston lettuce sprouting in long, straight lines on the narrow half-acre plot he shares with four other farmers. He regularly pauses to yank clusters of greens and dirt from the ground and the yaanbo’s blade. There’s a light breeze on this cloudy and unseasonably cool June day, and the air at Liberation Farms smells like manure and compost. As is the Somali Bantu custom, Baraki takes his sandals off and lets his feet sink into the earth before continuing to slice the short end of his blade at the ground, carefully avoiding the drip irrigation tape. Soon, he stops his work and drives his mud-splattered orange SUV to the back of the 42-acre property, where, on a smaller plot of land, he continues with another pressing project: seeding flint corn that will eventually be ground and sold as Liberation Farms cornmeal. As in Somalia, Baraki places five seeds in each hole, using his bare feet to sweep soil over the top. It’s not just traditional farming practices that Baraki retains from Somalia; the seeds he plants are the descendants of seeds he brought with him when he fled his home 40 years ago. Although the setting is different, Baraki spends his days in Maine farming just as he did in Somalia. In his new home, however, he’s learned skills that augment his traditions in transformative ways.
Baraki is Somali Bantu. The Bantu are a non-Somali ethnic minority of the Somali population that is approximately 85 percent ethnic Somalian. The Bantu descend from many Bantu ethnic groups, primarily from the Niger-Congo region of Africa. Brought to Somalia by Arab slave traders in the 19th century, the Bantu have been marginalized and oppressed within Somalia since that time. Baraki and his Bantu kin have always farmed both through land cultivation and crop production in Somalia and his ancestral home of Ethiopia. In his village of Bantaa, in Southern Somalia, overlooking the Jubba River, Baraki fed his family with the sorghum, millet, yams, flint corn, mangoes, bananas, and vegetables he grew, selling the surplus as a source of income.
Muhidin Libah, the founder of the Somali Bantu Association, sits close by Baraki to translate as Baraki speaks in his native May May (or “Maay Maay”). Libah sometimes pauses as he translates Baraki’s words to explain, extrapolate, and add his own stories. The two men have known each other for more than 30 years and appear like family.
Baraki describes his life in Somalia as calm before civil war broke out in 1991, when he was 40 years old. He recalls “constant shelling” and “bullets flying everywhere. . . . They started looting our crops. They started raping our daughters; they started killing our people.” Twelve thousand Somali Bantu, including Baraki and his family, fled to Kenyan refugee camps. Life “wasn’t good in those either,” however, he remained there for 14 years until he, his wife and children were granted asylum in the United States as refugees in 2004. After a brief stay in Dallas, they settled in Lewiston, Maine, in 2005, where a small number of Somali Bantu had recently arrived in the 95 percent white community.
The United States recognized the Somali Bantu as a persecuted minority group in 1999; between 2004 and 2006, many refugees resettled in New England, almost 1,000 of those in Lewiston. Lewiston gained nationwide attention in 2002 when its mayor, Larry Raymond, urged new Somali residents to discourage friends and family from relocating to the city, and soon after, in 2003, the white supremacist group World Church of the Creator traveled to Lewiston to demonstrate against the Somali immigrants’ presence. These protests ultimately paled in the face of the thousands of Mainers who came out to support the African immigrants. Although some area residents didn’t welcome the Somali transplants, Baraki doesn’t focus on this. “It wasn’t a big deal . . . the people who were treating us really well are the majority.”
Baraki chose Lewiston mainly, he says, because “the safety is really good here. . . . It is rural, just like where we came from. So this is the spot I was looking for.” Despite the area’s rural landscape, his first home was an apartment, with no access to land and no opportunity to farm. Baraki said that when the majority of Somali Bantu arrived between 2006 and 2007, “I felt really good because I saw people who I knew from back home. . . . We started looking around and tried to organize ourselves into a community organization.” That is when Libah, also a Somali Bantu refugee, settled in Lewiston and formed the Somali Bantu Community Association. Nine years later, Liberation Farms was born. Its mission: food justice, community building, and education in the form of “inter-cultural and inter-generational exchange and reciprocal learning of farming traditions.”
The farm has two distinct wings. The first welcomes 220 Somali Bantu community farmers, who are given free access to one/10th-acre plots in the back fields, where they grow primarily to feed their families and also for the roadside “Suuq” farm store. This is where Baraki plants his flint corn and other vegetables.
Its other wing is a cooperative farming model called “Iskaashito,” which, in Somali, means to join hands together to work toward a common goal. Under this model, 45 Iskaashito farmers work in groups of five. The members of each group share the work of caring for their ½-acre plot and aggregating its produce, which is then sold to wholesale accounts like food pantries, shelters, and schools. Most often, each group works on tasks like weeding or seeding together. (Due to daytime work schedules, there are times when a farmer like Baraki works alone.) This group model, Libah explains, allows members to take advantage of individual strengths. Baraki can use his skills as an expert farmer to act as a mentor while taking advantage of others in his group who speak English when he needs help translating.
The cooperative farming wing is supported by seven staff members who train farmers in a variety of skills and also give them technical assistance. Recent workshop topics include tomato production (a plant unfamiliar to many of the farmers), high tunnels for season extension, and row covers and tarping. In many instances, farmers learn a new practice that is very different from a more familiar traditional Somali Bantu approach — drip irrigation vs. flood irrigation, for example. Critically, as small business owners, they also receive training in such skills as marketing and accounting.
The Iskaashito program supports farmers to develop viable farm businesses using an entirely new model than what they used in Somalia. Libah explains it this way: “[In Somalia,] Ahmed’s farming model was, he would grow first, and then he would look for the market. . . . It’s upside down. And that’s why Ahmed could have the best beautiful piece of property in Somalia, and he’s the poorest person. . . . So now Ahmed has leverage. You are talking to the customer [first]. … You can say, no, that’s not enough because the seed is not even on the ground.” Baraki’s face beams. He agrees that what he has learned at Liberation Farms is transformative: “This is what I call power.”
Libah and Baraki’s long-term goal is for the Somali Bantu Community Association to send ambassadors like Baraki back to Somalia to teach the Somali Bantu people this business model. Safety, however, is still an obstacle to achieving that goal. In December 2022, the US Department of State issued a warning not to travel to Somalia due to “crime, terrorism, civil unrest, health issues, kidnapping, and piracy.” Libah and Baraki know their wait to return to Somalia will likely be indefinite.
During peak season, Baraki arrives at Liberation Farms each morning at 6 a.m., goes home at 1 p.m., then returns in the evenings. Most days, he works alongside the members of his Iskaashito cohort, many of whom are friends he knows from his home in Bantaa. Together, they harvest, wash, refrigerate, and pack the produce they will sell to customers. During those hours in the Liberation Farms fields, Baraki says he is grateful to safely farm in this place he now calls home: “I feel delighted,” he says. “Some chills go through my stomach and all my spine. I feel like crying.”
Visit the Liberations Farms Suuq/Farm Stand at 1002 Gardiner Road, Wales, Maine, Fridays and Saturdays from noon to 6 p.m. to purchase vegetables, handwoven baskets by Somali Bantu weavers, Liberation Farms Cornmeal, and other Liberation Farms merchandise. To learn more about the Somali Bantu Community Association, visit somalibantumaine.org.
Jocelyn Ruggiero can be reached at jocelyn@jocelynruggiero. Follow her on Instagram at @jocelynruggiero1.