Where Africa meets Asia: the Sidi communities

Earlier this week, I had the pleasure to attend a themed week on Sidi culture hosted by Alliance Française de Nairobi. From Monday to Wednesday, documentary films followed by discussions gradually introduced the audience to the history and lifestyle of this Afro-Asian community, from religious rites around the Bava Gor shrine to a dwindling poetic tradition. The week’s events culminated with a concert of traditional Sidi Goma music performed by a group from Gujarat, marking the official opening of the Samosa festival.

Here is a video of a string instrument called ‘malunga’ which is thought to have originated in East Africa:

Sidis (sometimes referred to as Habshis) are a community spread across several Indian states and beyond, whose ancestors came to South Asia from Africa as traders, soldiers and servants to the royal courts as early as the 13th century. Some trace their origins to Zanzibar and have retained a few words of Swahili used in ritual chants, although they now speak the local Indian languages natively.

Dr Shihan de Silva Jayasuriya from University of London’s Institute of Commonwealth studies has carried out extensive studies about the music of the Afro-Asian communities in the Maldives, Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan. She first became interested in a Sri Lankan community  of African descent in Sirambiyadiya, on the northwestern coast of the island:

Indo-Portuguese is a language which should have died out with the end of Portuguese rule in 1658.  Yet here in this small African community it still survives albeit spoken largely by the elderly.  How had it survived among people with African ancestry?  And what were the mechanisms which ensured that survival?

In Pakistan (Karachi and Sindh) the Shidees sing lava which encompasses Swahili words.  In the nearby Maldives, Baburu lava rings out  the music introduced by African slaves.   The rhythm-driven music of the Roman Catholic Afro-Sri Lankan community in Sirambiyadiya and their Indo-Portuguese songs, called Manhas, reverberate in my mind.  Language change is inevitable but music is more resistant and the lyrics are preserving the vestiges of an endangered language.

In her paper African Migrants as cultural brokers in South Asia, Dr. Shihan de Silva Jayasuriya notes that the Chaush living in Hyderabad sing in a Bantu language called Shambaa during religious ceremonies and at the beginning of healing rituals, even though they do not understand the words.

According to Pr. Abdulaziz Lodhi, the fact that the communities were rather scattered across the land and had Islam as an integrating factor contributed to Africans  quickly becoming indianised and in particular losing much of their linguistic baggage.

This said, he uncovered some linguistic evidence of the survival of some Swahili lexical items :

Recent fieldwork among the Sidis in Ratanpur and Bhavnagar in Gujarat during January 2007 has yielded only about a dozen Bantu/Swahili single word items and about a dozen phrases and a couple of complete Swahili-sounding sentences, e.g. ‘Ee manamuki, wapi koenda?’ (You young woman, where are you going?). In modern Swahili it would be ‘Wee mwanamke, unakwenda wapi?’ A couple of sentences were of mixed Bantu-Gujarati construction, e.g. ‘Kulya karwa jae!’ (Let us go to eat! Bantu ‘kulya’ = to eat, eating; Gujarati ‘karwa jae’ = let us go to do). One lexical item, ‘injoro’ (curry, gravy) used in Ratanpur, is not derived from any Bantu language but rather from the Ethiopian usage ‘injira’ (or Somali ‘anjera’).

Pr. Lodhi has recently published his findings … which I shall summarise for you once I get myself a copy of the booklet !

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