By Sylviane A. Diouf, Director, Lapidus Center.
May is Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month. Let’s stretch it a bit and discover or learn more about Afro-Asians. In medieval India some East Africans–called Sidis or Habshis from the Arabic for Abyssinia–became navy commanders, army generals, de facto rulers and founders of dynasties. Their story was the subject of the exhibition Africans in India: From Slaves to Generals and Rulers, which I curated with Dr. Ken X. Robbins. It opened at the Schomburg Center in 2013 and since then has been traveling to two dozen countries in the Americas, Africa, Europe, and Asia.
In Ahmedabad, in the Indian state of Gujarat, the Sidis left an impressive architectural legacy. Today, some African descendants live there in a small compound where they proudly maintain their culture.When I entered the courtyard of the Sidis of Patthar Kuwa in the Old City of Ahmedabad, I found a quiet, welcoming oasis and I instantly felt at home. As I sat in her small living room, the first thing the matriarch, Rumanaben Siddi, said was “We are Muslims and Africans.” I told her my father was African and Muslim too. When I added he was Senegalese, she was even more delighted. Some men from the compound had performed in Dakar as part of the Siddi Goma group—from ngoma a word derived from the Swahili meaning drum and dance. She introduced me to everyone as “our daughter from Dakar.” With my few Hindi words gleaned watching Bollywood movies and the help of an Urdu-speaking friend, I made connections over geography, history, language and culture, and it was an emotional, quite magical moment.
My Sidi hosts were proud of their ethnic and religious identity. One Sidi song goes like this: We are Habshis originally from Africa / we came to India to stay / we came with dates to trade / with the help of Bava Gor. The Patthar Kuwa compound’s shrine to the 14th-century African Muslim saint and agate trader Bava Gor, who settled in Gujarat, attests to this dual African/Islamic identity: it had big drums in the corner. The Sidis honor their saint with the vigorous devotional dancing and drumming for which they are famous.
The Sidis of Ahmedabad are virtually invisible in a city of 3.5 million. But if their present barely registers, their past is highly visible. The 16th-century graves of several African dignitaries can still be seen. One of the most celebrated mosques, built in 1461, bears the name of the Ethiopian Sidi Bashir. In 1570, Sidi Said, an erudite and pious Ethiopian royal slave who later joined a famous Ethiopian general, became free and wealthy, built a remarkable mosque. With its amazing stone carvings, Sidi Said Mosque is considered a masterpiece of Gujarati architecture. Both mosques are the top tourist destinations in the city. Unfortunately, few visitors know what Sidi refers to. A small washed out plaque mentions that Sidi Said was an Abyssinian but who, today, besides African Americans, is aware of what this obsolete term means?
About 50,000 to 70,000 Sidis (whose ancestors originally came from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Lower Egypt, Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi and Mozambique) are scattered across a country of 1.2 billion people. No wonder most Indians have never heard of them and sometimes mistake them for foreigners.
Because a large number of Sidis were employed at the royal courts of the independent princely states, when those were integrated into India after independence in 1947, they lost their jobs and their status. Today many are taxi drivers, domestics, peddlers, farmers and laborers while some belong to the middle class.
The vast majority of Sidis are Muslims, others are Christians or Hindus. Some Sidi settlements, organized as separate communities, have the status of “scheduled tribes,” which offers a modicum of affirmative action programs. Depending on where they live, Sidis speak Hindi, Urdu, Gujarati, Konkani, or other local languages. Education, the need to maintain their distinctive culture and have a strong leadership are some of the priorities expressed by various Sidi groups.
Recently, the exhibition Africans in India travelled to the southern Indian state of Karnataka after a tour of Gujarat and Delhi. The Sidis of Karnataka, who live in villages and small towns, are descendants of people from Mozambique and the hinterland of Tanzania who were enslaved by the Portuguese in Goa and ran away to the forests during slavery. Others took refuge there after emancipation. In 2009, a few thousand of them came together to celebrate the first anniversary of Barack Obama’s presidency. Because of the East African connection they consider him one of their own and wanted to send him a cask of honey from their bees.
Pakistan too is home to African descendants, known there as Sheedis. They live in the south, mostly in Baluchistan and Sindh. With their Iranian counterparts they form the largest group of African descendants in the region, with about 250,000 people along the Makran coast who can claim an African origin. Other Afro-Asian communities can be found in the Maldives (the place that provided all the cowry shells brought to Africa during the slave trade) and Sri Lanka. Their ancestors, free and enslaved, settled on these islands over the last eight centuries.
Touring South Asia on the footsteps of the Sidis of yesterday and today is an extraordinary experience and a reminder that the African Diaspora stretches to the four corners of the globe. With The Sidi Project, it is just a click away.