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  • Improvised Adolescence: Somali Bantu Teenage Refugees in America by Sandra Grady
  • Amy E. Skillman
Improvised Adolescence: Somali Bantu Teenage Refugees in America. By Sandra Grady. Folklore Studies in a Multicultural World. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2015. Pp. xi + 158, 13 black-and-white photographs, illustrations, preface, introduction, afterword, works cited, index.)

In her ethnography of Somali Bantu teenagers in a Midwestern US city, Sandra Grady begins with a story from a trip to Nairobi in the 1990s. She was stuck in traffic with two local coworkers when the topic of the next soccer match came on the radio. The contest was between teams from Kenya’s two largest ethnic groups, the Kikuyu and the Luo. Working together, both groups had the potential to unite into a political force that could overthrow the country’s current leadership. But attempts to unify had been fraught with problems. One of Grady’s traveling companions was Kikuyu, and he explained what was at stake with the match. To the Kikuyu, this soccer match was critical; they could not lose. When Grady asked why, her companion said: “Because [the Luo] are boys and not men” (p. xii). As she learned, the Luo are uncircumcised, which, to the Kikuyu, means they have not endured the proper rite of passage to make them men. Not only would the Kikuyu lose face if they lost the game, but there were clear implications for political unity. The Kikuyu could not share power with the uncircumcised; they could not accept a boy to lead the nation.

Some 20 years later, with the resettlement of Somali Bantu refugees in the United States, this story resurfaces and frames Grady’s questions around adolescent rites of passage in diaspora. How will youth “integrate the cultural expectations of two sets of authority figures: traditional East African elders and U.S. teachers and school administrators” (p. xiii)?

In her introduction, Grady acquaints us with some of the youth in her study and offers an overview of Somali Bantu culture and history. She describes the youth as dislocated agriculturalists, raised entirely in diaspora and now living in a Midwestern city. They are in a doubly liminal space, caught between childhood and adulthood and between clearly defined traditions and the pressures of integration. Grady’s goal is to understand what cultural tools they are using to “negotiate their passage into adulthood” (pp. 6–7).

Somali Bantu is a term adopted by international aid organizations to differentiate these newer refugee populations from their ethnic Somali counterparts. The Somali Bantu comprise the multiple minority ethnic groups between the Jubba and Shebelle Rivers in southern Somalia who were marginalized by the majority ethnic Somali. The term is complicated by its use of the linguistic moniker Bantu, a language that connects them historically to other ethnic groups throughout Africa but which most of them no longer speak. Grady describes the complex mash-up of various freed slave communities and ethnic Somalis to help the reader understand how the Somali Bantu arrived at this point in time as refugees from their homelands. In addition to mistakenly categorizing diverse agricultural groups as Somali Bantu, the refugee camp workers incorrectly assumed that Somali Bantu society was patriarchal, thereby disempowering the women (p. 16). Finally, the refugee experience disrupted the groups’ ritual traditions, including rites of passage into adulthood that had distinguished one cultural group from another in Somalia. As their individual traditions became harder to practice, the perception by outsiders of continuity among the groups grew. Thus, they became erroneously known as Somali Bantu.

Before diving into the details of her study, Grady is careful to define the limitations of her research and to acknowledge her positionality [End Page 219] in relation to the research group. She makes clear that she is not trying to draw generalizations about refugees or about Somali Bantu as a cultural group. Rather, she is interested in how this specific group of Somali Bantu in an unidentified Midwestern city draws upon cultural values (both in the United States and from Somalia) to transition into adulthood. Her study is an attempt to understand teenagers experiencing dislocation. The section describing the aims and methods of her research will...


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