The Siddi: An African tribe’s story of slavery, racial oppression and hope in India

As conversations about racial discrimination reach a crescendo around the world, many are looking inward to better understand and redress ongoing social bias in their own communities. 

In India, where society follows a class-based caste system and has been influenced by years of western imperialism, light skin has long been linked to beauty and status. Recognising the issue, the government recently introduced an amendment to the ‘Drugs and Magic Remedies Bill, 2020,’ prohibiting the promotion of products that promise a ‘fairer’ or ‘lighter’ complexion. 

 In the Siddi village of Jambur, women surround a fisherman. Outsiders often avoid the village, due to racist stereotypes that they are “uncivilised”, “dirty” and “uneducated”

In recent years, darker-skinned citizens, as well as African nationals, have endured regular incidents of harassment, from verbal taunting to physical abuse. In 2016, a mob beat a 23-year-old Congolese man to death in Delhi following an argument. A year later, Indian men targeted and severely abused university students from Africa in a series of violent and, in some cases, deadly attacks

For many in India, racial discrimination can be more subtle and insidious – an everyday reality of alienation and exclusion within their own home. One group facing such challenges is the Siddi tribe, descendants of the Bantu in East Africa who migrated to western and southern India more than a millennium ago.

The tribe came in several waves, first brought to India by Arabs in the 7th century, and later by colonialists and local nawabs (akin to viceroys or dukes in India’s former princely state system, which existed until the nation’s Partition in 1947) to serve as soldiers and slaves. 

 After Rukhsana Nobi, 27, joined the park as an eco-tour guide, she and her family moved away from the village to be closer to the forest

Around the 17th century, the Portuguese brought more Siddi to work as slaves in Goa, a Portuguese enclave on the southwestern coast of India. The Portuguese also presented Siddi as ‘gifts’ to the nawabs of Gujarat, where they are said to have worked as ‘lion trackers’ for local rulers. They also participated in kushti, a type of wrestling, because of their strong build. Today, approximately 20,000-30,000 Siddi still live in India, mainly in states such as Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra, and Gujarat.

After India obtained its freedom from British rule in 1947 and the princely state system ended, the government freed Siddi from slavery. Some settled in and around Gir National Park, where they lived a secluded life for many years. The nature reserve is the only place in Asia where you can find Asiatic lions. In addition to its lion population, the wildlife reserve is also home to langur monkeys, jackals, leopards, antelope, deer, crocodile and flamingos. 

 Nobi sits with her sister, a primary school teacher in a nearby village called Madhupur. It’s rare for Siddi women to have jobs, but the sisters have inspired others to look for opportunities  

In our society, no one wants to teach girls.

Rukhsana Nobi

Over time, however, the government enacted stricter conservation laws, expelling the Siddi to the villages around the park, including Jambur, about an hour west of Gir. Almost everyone in the village is part of the Siddi ethnic group. By staying together, the tribe has become somewhat insulated from India’s caste system, as well as racism in their day-to-day lives. 

However, it’s a different story once they step outside. 

Even though the Siddi have lived in India for more than 1,000 years and speak local dialects fluently, many in Indian society do not accept them due to their skin colour and Muslim religion (Hindu-majority populations surround many Siddi villages).

Some Indian people casually refer to Siddi as the ‘N’ word, while others call them ‘badshah’ or ‘king’ based on stereotypes that Siddi people have “carefree” or “free-spirited” attitudes. They also endure another stigma, caused by the practice of endogamy – as the Siddi people rarely marry outside of their own community. 

 The Siddi are often discriminated against for their skin colour and Muslim religion

Though each village usually has at least one primary school, secondary school students usually need to travel to the nearby city of Junagadh. Siddi women, in particular, rarely finish secondary school nor do they work, as the tribe expects them to be homemakers.

“In our society, no one wants to teach girls,” says Rukhsana Nobi, a 27-year-old Siddi mother of two. “I was married at a young age, like most Siddi women, but I am glad that I was able to complete my education until the 10th grade despite living in abject poverty.”

Nobi started looking for work because her husband, who works as a manual labourer, was struggling to support their family of four. She applied for a job to be an eco-tour guide at Gir National Park, which recently launched a tribal development initiative to empower underprivileged women from different ethnicities.

 As part of her job at Gir National Park, she guides visitors on Jeep safaris where she introduces them to the park’s various plants and wildlife

Our forefathers and fathers know the forest so well, and so do we.

Rukhsana Nobi

During an undergoing a 15-day training programme, Nobi and her fellow guides learned how to host tourists on Jeep safaris, identify the park’s hundreds of species and communicate about environmental conservation. 

“Our forefathers and fathers know the forest so well, and so do we. The challenge now is communicating that same knowledge to tourists. I don’t know how to speak English, but I can give tours in Gujarati and Hindi. The tourists always seem  pleased with [my tours] and leave me a tip.”

At Gir National Park, Siddi and Gujarati women work side-by-side as eco-tour guides for the first time. The experience could help the Siddi improve their standing in society and integrate with ethnic Indians

Nobi guides about 10 to 15 tours a month, making US$6 per excursion. Over the course of the year, she expects to make roughly US$500-550 since the park closes for six months during the monsoon season. When combined with her husband’s salary of US$1,200 per year, the couple has a stable income which enables them to pay for their children’s education.

So far, the park has recruited two Siddi women, as well as several women of Gujarati-Hindu ethnicity. Nobi’s experience has also empowered many other Siddi women to apply for eco-tour guide jobs, with hopes of improving their prospects and better integrating into Indian society.