Winter 2000
Volume 4 Number 4

by Pashington Obeng

My education in Ghana and later in Canada where I studied journalism and communication did not fully equip me to appreciate my African cultures, philosophies, and religions until I arrived at Princeton Seminary. It was after studying cultural anthropology with Professor Mark Taylor, religious communication with Professor Hugh Kerr, and liberation theology with Professor Dan Migliore in 1984–1985 that I began to cherish my heritage and to engage with Sangeeta, an african Indian woman, does laundry in a stream other people’s cultures in a serious way. The training I received at Princeton sharpened my awareness of cultures of the rich and famous as well as those of the marginalized. I came to appreciate the multicultural and the many forms of spiritualities of peoples in many societies.

Since my time at Princeton, I have lived and worked in the Boston area both as an associate pastor and as a professor. The questions and issues that Princeton raised have helped shape my ongoing research and ministry. Hence when I was on sabbatical in 1998, I decided to visit India to interact with descendants of Africans who were enslaved and taken to India by the Omani Arabs and the Portuguese slave traders.

History, Identity, and Location

The trans-Saharan commercial activities, especially those that involved slave trade, affected the forced migration of Africans from various regions in the Sudanic belt of West Africa and the areas around the Blue and the White Nile. Arab/Muslim slave traders were involved in the slave trade of Africa around the seventh century before Europeans began the purchase and sale of humans in Africa. Arab slave masters took enslaved Africans to the Arabian Peninsula, Iran, Iraq, and the Indian subcontinent.

The Africans of the diaspora who live in India number about 14,000 and are called "Siddis" or "Habshis." Although they are also found in Gujarat, I visited only those who live in Karnataka, a state in South India. As diasporic Africans, they share the history of other Africans who either voluntarily or forcibly emigrated from the African continent. The ancestors of these Africans came from Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Zanzibar (which is now part of Tanzania, Mozambique, and other adjacent areas in East Africa). While African Indians share historical connections with African Americans, African Brazilians, African Cubans, Haitians, etc., south-Asian geo-politics, the caste system, and internal socio-historical events have fostered their remarkable and unique identities.

Domination and Resistance

Although the geographical location and the social "space" of the African Indians is controlled by the dominant culture, they draw on what is called performative authority, or the "clout" provided by the creativity of public dance, music, and drama, to assert themselves, to rework their identities, and to subvert the forces that oppress them. They have been articulating their resistance through protests, street theater, music, and sporting activities.

For example, in June 1998 Kareem Saab, although he worked for a Havig Brahmin (a segment of the Brahmin caste, the highest caste in India) in the forest of Kandelgerri, near Mundgod, could not use timber from the forest to roof his house without permission. One night he cut a branch off a tree and took it home and used the plank for roofing his house. He was reported to the local forest department official, who alerted the police to arrest him. When the forest department officials visited Kareem’s village and tried to remove the plank, they were confronted by the leader of the African Indian women’s association, called "Mahila Mandel."

The women’s leader, Fatimbi Karimbi, and four other women challenged the government officers and barricaded the road, thus stopping the officers, who eventually left the village. Fatimbi challenged the officers with the words "Are we not citizens? This wood belongs to us, too. We work in the forest and depend on it for our livelihood. How can you deprive a forest laborer of using wood to roof his house?"

In America, such action might be called stealing. But for an enslaved people who have lived and labored for more than five hundred years on land that the forest department has more recently taken possession of, they understand the wood as part of their habitat. So taking a plank for a roof becomes a socio-political statement in the only way they can make it. It is, in fact, a strategy for survival.

As forest dwellers and agricultural laborers, the African Indians have intimate knowledge of their environment. In spite of their encyclopedic knowledge of the forest and the length of time they have lived in those places, as of 1998 the state of Karnataka had not included them among the "scheduled tribes," a status that would entitle them to legal claim to their habitat, the forest area. They are thus regarded as "encroachers," and their land could be dispossessed by the rich and the powerful at any time. The protest of the women is an example of the ongoing resistance African Indians put up as they interact with the larger society. Kareem and the women were aware of the marked distinctions of their society; therefore in their actions they were reformulating their notions of their rights, making sense of their situation, and rerooting themselves on the Karnataka topography.

In May 1958, according to Vanjati, a reporter from the Yellapur Times, there was a two-day meeting of the North Kanara District Siddis Conference that passed a resolution including these provisions:

• that the forest department help Siddis have access to their own lands
• that Siddis be given cultivable lands in order to halt their migration in search of labor
• that Siddis be recognized as a scheduled tribe and thus be entitled to all the benefits enjoyed by the scheduled tribes of India.

Despite the passing of more than forty years, no measures have so far been taken, according to Vanjati. Despite the fact that African Indians have been in India for almost five hundred years, they are defined within the Indian caste logic and so are among the marginalized of India.

In 1989, the chief coordinator of the Siddi Development Association, a non-African Indian named Poojary, requested that the Ministry of Rural Development in New Delhi allow the Siddis by law to settle on the forest land instead of to be encroachers on it. This did not happen. Hence, their "geo-social space" is still controlled by the powerful in India.

Copyright 2000 Princeton Theological Seminary
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