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Asia

27 min read

Introduction

Shihan de Silva

History

For centuries, Asia has been home to a rich variety of Afro-descendant communities who are still based in large numbers across the region. However, multiple waves of migration over centuries, indigenization and lost histories have meant that self-identification is often complex, particularly due to the different patterns of movement that led to the creation of each community. This situation has been reinforced by the historic marginalization experienced by Afro-descendant populations.

The long duration of easterly movement from the African coast inevitably led to several streams of migration, involving various points of origin and destination. Among the earliest arrivals from Africa were free Ethiopians, who in the fifth century sailed to Mannar, on Sri Lanka’s north-western coast, and engaged in trading activities when the island was an emporium in the Indian Ocean. Sheedis, descendants of East Africans brought to the area as slaves, also settled on the shores of the Sindh in what is now south-west Pakistan from the early seventh century onwards, with many still residing there today.

However, free movement over land and across the ocean to Asia, besides being propelled by commerce and religion, was also a product of forced migration and the slave trade. The latter substantially increased the population flow from Africa, particularly to South Asia, where many were conscripted as soldiers. Elite military slavery in fact led some slaves into positions of power. One of the most notable examples is an Ethiopian child, Chapu (b. 1549) – later renamed Ambar – who was sold to slavery by his impoverished parents, eventually working in India for the Peshwar (Prime Minister) of Ahmednagar. Ambar himself became the Prime Minister of Ahmednagar and his tomb in Khuldabad, Maharashtra state, is testimony to the respect that he commanded.

In the nearby Maldives archipelago, sultans returning from the Hajj brought slaves who were freed on conversion and absorbed into the population which was historically accustomed to migrant settlers. Many Africans were engaged as raveris (coconut plantation keepers) on the islands. The expansion of European commerce, international trade, territorial gain and defence also encouraged the migration of people from Africa, with the Portuguese, Dutch and British imperial powers engaging Africans as soldiers, servants, musicians and builders.

Many African communities distinguished themselves and managed to achieve significant success, including a Sidi dynasty of rulers in what was formerly Janjira state, to the south of Mumbai. Nevertheless, despite their long-standing economic, military and cultural presence in the region, the history of African communities in Asia remains poorly documented. While Africans appear in some sources as soldiers, jockeys, musicians, entertainers, concubines, eunuchs, sailors, servants, palace guards, bodyguards and cooks, most are anonymous and many more go unnoticed due to identification problems. This lack of visibility has contributed to the present marginalization of community members and undermined their sense of identity.

In recent years, continued migration from Africa to various Asian countries has driven the growth of black populations across the region, particularly China, where the economic opportunities available in cities such as Guangzhou have attracted thousands of African residents. Other countries, such as Malaysia, also attract large numbers of African migrants for business or study. Despite increasing diversity across the region, however, many still face similar challenges to those experienced by long-established black communities, including xenophobia and institutional exclusion – both issues that are rooted in centuries of discrimination.

Current situation

Today, Afro-descendant communities are still present across Asia, with tens of thousands concentrated particularly in areas of India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The diversity of South Asia makes identification of Afro-descendants problematic, however, and religious conversion, out-marriage and acculturation have served as catalysts in a process of assimilation which has made Afro-descendants less visible.

Out-marriage has contributed to a wider range of features and the loss or dilution of African physiognomy and characteristics, in the process reducing the numbers of recognized community members, as is the case with Afro-Sri Lankans in many areas of Sri Lanka. Nevertheless, in many cases the genetic link is still evident. One DNA study, for example, reported that the Makranis, an Afro-descendant community in western Pakistan, retain strong links to their African origins, mostly Mozambican.[i] Given the strategic importance of the Makran coast, which was on the trade route to and from Africa, Arabia, Central Asia and South Asia, it is not surprising that African slaves also travelled on this route.

And the link, as with other communities of African origin across the region, is also reflected in local customs and traditions. Toponyms such as Mombasa Street and Sheedi Village Road in Karachi, for instance, consolidate the African connection with Pakistan. In northern Karachi, local members of the Sheedi community protect the shrine of the Sufi Saint Baba Mango Pir. Celebrations of their annual festival attract other Pakistanis to the shrine.

Sidis also live in Karnataka, Goa and Madhya Pradesh. In Gujarat and Maharashtra they have found a role as spiritual healers and caretakers of shrines dedicated to Sidi and Sufi saints. As such they are accorded dignity and status by Muslim, Hindu and Zoroastrian devotees, who also venerate these saints and visit the shrines. Aspects of their cultural life today are still rooted in African origins. The sacred music of the Sidis, damal, for example, revolves around Bava Gor, an African who came to India around the thirteenth century.

Elsewhere in Asia, a genre of music in the Maldives called Bodu Beru – meaning ‘large drum’ – is associated with African settlers. According to oral history, Bodu Beru is played by the descendants of Sangoaru, an African who lived on the island of Feridu in Ari Atoll. Traditional Bodu Beru is also played on other islands of Ari Atoll and on Felidhoo island (in Vaavu Atoll). Babaru nisun (‘African dance’) accompanies Bodu Beru and singing of lava.

Nevertheless, the legacy of discrimination, social stigmatization and lack of services has meant that many community members today struggle on the margins of society. This contrasts with the relatively high profile enjoyed by some of their ancestors. In Andhra Pradesh, for instance, descendants of the Nizam of Hyderabad’s African Cavalry Guard now live in poverty in an area called AC Guards, with a few working as caretakers of mosques and others in drum bands (known as Daff parties) hired to play music and dance in ‘African ways’ for weddings and other occasions.

Many have been affected by changing political scenarios and fortunes within their countries, though there have also been positive developments. In India, for instance, Sidi communities in Saurashtra (Gujarat state) and Uttara Kannada (Karnataka state) have been accorded ‘Scheduled Tribe’ (ST) status: this entitles them to benefits from the government’s affirmative action schemes available to those recognized as socially and economically marginalized. Nevertheless, other Sidi groups in India also struggle with deep-seated exclusion yet have not been included within these categories – leaving them with little in the way of official support to address their situation. Some Sidi groups are also classified as ‘Other Backward Class’ (OBC), another reservation category.

Many members of Afro-descendant communities find that their ethnicity visibly sets them apart from the majority populations within their countries. Within Asia’s burgeoning cosmopolitan cities, Afro-Asians are considered tourists until they begin to speak in the local Asian language. At the same time, those in villages are isolated among the broader rural population. Lack of resources and extreme marginalization has meant that the sense of a common culture, memory and identity within these communities has been eroded.

Looking forward

The entrenched marginalization experienced by many Afro-descendants across Asia has served to undermine their sense of identity and, by extension, their ability to mobilize together for their rights. Despite these challenges, however, there have been recent signs of stronger collective organization among many communities. With improved communication networks, Afro-Asians are becoming more aware of their ethnic origins and cultural roots.

For example, increased solidarity and empowerment has emerged as a result of initiatives led by Sidis themselves, with the proliferation of Sidi youth organizations and societies across the region indicating the growing strength of their collective consciousness as a distinct community. In many cases these efforts have been driven by the persistence of their unique cultural legacy, giving them a voice and bringing their roots to the fore. In particular, their history is embodied in their rich traditions of music and dance, with memories of lost homelands encapsulated in song. Indo-Portuguese songs of Diu (in Gujarat), for example, refer to Mozambican territory – Inhambane, Sofala, Sena, Macua. Sidi Goma groups also perform their traditional music in India and abroad, though they cannot take part in all the music festivals to which they are invited due to lack of sponsorship.

These cultural memories are strong even though memories of migration are dim. The complex and often difficult history of Afro-descendant communities in Asia reinforces the importance of maintaining and recognizing their knowledge to improve the status of those who otherwise find themselves at best overlooked and at worst oppressed. The emerging renaissance of Afro-descendant culture therefore goes hand in hand with political mobilization, presenting these communities with the hope of better prospects to come.

[i] Quintana-Murci, L. et al., ‘Where West meets East: The complex mtDNA landscape of the southwest and central Asian corridor’, American Journal of Human Genetics, vol. 74, no. 5, May 2004, pp. 827–45.

Siddi girl, Kendlgira, India

Siddi girl, Kendlgira, India. Photo credit: Andy Martinez www.andymartinez.co.uk

Afro-Sri Lankans and their emergence from invisibility

Shihan de Silva

Ethiopians sailed on their own accord to Sri Lanka to trade in Mannar, in the north of the country. Ibn Batuta, the Moroccan traveller, noted in the fourteenth century that around 500 Abyssinians served in the garrison of Jalasti, the ruler of Colombo. From the sixteenth century, the Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial powers brought over Africans as soldiers, servants, road builders, water carriers, construction workers, labourers and postal runners.

The number of descendants of these successive waves of arrivals has dwindled, with the largest community, located in Sirambiyadiya in the North-Western Province, totalling around 50 families. The arrival of their ancestors is associated with the British colonial era. Taking over the central hilly Kandyan kingdom, which had remained independent throughout Portuguese and Dutch rule, was a costly exercise and required good soldiers. The slave trade was a means of acquiring able men who served the British in the 3rd and 4th Ceylon Regiments.

Today, the exact number of self-identifying Afro-Sri Lankans in the country is unknown, as they are not included in official censuses as a separate category – a situation that adds to their lack of visibility. One reason for this is that out-marriage has never been prohibited between ethnic groups in Sri Lanka, meaning that migrant Africans have intermarried freely and blended into the multicultural mosaic of Sri Lanka. Nevertheless, the survival of many distinct traditions among Afro-Sri Lankans has helped ensure the survival of their identity, though the community in Sirambiyadiya struggles to maintain their musical traditions, particularly as out-marriage is increasing their heterogeneity.

Their musical performances are rhythm-driven, energetic and require considerable physical strength to sustain the drum rhythms. The music, which they call manhas, defines their identity. Manhas are an oral tradition, accompanied by dancing and songs composed by their ancestors in the mother-tongue of their forebears, known as Indo-Portuguese of Ceylon: a creolized form of Portuguese. The lyrics are a reflection of how African migrants themselves were transformed in the process of resettling. The themes of the songs are mostly secular, though ‘Senhor San Anthony’ is one of their favourites. Being devout Catholics, they pray together with other ethnic groups in the village church, where mass is conducted twice a month by a priest from St Mary’s Parish Church, Puttalam.

The musicians practise regularly and include children in the sessions in order to ensure continuity of their traditions. While they are invited to perform at events and functions, the frequency of the performances is not sufficient to enhance their livelihoods. They have received help from a local non-governmental organization (NGO) in designing costumes required for theatrical performances, and their presence reaches a wider audience through television broadcasts of these activities. But they need professional marketing advice to promote their talents in order to enhance their incomes.

The community currently live on land gifted to them by the government and in brick houses built for them by an NGO. They utilize their compound to grow fruit and vegetables for their own consumption. The women are engaged in child rearing and housework, though some work as housemaids, attendants and nurses. The men are mostly labourers. Yet their self-esteem has risen with The increased external interest in their community by scholars and the media has helped to strength the community’s own sense of identity.

The Sirambiyadiya Afro-Sri Lankan community has a new role to play on the island. This role is not associated with their ancestors but has become evident in the diaspora. Whatever the reasons behind their strong cultural memories, be it diasporic consciousness or resistance to total assimilation, their cultural heritage should be nurtured and supported. Being a disenfranchised group, their comparative advantage could be strengthened in order to enhance their livelihoods and long-term survival as a community.

Pakistan’s Sheedis struggle to end centuries of discrimination

Alice Albinia

Sheedis are a community based in southern Pakistan, the descendants of East Africans brought to this area as slaves between the eighth and nineteenth centuries by Arab merchants. Most are Muslims and believe their lineage can be traced back to Hazrat Bilal, the freed Ethiopian slave who was subsequently appointed as Islam’s first muezzin. Nevertheless, since coming to the subcontinent, Sheedis have been continuously discriminated against, first for being slaves, then (under British colonial rule) for being black. Little has changed since Pakistan came into being in 1947: in a caste-conscious society where fair skin colour is still valorized, Sheedis continue to be stigmatized as a result of their African heritage.

Although community members no longer have any direct contact with Africa, they still retain some African cultural traits. For instance, at festivals they play a tall drum, the mugarman, and dance the leva, both believed to be of East African origin. The elders still speak some words of the African languages spoken by their ancestors. However, these are continuously under attack from mainstream culture and are at risk of dying out.

The Young Sheedi Welfare Organization (YSWO) was set up in 1987 to combat the endemic problems faced by the community. Three members of the organization – Faiz Mohammed Bilali (YSWO’s founder), Iqbal Haider (Executive Director) and Fida Soomro (Planning and Development Manager) – discussed some of the issues still facing their community today.

Int.: How many Sheedis are there in Pakistan and where do they live?

YSWO: The total population of Sheedis in Pakistan is just under 1 million. All of them live in southern Pakistan: around 50 per cent in lower Sindh, 20 per cent in the city of Karachi and 30 per cent in Baluchistan province. Sheedis still live in the same areas of the country to which their ancestors were brought as slaves; their status and economic prospects are still much the same now as they were before emancipation. Most still work as farm labourers for high-caste feudal lords.

Int.: How would you characterize the status of Sheedis in Pakistan today?

YSWO: [Very few] Sheedi families in Sindh own agricultural land, and the maximum land-holding is three acres per family – this in a country where land means economic and political power.… There are no Sheedis running businesses or involved in business at all, except as labourers. There are no Sheedis involved in the political leadership of the country…. There is low literacy among the community…. Apart from labour, another source of income for Sheedis is dancing, singing, and telling jokes at non-Sheedi wedding parties. They are looked down upon as ‘comics for hire’.

Int.: What are the major problems facing the Sheedi community?

YSWO: Due to ignorance and neglect on the part of the state, Sheedis are not promoted or protected as an indigenous community in Pakistan. Not being recognized by the government as a minority group, they do not receive any state assistance. No attempt has ever been made at a state-level to promote Sheedi history or culture.

Sheedis face widespread discrimination in Pakistan from other community groups due to their appearance and the colour of their skin, especially in social matters such as marriage – the only other social group to intermarry with Sheedis are the low-caste fisherfolk clan – as well as in the workplace. Women, in particular, often encounter discrimination in livelihood opportunities and are badly paid by their employers.

Int.: Please could you also give a short history of YSWO?

YSWO: For decades following the creation of Pakistan, the Sheedi community felt neglected. A sense of alienation among the more educated youth caused a group of Sheedis in Sindh to rally to change the status quo, to eliminate social segregation and cultural alienation. They decided to form a platform to campaign against the negative trends prevalent in society, and to propagate instead messages of fraternity and love. YSWO now campaigns on behalf of other marginalized communities in Pakistan – there are many of these, such as low-caste Hindu groups.

The primary objectives of YSWO are education, health and hygiene, welfare, income generation and social awareness. From the 1990s onwards, YSWO has also worked (with Oxfam and others) on urgent issues such as flood relief projects and child labour. We hope that through the education of Sheedis themselves, and the education of their fellow Pakistanis, things will at last begin to change for the Sheedi community in this country.

The Siddi community of Karnataka

Mohan Siddi

The Siddi are a community consisting of tribes scattered across the country but concentrated mainly in Karnataka, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. Very few Siddi families live in other parts of the country. Siddi populations have existed since the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Goa, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, and in Gujarat for almost a millennium. Many came over as migrants or slaves from east and south-east Africa before establishing themselves as permanent diaspora communities within India.

There is no reliable official source of nationwide information regarding the Siddi population in India and their socio-economic conditions, quality of life and the problems they face. Scattered across Karnataka, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Goa and Tamil Nadu, often in isolated villages and interior forests, the Siddi have their own unique tribal cultural characteristics. They practise different religions, such as Christianity, Hinduism and Islam, but some cultural practices and rituals are shared, such as remembering elders (hireru or hiriyaru) once a year. Men wear lungis/dhotis and shirts and women wear sari and blouse.

Though they follow the rituals of their different religions celebrated in the presence of their respective religious leaders, they afterwards celebrate according to their traditional customs; for instance, similar marriage rituals and customs are common to almost all Siddi. Irrespective of their respective religions all most all Siddi are devotees of the deity Yallamma; they may practise openly or perform puja at home. The percussive musical instruments known as the dammam, duf and gumte are popular among Siddi, both men and women, who also dance to the accompaniment of these instruments.

Siddi from the three main religious groups speak either Konkani, Urdu or Marathi as their main language, but both men and women generally speak at least one other language in addition to their mother-tongue. After India’s independence, when Goa and Karnataka became separate states, Christians in one area spoke Marathi with Muslims living close by speaking Urdu, but each understood the other’s language. However, Hindu Siddi tend to be more isolated and scattered; they speak mainly Konkani and often do not know other languages.

Nevertheless, while the Siddi clan encompasses all three religious groups and clan affinity is quite strong, considerable differences are also evident. This is seen as an important factor preventing them from coming together as a community to seek mutual help, assistance and solidarity. This is compounded by the fact that their respective religious groups have not made any significant contribution to addressing the issues faced by the Siddi.

Socially, the Siddi are considered one of the most marginalised communities and are largely settled in villages and smaller settlements.[i] While the caste principle of hierarchy is non-existent among the Siddi themselves, they are treated as on a par with the Dalits. Although there is no general practice of untouchability, the upper castes and a few other communities at the individual house level do observe practices akin to untouchability. When Siddi are invited to functions and ceremonies such as marriage, food will be served separately and they will be made to clean the floor after the food is served.

The majority of Siddi are illiterate, and although the trend of sending children to schools has increased, the rate of school dropout is also on the increase. Girls are not encouraged to pursue education after reaching puberty across all three religions, with the most restricted among them being Muslim girls. Widespread teasing because of their distinct physical features is often one of the reasons given for discontinuation of their education. The practice of child marriage at the age of 14 or 15 years of age is common and is one of the reasons for girls discontinuing their education.

One side effect of this discrimination is that alcoholism is widespread within the community. As a result a large portion of their income is spent on alcohol, leading to ill health, poverty, violence against women, and the neglect of children. This also contributes to the need to borrow money at exorbitant rates of interest. Illiteracy, a high school dropout rate, child marriage, child abuse, the neglect of the girl child’s education, the teasing of Siddi children in schools and social discrimination on the basis of ethnicity all still continue. It is in this context that the educated youth within the Siddi community have begun to take steps to address these issues.

After persistent efforts by members of the Siddi community and by supporters including Kiran Kamal Prasad and MP Margaret Alva, the government of Karnataka recognized the tribal characteristics and socio-economic challenges faced by the Siddi, and in 2003 accorded them Scheduled Tribe status, which facilitates access to certain extra benefits. This is a significant development.

The economic condition of Siddi is varied. They live in forest and non-forest areas, and the majority are landless families. With the introduction of the Forest Act 2006, some have become landholders. However this land is not categorized as Revenue Land but rather as Forest Land that people are only permitted to cultivate.[ii]

The Siddi engage in different occupations for their livelihood: for example, both men and women collect minor forest products (such as honey, dalchinni, lavanga, tamarind, pepper and soft gum) and engage in traditional occupations such as basket weaving and preparing bamboo chairs, cots and other goods. All these items require hard labour for their collection or preparation, but they are sold to local merchants for very low prices because of the absence of market facilities. An alternative form of work is daily wage labour, such as in agriculture, construction work and fishing; all these are seasonal in nature and not sustained year-round. Moreover, income from all of these is not enough to meet day-to-day needs, forcing those engaged in them to take out loans with exorbitant interest from local money lenders. Siddi work for low wages, particularly the women, and child labour is also prevalent. While many work as coolies or as bonded labourers, some men are engaged in driving tractors, cars and trucks, or working on boats, and women may engage in domestic work.

Seasonal employment and low wages have led some families to migrate to cities in Goa, Maharashtra and Udupi, Mangalore, and sometimes Bangalore. Male migrants mostly work in building construction, farms, and mutton stalls, while women work mainly as domestic servants and dressmakers’ assistants. With the money they earn, when they return home they repay their loans with interest. This cycle of exploitation and low wages has served to entrench the helplessness of the Siddi and is a major barrier to their development as a community.

The Siddi community is now focusing on how to build its identity, achieve its full development potential and promote greater access to education among its youth. To realize these objectives, it is hoped that a comprehensive survey can be undertaken to get a clearer picture of the community and its needs. There are also plans to support families with enrolment and prevent dropout among school students through material support and awareness-raising campaigns, as well as encourage livelihood opportunities and advocate for fairer markets for forest products and other goods.

In the longer term, activists hope to establish a country-wide Federation of Siddi, to bring together different communities under a common umbrella to lobby on shared issues of discrimination. Drawing on the findings of the survey, a comprehensive development plan will also be developed to promote fuller integration of Siddi into mainstream society, and legal action taken to strengthen land and livelihood rights to prevent illegal encroachments. In addition, schools, sport centres and other facilities will be established, as well as an independent multi-purpose Co-operative Society under the Karnataka Sauhardha Sahakari Act to ensure that the needs of the Siddi community are supported.

So far, with the support of community activists, some steps have already been taken to realize these goals. These include, among other activities, a number of studies and consultations to assess local needs, such as lack of access to education and basic services, mobilizing community members and developing organizations, supporting sick or elderly Siddi and promoting English language learning and other educational opportunities. Furthermore, a number of illegal land grabs and other abuses have now been challenged in the courts with the support of other civil society groups. While progress is still slow, these are promising signs of progress for the community.

Siddi man carries firewood, India.

Siddi man carries firewood, India. Credit: Agarjun Kandukuru

Interview with Mohan Ganapti Siddi – a young community activist advocating for change

India’s Siddi are a large Afro-descendant community with an estimated 150,000 members in the country, based for centuries in rural areas of Goa, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat. Despite their long history, Siddi have struggled to have their rights recognized and have faced continued discrimination from mainstream society. One of the central challenges has been the limited organization of the community as a whole, leaving them without a collective voice to articulate their shared grievances. Nevertheless, there have recently been renewed efforts to restore a shared sense of identity within the community, led in part by a new generation of young Siddi.

Mohan Ganapti Siddi has been on the frontline of these efforts as a researcher and activist. One of the first in his community to be able to access higher education, attaining a Master’s degree in social work at Bangalore University, Mohan is now studying for a PhD at Mumbai University – entitled ‘Socio-Economical Study on Siddi Tribe of Karnataka – A Social Work Perspective’ – while also continuing to mobilize his community. Most recently, with funding from Minority Rights Group International (MRG), Mohan travelled to Gujarat to make contact with members of the Siddi community there. In Ahmedabad, for example, Mohan met the cultural and spiritual leader Rubana Siddi, a leading light in the traditional music group Sidi Goma, as well as members of various youth associations, women’s organizations and other groups in towns and villages in different parts of the province. Mohan spoke with Andy Martinez about the activities of these organizations and some of the challenges facing the Siddi community, as well as ways forward.

AM: Are you getting the correct government assistance for educational needs?

MGS: The process of attaining government assistance is difficult for some rural families, who have to show they have a bank account and produce a certificate, which costs Rs 200s, to show they earn less than Rs 25,000 per year. Then [they must] spend two days or more with ‘bureaucratic delays’ to receive their entitled compensation.[iii] Support starts at Rs 75 for 1st standard (5/6-year-olds) to Rs 1,500 for 10th standard (16-year-olds). Many families won’t bother because of the difficulties. We try to provide support to families with this process.

AM: Do you need advice and assistance as a new NGO?  

MGS: Of course we need support from the government, because we are a new organization which consists of a young generation. We really need some support from other bigger organizations who could help to design proposals and other ideas and complete a census.

AM: What do you think about the needs of Gujarat Siddi?

 

MGS: The Gujarat Siddi really need support for development; they have never seen what development is and how to [achieve it]. No other organization has worked with them. On my visit I saw the Siddi of Gujarat struggling with the places where they live: short-term places like slums and some in rented houses. In Karnataka we are fighting for agricultural land. At the same time they need to obtain the right to the land where they can build their houses, and they need government support to help them come up in their lives.

At the same time their music is their daily bread so they are focusing on rock and other bands. We should offer a better education so they can pursue education at a music institution where they can promote good music and learn. At the same they need to organize themselves and come together. Only the Sufi saints are bringing them together at the same time. The Siddi of Karnataka and Gujarat should be mobilized.

AM: How do you envisage your working relationship with the Gujarat Siddi? Do you have a template for a nationwide, even Asia-wide, Siddi organization?

MGS: I [would like] our organization to work for the Siddi of Karnataka and Gujarat and all over India and Asia. At present we don’t have an organization to work at an Indian level and an Asia-wide level at the same time. I have applied to the Charity Commission of Mumbai to register as a charity. Within 40 to 50 days it should be registered; if we can succeed with this, it can bring all the Siddi under one umbrella and Siddi can be mobilized at a national and international level, especially in Asia.

AM: Are there still bonded labour practices happening today? What are you doing to combat incidents?  

MGS: There are still bonded labour practices today but not directly; we could call it indirect bonded labour practice. For example, a Siddi working for somebody at his house may be given a loan for a marriage ceremony or some other need. He will be charged a high rate of interest with no accountability and has to work life-long to pay back the loan from the master. Only food is provided; they have to stay at the house so they can work [whenever they are needed]. He will leave his wife, his children, all of his family. We are working against this. We don’t have witnesses so we give him a loan and provide him with a place to stay. I might help with his marriage or any other ceremonies. This is an example of how we can protect them.

AM: Are there grants available for forest or environmental development?

MGS: There is no special grant available for the forest; development of forestry has been done through the forest department. Grants are only available for plantations and to protect timber. This is a commercial enterprise and doesn’t take into consideration environmental issues.

 AM: How do you think the empowerment of Siddi women will contribute to Siddi society?

MGS: Empowerment of women will contribute a lot to Siddi society. We Siddi are matriarchal in practice, which means that the mother is the leader of the family who manages financially. [Through her] empowerment she can teach the children to get education [and so] empower the children. In the Siddi community many men are alcoholic.… It is really difficult for the Siddi community to [improve economically and achieve] a good life. When you think of women’s empowerment [this is] really development of the community; it could help the Siddi community to come up in society.

AM: As regards health care, in the past you mentioned that an ambulance was allocated to the Siddi community but never materialized. Can you tell me that story and what’s happening now to improve health care for the whole community? 

MGS: The ambulance was given by Margaret Alva – she was government Sports Minister. She had fought for the Siddi community to get the Uttara Kannada ST status. She helped with the donation of an ambulance through the government for the health of the Siddi community but it was taken by Taluka Hospital and not returned to the Siddi community. Still today it is with the Taluka office, which is part of the government of Karnataka.

[i] Other Backward Class (OBC) is a collective term used by the government of India to classify castes that are educationally and socially disadvantaged.

[ii] Revenue Land is land owned by the Siddi, made available through having ST (Scheduled Tribe) status. The designation as Revenue Land means they can put up their land to borrow money from the bank to improve water access and so on. Siddi who do not own land can rarely afford to improve their conditions.

[iii] Each day’s delay may entail a further journey to the relevant office; the cost in money and time can be prohibitive and outstrip the financial assistance offered.

This story pack marks The International Decade for People of African Descent, officially launched by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015.