May is Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month. What better time to discover or learn more about Afro-Asians? As our groundbreaking exhibition Africans in India shows, some became navy commanders, army generals, and founders of dynasties. In Ahmedabad, in the Indian state of Gujarat, they left an impressive architectural legacy. Today, some Sidis live there in a small compound where they proudly maintain their culture.
When I entered the courtyard of the Sidis of Patthar Kuwa in the Old City of Ahmedabad, heart pounding excitingly, I found a quiet, welcoming oasis and I instantly felt at home. As I sat in her small living room, the first thing the matriarch, Rumanaben Siddi, said was "We are Muslims and Africans." I told her my father was African and Muslim too. When I added he was Senegalese, she was even more delighted. Some men from the compound had performed in Dakar as part of the Siddi Goma group—from ngoma a word derived from the Swahili meaning drum and dance. She introduced me to everyone as "our daughter from Dakar." WIth my few Hindi words gleaned watching Bollywood movies and the help of an Urdu-speaking friend, I made connections over geography, history, language and culture, and it was an emotional, quite magical moment.
My Sidi hosts, like most Sidis (also called Habshis, from the Arabic for Abyssinia), were proud of their ethnic and religious identity. One Sidi song goes like this: We are Habshis originally from Africa / we came to India to stay / we came with dates to trade / with the help of Bava Gor. The Patthar Kuwa compound's shrine to the 14th-century African Muslim saint and agate trader Bava Gor, who settled in Gujarat, attests to this dual African/Islamic identity: it had big drums in the corner. The Sidis honor their saint with the vigorous devotional dancing and drumming for which they are famous.
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