By Prof. Mberia
The presence of the African Diaspora in North America, South America and the Caribbean has been common knowledge for a long time. The presence of populations of African ancestry in the Indian sub-continent is a less known fact. Indeed, neither in Africa, nor in other continents, do people generally know that there are thousands of nationals of the Indian sub-continent whose colour complexion, hair texture and facial features are indistinguishable from the ordinary man or woman in the streets of Harare, Maputo or Nairobi. The sub-continent is home to thousands of African-Asians complete with their own communities and cultural practices passed on from one generation to the next. The dark skinned population of the sub-continent is known as ‘Sidis’.
The Sidis have attracted several studies especially from Western scholars. In a paper titled ‘Linguistic Evidence of Bantu Origins of the Sidis of India’, Prof. Abdulaziz Y Lodhi, who has studied the Sidis for many years, has made reference to a number of the studies done by other scholars. In his paper, Abdulaziz Y Lodhi has responded directly or indirectly to some of the claims made by the scholars. He also makes claims, suggestions and conclusions of his own.
Some of the claims made on the Sidis are conflicting, too far-fetched, or simply untenable. Before looking at the contentious issues, it is worthwhile to point out the non-controversial aspects of the Sidis. First, they are of African ancestry. The similarity between their physical attributes and those of the Africans on the African continent especially their skin complexion, hair texture and facial features speak of people who undoubtedly belong to the same ancestry as Africans in the mother continent.
Some people have claimed that the Sidis are descended from African slaves sold in Asia.
Some writers emphasize this issue as though to suggest that the African is such a lowly race that the only way to explain their presence in distance places is the result of their having being taken there merely as articles of trade. Nothing can be further from the truth. Africans, just as other races have been sea-fearers for centuries. This fact has been established beyond any shred of doubt by seminal works such as Ivan van Serntima’s They Came Before Columbus. In the book, the author argues convincingly and adduces evidence to show that Africans reached places such as Mexico many years before Christopher Columbus left Europe in his exploration which resulted in ‘the discovery of the New World’.
One is not saying that none of the Sidis is descended from slaves sold in Asia. Most probably there are many Sidis with that kind of history. However, to see all Sidis as sons and daughters of former slaves is simply evidence of academic insincerity, lack of analytical thinking or simply racial prejudice.
The suggestion by some scholars that the Sidis are descendants of Africans who went to the Indian sub-continent for different purposes is more credible than the one that sees each one of them merely as an offspring of a slave parent. Thus, the Sidis are descendants of Africans who went to Asia as traders, seamen, military personnel, free servants and slaves, among other possible categories of immigrants.
Another claim that may well be contested is that the Sidis, especially in Gujarat, are from East Africa and that Kiswahili is their original language. In his paper titled, ‘Linguistic Evidence of Bantu Origins of the Sidis of India’, Abudulaziz Y Lodhi states that, ‘The Sidis of India are fragmented communities of mostly East African ancestry’. This could very well be the case. However, there is no fool-proof evidence to support the claim. Kiswahili words which are purported to constitute such evidence are too few to suffice for their purpose. After all, the Sidis speak the languages of the Indian sub-continent. Lodhi observes that:
[Sidis] speak half a dozen different Indic languages (Gujarati dialects, or a mixture of Gujarati and Hindi, Sindhi and its dialect of Cutchi, Urdu, Dakhni (Central Hindi/Urdu of Hyderabad), Marathi, Malayalam, Konkoni and Kannada, with some Bantu/Swahili words and phrases.
‘A few words of Kisweahili/Bantu’ and the Sidis’ claim that they originated from East Africa and that Kiswahili is their original language do not constitute adequate evidence to support the claim that ‘[Sidis] are mostly of East African origin’. Therefore, the claim of their East African roots may or may not represent reality. A more appealing position is that at least some of the Sidis have their roots in East Africa. However, we should be cautious not to necessarily conclude that ‘East Africa’ is Zanzibar as some of the Sidis have claimed.
We have been informed by people who have interacted with the Sidis, as well as by the media, that the Sidis have become more conscious of themselves and that some of them have entered professions such as accountancy, medicine and law. Furthermore, they are using their culture as a way of raising their profile and making money. Sidi Goma is a group of Sidi cultural performers that performs not only in India, but also abroad including in East Africa. To the extent that such cultural performances bring food to the table besides making the Sidis more visible, they are good for the Sidi community. However, there is need for a word of caution. In a video showing a Sidi performance which I watched last month, one Sidi said that the attire of plant material that some of the dancers wore around their groins was suggested to them by a non-Sidi. That is worrisome. Whoever recommended the attire was probably imagining a ‘barbaric’ Africa and wanted the Sidi dance to be ‘authentic’ to the continent. In their cultural performances, the Sidis need to guard against such a myopic and sometimes racist imagination of Africa. In any case, as far as the matter of dressing goes, the Sidis are Asians and not Africans. Whoever has seen a South Asian dressed in twigs, especially in the recent past!
To conclude my brief commentary, we need to ask the question: Who really are the Sidis? Are they Asians or Africans? The answer seems to me to be: Both. They are Africans with regard to the melanin in their skin and hair and the shape of their lips and noses. They are also Africans on the basis of their faint recollections of Africa obtained from stories passed on from one generation to the next, and their music and dance. However, they are Asians as far as the matters of bread and butter are concerned. That is why they should integrate themselves fully into the politics and the economies of the countries of Asia where they are nationals. It is very important for this fact to be understood by both the Sidis and the governments of their adopted countries. If the current status of Sidis in South Asia is not at par with the rest of the nationals of those countries, it is important that the anomaly be addressed through bold and clear policies. The boldness of the policies may call for affirmative action. If that is what it will take for the Sidis to enjoy their full rights, so be it.
Prof. Kithaka wa Mberia holds a Ph. D in Linguistics and is a member of the academic staff in the Department of Linguistics and Languages, University of Nairobi. He is also a poet and dramatist writing in Kiswahili and has taught at Virginia State University, USA. Next year, he will be teaching at the University of Warsaw, Polan