After more than a decade in a refugee camp in Kenya, to which they had fled to escape the civil wars tearing apart the Horn of Africa, two Somali Bantu families are stunned to learn in early 2004 that they will finally be allowed to immigrate to America. The resettlement plan began under Clinton in 1999, was interrupted by September 11th, and began again late in 2003. The families are, in a Somali Bantu expression, grateful recipients of bish-bish, which translates literally as “splash-splash,” indicating the first rains after a long drought (Rain in a Dry Land) and, by extension, resettlement in America. In a world teeming with desperate refugees, where barren camps like the U.N.-supported Kakuma in Kenya become permanent rather than temporary fixtures on troubled borders, a ticket to the United States may be the ultimate bish-bish.
Rain in a Dry Land chronicles, in their own poetic words, the first 18 months of the American lives of Arbai Barre Abdi and her children and Aden Edow and Madina Ali Yunye and their children. Beginning with “cultural orientation” classes in Kenya, where they are introduced to such novelties as electric appliances and the prospect of living in high-rise apartment buildings, the film follows the Muslim families on divergent yet parallel paths as they learn that the streets in America are definitely not paved with gold, especially for poor immigrants. The families’ sponsors—Jewish Family Services in Springfield, Massachusetts, and World Relief in Atlanta, have pledged six months of support, which gives the families a daunting learning curve to take themselves from the 19th century to the 21st.
The film measures the distance from an African refugee camp to an American city and asks what it means to be a refugee in today’s “global village,” providing answers in the stories of two families whose response to 21st-century culture shock presents an uncommon portrait of human persistence in the face of social disorder and change.
The journeys of these Bantu families actually began two centuries ago, when their ancestors arrived in Somalia as slaves. African rather than Arab, Somali Bantus lived among the Somalis as a despised minority. They were relegated to the meanest labor, while being excluded from education, politics and mixing with the dominant Somali clans. When civil war broke out in 1991, various armed factions mercilessly attacked the largely agricultural—and largely defenseless—Bantu. Madina Yunye, for one, saw her mother gunned down before she herself was gang raped in front of her children. She and thousands of others fled to Kenya, where history might have finally orphaned them.