Jambur (Gujarat): It’s a village like thousands in India—a few corner shops and dusty lanes dissecting small, mud-and-brick houses into haphazard rows on the edge of lush fields.
What sets Jambur apart are its inhabitants—some 4,000 men, women and children of unmistakably African origin called Siddis, and virtually all of them poor.
“They’re the lost tribes of Africa,” said Ashis Nandy, sociologist at New Delhi’s Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS).
But the Siddis in this village, 470km southwest of Ahmedabad, say they know nothing of their origins as descendants of African slaves. “I was born here. I got married here. My father and grandfather are also from this village. I’ve no idea where their ancestors came from,” said Aishubehn Makwana Basurim, a 40-year-old woman who is the village head.
“I’ve never heard of Africa,” she said, adding that the more important issues were the lack of access to good education and generally being left behind by India’s economic boom.
Anthropologist D.K. Bhattacharya says the Siddis’ arrival can be traced back to the 10th century, when many came aboard the dhows of Arab merchants who traded with kingdoms along India’s west coast.
The Arabs are believed to have captured the Siddis after raids on coastal Bantu villages in Abyssinia—modern day Eritrea—and elsewhere in east Africa, Bhattacharya said.
Standing out: Because Siddis do not marry outside their community, they have preserved their unmistakable African looks.
“There was a flourishing slave market between the 10th and 16th centuries in Gujarat, a springboard of intercontinental migration in those days,” he said.
With the disappearance of Indian princely states in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Siddis retreated into their own communities and now live in pockets along the coastal states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Goa.
They now number 10,000-15,000 and have thoroughly assimilated, Bhattacharya said.
Everyone in Basurim’s village speaks Kathiawadi—the Gujarati dialect spoken by millions who live in the state.
“They’ve totally blended in—in the food they eat, the clothes they wear, the language they speak,” said P.C. Joshi, who teaches anthropology at the University of Delhi.
Those settled in Goa, for instance, were brought by the Portuguese traders “so they’re Christians. The Siddis brought by Arab traders were Muslim,” Bhattacharya said.
But because they don’t marry outside their own group, they’ve preserved their distinctive African looks. “We don’t allow our boys and girls to marry outside our community. This is a rule we observe very strictly,” said Basurim.
“Inter-marriages with Indians aren’t favoured,” added driver Ismail Marghul, 32.
In this, they do not differ from other Indian communities “where even today, marriages are arranged matching caste, creed, religion,” said CSDS’ Nandy.
As for music and culture, Bhattacharya finds “undoubted African elements in it. They jump and hoot wildly to the beat of cylindrical drum”.
Basurim knows for the moment the Siddis’ culture is secure. But she’s worried about the community’s economic future. Most Siddis are barely educated and live on the margins of society despite special tribal status given by the government guaranteeing them jobs and education.
“Employment, education, roads, development,” she lists as priorities when asked about her hopes for Jambur’s future.
“Our children need education. Most of our boys are unemployed or daily wage labourers earning Rs50 a day. They help out on the sugar cane farms or do odd jobs.
“What I want for them are good jobs. We managed to open a school here five years ago. I want a hospital here and a college. I want to develop Jambur into a city like Ahmedabad,” she said.