It’s a quiet afternoon at the Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville, except for the music and voices coming from a side gallery on the museum’s first floor. The sounds aren’t typical for an art exhibit, but it’s hard to tell the story of a culture without hearing its music and voices.
“The Somali Bantu Experience: From East Africa to Maine,” uses not only the music and voices to share the story of the Somali immigrants who are now living in the Lewiston area, but also dozens of photographs, objects and a Web site. The exhibit and Web site were assembled by students of Colby anthropology professor Catherine Besteman.
The exhibit is on display until Nov. 16. The accompanying Web site, however, will remain with downloadable curriculum guides for classes of English Language Learners, or ELL, as well as kindergarten through grade 12.
Besteman estimated thousands of Maine schoolchildren, including a recent group from All Saints Catholic School in Bangor, have toured the exhibit, learning about the life and culture of the Somali Bantus, one of the ethnic minority groups in the African nation, and their unusual story.
“People don’t know about their history, culture,” said LaGrange native Erin Beasley, a senior anthropology major who helped to put together the Web site. “People just know [the Somali] refugees, and they have no idea of the context. I just felt really good to get involved with that and spread the word and show their journey. It really is incredible how they came from Somalia to Lewiston, Maine.”
Just as incredible, it seems, is how the exhibit and accompanying Web site came to be.
In the late 1980s, Besteman was living in the town of Banta in southern Somalia while doing research for her doctoral dissertation through the University of Arizona. Besteman and her husband, photographer Jorge Acero, took about a thousand photographs of Somali Bantus and Besteman made about 30 hours of audio interviews.
Besteman eventually returned to the U.S. and wound up teaching at Colby. Meanwhile, the Somali civil war raged in the 1990s; thousands were killed or died of starvation, and thousands more were displaced. Somali refugees began to arrive in Lewiston in 2001, and there are now thousands living in and around Lewiston.
Nearly 20 years after she left Somalia, Besteman was asked to appear on a panel for Martin Luther King Jr. Day at Bates College in Lewiston. While there, she met four young Somali men who were serving as community representatives. The men told her they were from the same area in which Besteman had done her research, and though they were only children when she was there, they remembered Besteman.
“I said, ‘You’re kidding,’” Besteman said, relating the conversation she had with the men. “They said, you got old, you’re wearing glasses, you’re fat, you don’t look at anything like the Catherine we knew. That had been the moment of connection. It was amazing.”
When Besteman realized how many Somali Bantu families had resettled in Lewiston, she and Acera organized a community party so they could see Acera’s photographs.
“Seeing the power of those photos was really moving,” Besteman said. “For a lot of [the Somalis] there were photographs of people who were young before the war, spouses or children or grandparents who were lost in the war or remain in Somalia. Seeing the emotion around these images, we begin making lots and lots of copies to distribute in the community, and that’s what hatched the idea of these photos needing to be made available to the public.”
Besteman hired some students to digitize the photographs and the taped interviews; the Web site now has 678 photographs available for viewing. The whole thing came together in the Spring 2008 semester and this September.
The voices Besteman captured during her research, along with interviews done by Colby students in the last year, can be heard in the museum’s teaching gallery, where several dozen photographs are displayed with items Besteman brought back from Somalia and a student-made map of the country.
The photographs are a mix, from depictions of village elders in the late 1980s to a picture of a Somali woman in a minivan, showing how the Somali Bantus are assimilating in their new home.
“[The photographs] celebrate their culture and show how they’ve been able to maintain their cultural traditions in Lewiston and also evolve,” Beasley said. “It shows how strong they are as a community. Family values are definitely important and the community is able to sustain that.”
While the exhibit has been a way to educate Mainers about the Somali Bantus, it has also given Beasley and other Colby students out-of-the-classroom experiences. They’ve had a chance to learn about and document a culture and take that information to the public through a Web site and a museum exhibit.
“When I learned about this class, I jumped on it,” Beasley said. “I’m an anthropology major so I look at a lot of different cultures, but what I do is read books and type papers. That’s great academics-wise, but this is just such a hands-on program and a way to get that perspective in a Maine setting, to really be able to work with a community that not everybody in Maine, especially where I’m from, knows about.”
PHOTO COURTESY COLBY COLLEGE MUSEUM OF ART
Among the photographs collected in “The Somali Bantu Experience: From East Africa to Maine” is this one from 1988, Jorge Acero’s “Amina Adulle and Hiloley.” The exhibit runs through Nov. 16 at Colby College Museum of Art.