As I am now in the process of completing the finishing touches on a French language collection of my essays on the African presence in Asia I find myself reviewing and evaluating the body of work that I have been compiling on the subject over the past quarter century. During this process I realize that I am now able to trace to some extent my own evolution as a thinker and doer.
In 1987 I began to physically travel to Asia in search of the African presence. By this time in my I had concluded that it was not enough for me simply to haunt the libraries in the United States for data. I thought that it was important for me to actually go to Asia and see it for myself.
My first travel experience to Asia, appropriately enough, was to India. I say appropriate because India has been at the core of my Asian researches from the very beginning. So in October 1987 I journeyed to India for the first time. It was the farthest I had ever traveled from the United States and it was a trip that became a foundation stone for all of my subsequent travels and research. […]
The highlight of the trip, however, was the First All-India Dalit Writers’ Conference in Hyderabad, Andra Pradesh. This was my first visit to South India and I was honored to not only speak at the conference but to formally open the gathering by placing a garland of flowers around a photograph of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar–Dalit hero and the author of India’s constitution. […]
In 1998 I returned to India on possibly the most momentous travel experience of my life. […]
The urban poverty in Patna and the rural despair in outlying villages I will never forget. It was also in Bihar that I journeyed to the ancient Buddhist university of Nalanda and one of the holiest sites in Buddhism, Bodhgaya, where the Buddha is supposed to have received enlightenment. It was also in Bihar, under the guidance of M. Ejaz Ali, M.D., that I encountered Indian Tribals for the first time.
From Patna I traveled with a second class train ticket and then by bus and taxi to the Ajanta Caves in the state of Maharastra, and then by private car to the city of Nagpur in the very center of India. Here I gave a speech on African-Dalit unity, interacted with more Tribals, and met for the first time representatives of the Kerala Dalit Panthers. […]
From the city of Cochin in northern Kerala I ventured into the rainforests where I met more of these Tribals. When I say Tribals I am referring to the aboriginal occupants of the land. Like the ones that I met in Bihar these were extremely small people but perhaps not as dark-skinned. And some of the Kerala Tribals had platinum blond hair. I had never seen anybody like them even in the anthropological texts that I had been examining and this experience, dramatically and forcefully, reconfirmed for me the importance of international travel and first hand research.
These forest dwellers told me that strangers rarely visited them and if they did they chased them away with their machetes! I assured them that I came in peace and what phenomenal care takers they turned out to be! They walked me through the dense foliage of what seemed like half a mountainside. They took me into their homes and fed me. I drank tea and honey with them and politely asked them all of the questions that I could muster. The highlight and crowning memory of the visit though came when I was politely confronted by one of the community elders. This lady had been following me all day up and down the mountainside. She was small and serene and projected great dignity. What I remember her telling me through the translators was roughly this:
‘I know that you are not from here and must be from somewhere far, far away. But I feel that you are a part of me and I will never forget you.’
Of all of the trips that I have taken it is very hard to surpass the emotions that I experienced that day. […]
Overall the Black people of India were extremely gracious to us and embraced us as family. We visited them in their homes, offices and villages. In the course of our travels we encountered a religious mosaic of Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Parsis, Sikhs, and Animists. Sometimes the sense of oneness and community seemed almost mystical and everywhere we went we developed deep bonds of familyhood. The members of our group were treated like visiting dignitaries and I was treated like a prince. At times it seemed overwhelming. […]
In Orissa I saw and photographed the blackest human beings I had seen up to that time. In fact, it was my impression that the blackest people were here the most highly esteemed and considered better than the others who were not so dark! In one community, at an elaborate and emotional public ceremony, we presented school supplies to the entire student body of an aspiring educational institution followed by cash contributions for the continuation of the work. We saw ourselves not so much as tourists but as family members come to try to make things better.
“Looking at India through African Eyes” was family reunion, a resounding success and the culmination of my early travels to South Asia. I came away from India convinced that African people around the world were on the rise and that there is a revolution going on in the hearts, souls and minds of Black people everywhere.
*Runoko Rashidi is an African-American historian madly in love with Africa. He is currently organizing educational tours to Vietnam/Cambodia for April 2005 and Brazil for November 2005. For further information contact Runoko at Runoko@yahoo.com.
Source: !*”Looking At India Through African Eyes” by Runoko Rashidi
Date Visited: 24 March 2013
Updated post visited 22 July 2022
Historian Runoko Rashidi in an essay entitled, “The African Presence in India“:
“…..African sailors known as Siddis stand out. Certainly, Siddi kingdoms were established in western India in Janjira and Jaffrabad as early as 1100 AD. After their conversion to Islam, the African freedmen of India, originally called Habshi from the Arabic, called themselves Sayyad (descendants of Muhammad) and were consequently called Siddis.
Indeed, the island Janjira was formerly called Habshan, meaning Habshan’s or African’s land. Siddi signifies lord or prince. It is further said that Siddi is an expression of respectful address commonly used in North Africa, like Sahib in India. Specifically, it is said to be an honorific title given to the descendants of African natives in the west of India, some of whom were distinguished military officers and administrators of the Muslim princes of the Deccan.
…The Siddis were a tightly knit group, highly aggressive, and even ferocious in battle. They were employed largely as security forces for Muslim fleets in the Indian Ocean, a position they maintained for centuries. The Siddi commanders were titled Admirals of the Mughal Empire, and received an annual salary of 300,000 rupees. According to Ibn Battuta (1304-1377), the noted Muslim writer who journeyed through both Africa and Asia, the Siddis “are the guarantors of safety on the Indian Ocean; let there be but one of them on a ship and it will avoided by the Indian pirates and idolaters.”
Source: “Africans in India Part 1: An Abyssinian arrival”
Date visited 22 July 2021
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