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Last updated: 02 February, 2007 - Published 12:39 GMT
 
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Sufis, Sidis and saints
 

 
 
An elderly member of the Sidi community in Gujarat, India
They are known as Sidi, derived from the Arabic for mister or lord
More than 2,000 years ago, the sailors of Gujarat in western India learned that if they set sail at the right time of the year, a strong and steady wind would take them to a distant land hundreds of kilometres away over the ocean.

Then, after six months, the wind would switch direction and just as easily take the Gujarati boats back home again.

The returning ships carried goods and people, and eventually turned the coastal Indian state into a wealthy centre of intercontinental trade.

Many Gujaratis chose to settle in that distant land, where their descendants still live today. Likewise, many people travelled in the opposite direction.

"Africans came here as merchants, adventurers, labourers, slaves and also as soldiers," says Dr Ababu Minda Yinene, an Ethiopian anthropologist working in India.

"They brought with them their musical instruments, drumming in the ships, dancing, singing, doing the religious practices that they were doing in Africa, even falling into trances in the ships," Ababu says.

Unmistakably African

It seems most Africans had no problem marrying locals, their offspring integrating and disappearing into mainstream society.

Of the several million who, historians believe, came to India, there are a few traces left today.

 It is like any other Indian village - the women wear colourful saris, the men chew a potent mix of tobacco and spices, and the children play cricket.
 

History books recount stories of successful African soldiers and powerful kings; tourists can visit some awe-inspiring mosques and castles they built and Indians of all creeds and castes worship at the grave of an African saint.

But after centuries in India, there remain some communities that are unmistakably African - in physical appearance and in their musical and religious practices.

They call themselves the Sidi, derived from an Arabic word meaning mister or lord.

One Sidi village is Jambur, several kilometres inland from the Gujarat coastline.

"All the people here were brought from Africa," village elder Hassan Bhai told me. "They came all the way from Africa in olden times, and they went on increasing one by one."

Today they number about 500, making Jambur one of the largest communities of the descendants of Africans in India.

In most respects it is like any other Indian village. The women wear colourful saris, the men chew a potent mix of tobacco and spices, and the children play cricket.

They all speak the Gujarati language and eat dal and chapati (split-pea stew and bread).

Jambur's Sidis cultivate the limited land available to them, but also make a living labouring and selling firewood.

Masters of the damaal

Sidi Drum Master in Jumrat, India
Their drumming, dancing and singing all derive from Africa

Like most Sidis, the people of Jambur are Sufi Muslims. They worship a local saint, who died 800 years ago. He is known as Nagarchi Baba, meaning Drum Master.

Every evening, Jambur's living drum masters gather at the small mosque in the centre of the village.

The ten or so men then sing and play their way up to the mosaic-tiled shrine to their saint, which is on a small hill outside Jambur's walls.

They are led by Yunis, who is blind. "The damaal (drum) was made in Africa. It is passed on from father to son. The damaal is in the blood. It is God-given," he says.

By the time they reach the shrine, a large crowd of village folk and worshippers from as far away as India's commercial capital, Mumbai, has gathered.

The dancing gets faster and reminds me of nightclubs in DR Congo's capital Kinshasa, where I lived until a few years ago. Money is stuck onto the sweaty faces of the performers.

The crowd starts chanting "Bava Gor", the name of the Sidi's most important saint, believed to have been a rich Nigerian bead merchant and holy man, who travelled to India along the coast of the Arabian Sea. There are shrines to him in towns across western India.

The spirit of Nagarchi Baba

Then the bearded priests, who have been smoking hashish in wooden chillum pipes, arrive.

One is possessed by the spirit of Nagarchi Baba. He blesses us with perfumed smoke and a brush of peacock feathers.

Worshippers wash in holy water; others give coconuts as offerings to their saint. The grave is decorated with red rose petals and orange marigold flowers.

dancing at a Sidi procession in India
Their rituals are a combination of African and Sufi practices

The scene is a mix of cultures and religions: Indian and African; Sufi Islam and Hinduism.

"In Zanzibar you find the same kind of practice," Ababu, the anthropologist, explains. "This drumming, spirit possession and going into trance is a combination of African and Sufi practices."

Despite these strong cultural and historical links to Africa, the people of Jambur have little knowledge of where they come from.

Experts believe their roots, like those of all Sidis, are spread across eastern and southern Africa.

Some came from Angola and Mozambique and served in the Portuguese colonial army which had a base on the island of Diu, just off the Gujarat coast.

Few of the Sidis know this, and their history is not taught in any schools.

As village elder Hassan Bhai explains, "Those who knew about Africa have all died."


*This is a free online version of the article that appears in the October - December 2006 edition of BBC Focus on Africa magazine.


 
 
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