After millennia of exclusion and racial stigma, the Siddi tribe, originally from Africa, is slowly gaining a foothold in India.
As global discussions about racial discrimination heat up, many people are turning inward to better understand and address social bias in their own communities.
Light skin has long been associated with beauty and status in India, where society is divided into castes and has been influenced by years of western imperialism. Recognizing the problem, the government recently proposed an amendment to the ‘Drugs and Magic Remedies Bill, 2020,’ which would prohibit the promotion of products that promise a ‘fairer’ or ‘lighter’ complexion.
In recent years, darker-skinned citizens, as well as African nationals, have been subjected to a steady stream of harassment, ranging from verbal taunting to physical assault. In 2016, a mob in Delhi killed a 23-year-old Congolese man after an argument. A year later, in a series of violent and, in some cases, fatal attacks, Indian men targeted and severely abused university students from Africa.
For many Indians, racial discrimination is a daily reality of alienation and exclusion in their own homes. The Siddi tribe, descendants of the Bantu in East Africa who migrated to western and southern India over a millennium ago, is one group facing such challenges.
The tribe was brought to India in waves, first by Arabs in the 7th century, then by colonialists and local nawabs (akin to viceroys or dukes in India’s former princely state system, which existed until 1947) to serve as soldiers and slaves.
Around the 17th century, the Portuguese brought more Siddi to Goa, a Portuguese enclave on India’s southwest coast, to work as slaves. The Portuguese also gave Siddi to the nawabs of Gujarat as ‘gifts,’ where they are said to have worked as ‘lion trackers’ for local rulers. Because of their strong build, they also participated in kushti, a type of wrestling. About 20,000-30,000 Siddi people still live in India today, mostly in Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra, and Gujarat.
The government freed Siddi from slavery after India gained independence from British rule in 1947 and the princely state system was abolished. Some chose to live a solitary life in and around Gir National Park 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.
However, the government adopted stronger conservation restrictions over time, driving the Siddi out of the park’s surrounding communities, notably 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.
When they step outside, however, things change.
Despite the fact that the Siddi have lived in India for over 1,000 years and speak the local dialects fluently, many Indians reject them because of their skin color and Muslim religion (Hindu-majority populations surround many Siddi villages).
Some Indians call Siddi the ‘N’ word, while others refer to them as ‘badshah’ or ‘king,’ based on stereotypes that Siddi people are “carefree” or “free-spirited.” They also face another stigma as a result of the Siddi people’s practice of endogamy, in which they rarely marry outside of their own community.
Despite the fact that each village usually has at least one primary school, secondary school students must usually travel to Junagadh, a nearby city. Siddi women, in particular, rarely complete secondary school or work because the tribe expects them to stay at home and care for their children.
“No one wants to teach girls in our society,” 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 grateful that despite living in abject poverty, I was able to complete my education until the 10th grade.”
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 an eco-tour guide position at Gir National Park, which recently launched a tribal development initiative to empower underprivileged women of various ethnicities.
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 during a 15-day training program.
“Our forefathers and fathers, like us, have a deep understanding of the forest. The problem today is transferring that information to tourists. Although I do not speak English, I am able to provide tours in Gujarati and Hindi. Tourists seem to enjoy [my tours] and always leave me a tip.”
Nobi leads 10 to 15 trips per month, earning US$6 per trip. Since the park closes for six months during the monsoon season, she expects to make around US$500-550 over the course of the year. The couple has a consistent income, which allows them to pay for their children’s education, thanks to her husband’s annual salary of US$1,200.
So far, the park has enlisted the services of two Siddi ladies and several Gujarati-Hindu women. Many other Siddi women have been inspired by Nobi’s story to apply for eco-tour guide jobs in the hopes of bettering their prospects and integrating into Indian society.
This Article Was Originally Written By ArianaLife.com