The Bajuni of Kenya, for at least five centuries, thrived in a string of cross-border settlements. They stretched from Kismayuu in southern Somalia down to the northern tip of Pate Island in Kenya. A beautiful homeland, the Bajuni Islands comprised the six main islands of Chandra, Chovaye, Chula, Koyama, Ngumi and Darakasi.
You would sometimes hear people call them the five hundred Islands or Dundas Group. Today the Bajuni only occupy the tiny island of Lamu, just north of the Tana River on the coast of the Indian Ocean. Here, the 60,000 or so that remain fish, trade and farm.
In their new home, they have forgotten many things. Things that defined them as a people including their language. These days they prefer to speak a form of Swahili known as Tikuu.
For centuries ethnic Somalis who lived on the Somali mainland did not venture onto the Bajuni islands. Most Bajunis were thus born, brought up, lived and died on these islands in peace. They built ships, fished, farmed and traded. A few of them, mostly the men, learned to speak some Swahili or Somali quite early as a result of fishing or trading activities.
This cohesive balance changed in 1991 when President Siad Barre was overthrown. Inter-ethnic tensions and violence among Somalis and non-ethnic Somalis went a notch higher. Initially, Somalis flooded onto the islands, bringing mayhem, violence, destruction and burning of property. Robbery, rape and murder became the order of the day.
Later, mainland Somalis from broken homes or Somali minorities resettled on the islands. That marked the birth of a Somali-speaking presence on the islands for the first time in history. It remains till today.
Besides ethnic Somalis, others from the mainland also moved to the islands. They included the sick or those at risk (or those the United Nations felt were at risk). Thousands of Bajuni fled into Kenya. Because they traditionally had no weapons, they could not defend themselves. Without any access to or knowledge of guns, they risked destruction. They, therefore, sailed south into Kenya, to stay with relatives in Malindi or Mombasa.
Others ended up in refugee camps near Mombasa in Kwa Jomvu and St. Anne’s. Some went near the border in Northeast Kenya and Southeast Somalia in Liboi, Dadaab, Dagahaley, Garissa and such. Others settled in Kakuma, in Northwest Kenya.
In these refugee camps, forms of Swahili became the lingua franca. Bajuni in the camps might have spoken Bajuni to each other but they spoke Swahili to others. They needed to exercise extreme care in what language they talked with non-bajunis. Somalis, who constituted a large population in the camps, never liked the Bajunis or the use of their language – whether in Somalia or in Kenyan camps.
Not surprisingly, most Bajunis did not like the camps. Incidentally, due to their porousness, the Kenyan government closed them. In the camps, refugees could live and work outside if they had the right documents. Those doing so would hence use Kenyan Swahili as their primary language of communication. Those staying with relatives in Kenya’s coastal towns would have been exposed to Swahili daily.
The Bajuni subscribe to Islamic law to run their day-to-day affairs. Men are the breadwinners and a woman’s place is usually within the home. She customarily leaves her house only to visit or go to the market. She does this late in the afternoon after she has done the housework and the children are playing. The men can stay longer, usually gathering at a men’s meeting place or the mosque.
The men wear kikoys, a piece of material wrapped around the waist like a shirt, and rubber thongs on their feet. Bajuni women wear discreet black veils with only their eyes visible to the world. Traditionally, a woman would wear a ring through the centre of her nose, a gold disk in one pierced nostril, and several earrings through the tops of her ears.
Today, these are regarded as unfashionable. Children stay at home until the age of six or seven. Thereafter, they join a Muslim school to learn to read the Koran, perform daily prayers and lead moral lives. Children always speak first as they greet an elder with a kiss on the right hand.
A young person always stands to offer his seat when an older person enters a room and is always the last to eat. A girl is taught how to cook at about the age of ten. When she reaches puberty, she can no longer mix with boys outside her own household.
She can also not leave the house without a female chaperone. When she goes out in public, she wears the traditional black, all-covering buibui garment. A Muslim judge, or kadhi, handles the criminal and civil disputes of the community.