I started reading more on the Indian Ocean trade in slavery, in contrast to the Atlantic trade during colonial times. In the process I discovered so many interesting stories about slaves in India who later rose in the ranks to become rulers such as the story of Janjira, and even earlier the story of Malik Amber from Harar, Ethiopia.
It was this research that revived memories of African struggles of the past.
During the days when I was still in school Africa for me was synonymous with anti-colonial movements against imperialism and racism. Names like Haile Selassie, Kwame Nkrumah, Abdel Gamal Nasser, Jomo Kenyata, Julius Nyerere, Muammar Al Gathafi and of course Nelson Mandela were a part of animated conversations in our home about socialism and freedom. I was not mature enough to understand much of these conversations but I did grow up feeling a deep sense of solidarity with Africa and Africans.
But those memories have faded and the connection with Africa is almost lost. Now Africa for most Indians is either a tourist destination for wildlife and safaris or a place of destitution and conflicts.
Our friends were surprised, even shocked when we told them that we had specifically told our travel agent that we were not so keen about wildlife or visiting tribal villages.
Then what did you do in Africa?
Even our African friends expected us to go on the usual tourist circuit. Our young Kenyan friend advised us to buy a copy of Lonely Planet and was surprised that we were not particularly interested in visiting Karen Blixen’s home; or being kissed by a giraffe or seeing a hotel where an Englishman had galloped through the lobby or adopting a baby elephant. We said we would much rather meet his family and friends and go to a music concert; or see the caves where the Mau Mau freedom fighters hid at the base of Mount Kenya.
Our Ethiopian driver told us he was shocked when he learnt that we would be staying for five days in Addis Ababa. He said none of the other tourists had ever spent so much time in the capital.
When we asked to be taken to the African Bookshop (the oldest in Ethiopia) he took us past it without stopping. When we asked him to stop, he was really surprised that we were in there for more than an hour and came out carrying so many books.
But other African friends were pleased when we told them about our instructions to our travel agent. One friend, Geda, I met after more than four decades. He was then the President of African Students Union in Delhi and my father a diplomat was the patron. Geda visited our home and we had met just once in 1977. But when he heard that I was coming to Nairobi he insisted on meeting my husband and me. He traced us to our hotel and then we were invited for a meal with his family.
The warmth of his hospitality reflected the old feelings of solidarity but he agreed that those emotions were now in the past.
Our tour guide in Ethiopia accompanied us to Harar. For centuries, Harar has been a major commercial center, linked by the trade routes with the rest of Ethiopia, the entire Horn of Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and, through its ports, the outside world up to India.
Harar Jugol, the old walled city, was listed as a World Heritage Site in 2006 by UNESCO in recognition of its cultural heritage. [According to UNESCO, it is ‘considered “the fourth holy city” of Islam’ with 110 mosques, three of which date from the 10th century and 102 shrines.
Our tour guide was very excited when he learnt why we had a special interest in Harar. It was from this region that a 15-year old Oromo boy named Chapu was kidnapped and taken into slavery in 1560 and rose to become a ruler of Ahmednagar in India.
We visited the Sherif Harar City Museum and met the curator to ask whether he had heard of Malik Amber. He said an Indian visitor some years ago had told him about the Ethiopian. He brought out a feature article published in Amharic on Malik Amber. He had proudly framed it. I had taken a book on Malik Amber and showed him that the photo in the feature was not correct and promised to send him a copy of the book.
There was great deal of excitement among the other tour guides when they learnt about Malik Amber and our tour guide told me to tell the story about how the great Mughal Emperor Jahangir was so frustrated because he could not defeat the Abyssinian that he asked his court artist Abu’l Hasan to paint a picture of Jahangir standing on a globe shooting an arrow at the spiked head of Malik Amber.
In Addis Ababa I stood outside the stunning building which houses the African Union headquarters. It is a building that has cost US $200 million and was a gift from the Chinese to the Africans.
The African Union was quite different from the Organization of African Unity envisaged in 1963. Although apartheid had officially ended and there were now fifty-five sovereign states who were members; the process of de-colonization was hardly over and institutionalized racism continued to influence the politics in Africa and the world.
But the new leaders were not engaged with these problems; even though the conflicts were rooted in that past. But then India and her leaders too are not the country it once aspired to be.
In our travels, especially in Kenya and Zanzibar we learnt of the complex relationship between the Indians or South Asians and the Africans. While it is true so many men and women of Indian origin living in Kenya and Zanzibar had taken a part in the freedom movement against colonial rule there were Indians who had privileged positions during the British raj.
The controversies over the declaration of Indians as the 44th tribe of Kenya or how we should look at the South Asian heritage is far too complex a subject for passing comments. But the problem is real; that we saw for ourselves.
On several occasions we were sitting in a restaurant with our African friends and one of them remarked that ours was the only table with a mix of South Asians and Africans. Our young friend Brima, who had recently returned from Delhi where he was studying took us to a busy restaurant which had recently opened. We were sitting with his fiancé (now wife) his brother and a friend and he pointed out there were no South Asians among the hundred or more customers.
Brima invited us to meet his family. There were 15 members of his family there to meet us and we had a lovely meal and shared experiences. His sister had studied in India and got her law degree. She remarked that she had never been able to make friends like us during her five years in India.
Throughout our travels we did not face any hostility from anyone. On the contrary, we were greeted with warm enthusiasm as if we were in some way ambassadors from Bollywood. From Lalibela in Ethiopia to Zanzibar people came up to us and said ‘Shahrukh Khan, Amitabh Bachan, Aishwariya Rai’. And we smiled and waved.
In Zanzibar, our driver was Abbas. He was there at the airport to pick us up and take us to our hotel in Stone Town. Abbas helped us with our luggage and we introduced ourselves. He could not believe we were Indians from India – my Kashmiri lineage made me fairer than an average Indian and Sebastian’s Naga looks made him look like a Chinese. When we had convinced Abbas that we were indeed Indians he suddenly shouted: ‘Bachao, Bachao’ (save me, save me).
Before I could recover from the shock he turned and grinned and asked: ‘what does that mean?’ I told him. I asked where he had learnt these words and he said ‘Bollywood films. You know Shah Rukh Khan, Amitabh Bachan and Aishwariya Rai?’ I said indeed we did. He said he wanted to go to India. I said if he did reach Mumbai he could stand outside Amitabh Bachan’s home along with hundreds of Indians and get a glimpse of him. Abbas was ecstatic.
Abbas told us about various films and finally I confessed to him (reluctantly) ‘Abbas, we don’t really watch that many Hindi films’.
Abbas was silent for a moment. Then he turned back and asked: ‘Then what do you do in your spare time?’
I did not know how to answer his question and was grateful we had arrived at our hotel.
The challenge for all of us interested in solidarity between Indian and African peoples is to go beyond safaris and Bollywood; and to remember that the task of dismantling an unjust world order is far from complete even if we may be citizens of sovereign states.