Thursday 21 November 2019

Jambur - An African Village In India

Jambur is a village of about 5000 people in the Junagadh district of Gujarat. For several centuries it has been home to a Siddi community. The Siddi are people of African origin who have lived in India for several centuries. There are also Siddi communities in Karnataka, Hyderabad and Pakistan. It is thought that they first arrived in India in the seventh century with more coming as part of the Arab invasion of 712. Some came as merchants and sailors whilst others were brought to India as slaves.

There are no accurate figures for the total number of Siddi living in India and Pakistan with estimates varying enormously from 270,000 to 4 million. The vast majority are Muslim but there are also small groups of Hindu and Christian Siddi. The Jambur community are Gujarati speakers with no memory of African languages. They have adopted local dress and identity as Indian.

Helping mum at the shop
"Take as many pictures as you want"
During my recent time in India I was able to visit Jambur to meet and photograph some of the people. The village is similar to other rural Gujarat settlements with small single storey homes, a few shops and life lived in the narrow streets. My first visit was in the early evening when people were enjoying sitting outside and talking to their neighbours whilst their children played. People were welcoming, happy to talk a little and the children curious about this unexpected visitor. The villagers were happy to be photographed. Immediately I arrived a woman who sat having her hair plaited by a friend invited my companion to make a video of the process and told me to take as many pictures as I wanted! The young people were particularly interested in the camera and some of them asked for pictures in different poses. A few proud parents also came forward pointing to their children indicating that they would like me to photograph them.

As well as visiting the village I was introduced to two prominent members of the community who told me their own stories and spoke about the current issues facing the Siddis of Gujarat. Siddi Babu Nathubhai lives in nearby Sasangir and was born locally. He studied to grade seven at the state school and unlike many local children did not attend the Madrassa, the Islamic school. He spoke affectionately about his younger days saying that his school was integrated and that he enjoyed his time there. His father worked as a labourer but Siddi Babu trained as an electrician and obtained work in Mumbai. Unfortunately a serious problem with his leg prevented him from being able to carry out the full range of tasks and so he had to leave his job and return to Gujarat. After coming back to his village he studied for and passed exams to qualify as a guide, specialising in wildlife.

Falaluddin, a young man of Jambur
Hirabaiben Ibrahimbhai Lobi (Hiraben) is perhaps the most prominent Siddi woman in India. Born in Jambur, her parents died when she was just 14. Married young, her husband like her father believed in women's equality and they worked side by side on their small patch of land - just 0.5 hectare. They inherited a huge debt of 100,000 rupees but refused to sell the land, preferring instead to work to pay it off. They listened to radio shows together and it was from this that she learned about and decided to begin producing organic compost. Wanting to start a business making and selling the compost she looked for other women to work with but initially could find only one taker. In the first year they managed to produce 160 bags. The following year this increased to 500 bags with nine women involved and a small profit being made. There are now 95 women organised into 12 groups that produce and sell organic compost. Hiraben believes passionately in the importance of education and although she is willing to take on and train any woman interested in her project she will only retain and promote those who also study. Today most Siddi girls are educated to grade ten or twelve.

Over the years, this kindly, reassuring woman has led a number of projects to promote health and hygiene within her village and she reports that these principles are now widely adopted amongst the Siddi. More controversially she has also promoted birth control as a way of helping women in particular to have a better life and to be able to provide for and look after their families. Her commitment to education and learning is something she returned to frequently throughout our meeting. None of her own family were literate and she is determined that this will not be the case for current and future generations of Siddi. Some years ago a playschool was set up in Jambur but few parents were willing to take their children. Worse than this, the school building was subject to vandalism. In despair, the teacher came to Hiraben to ask for help. Her intervention led to the school being respected and many more children attended. It was with obvious pride that she told me her own grand daughter attends an English medium school.

She also continues to work tirelessly to better the position of women in her community. This includes helping them achieve financial independence. Thirty years ago no Siddi women had bank accounts. Now several do but only because she helped them set the accounts up, going to the bank with them to help deal with officials. That said, she is keen to ensure that the women become self reliant and able to help each other and so has established a self-help group to encourage this. Her work has been recognised by the great and the good and she has a cabinet full of awards as well as pictures of her with various politicians, multi-millionaire Mukesh Ambani and Bollywood superstar Amitah Bachchan. None of this is for her personal gain and it is clear that her only interest is in promoting the well being of her community.

A young man of Jambur
I asked both Siddi Babu and Hiraben about issues currently facing the community. Both of them spoke about employment and the need for greater ambition amongst the younger generations. The Siddi have traditionally worked in agriculture, construction work and other manual jobs. Tourism  now offers other opportunities and the chance to put traditional knowledge of plants and wildlife to good economic use. However much of this work is seasonal and many young men involved in tourism return to labouring out of season. Women are mainly employed in agricultural work. Siddi Babu also spoke about social problems, particularly with drugs and alcohol - problems that also affect other areas of Indian society. He sees tourism as a good thing for the new opportunities it brings but also has concerns that too many visitors could be a problem citing the relatively "easy money" from this work as an issue. Most visitors come to this part of Gujarat to see the wildlife. I was astonished to hear that I am one of just a handful of people who have been to find out about the culture and daily life of the community.

I also asked about knowledge of African culture and tradition and if there is a memory of these things in Jambur. Both Siddi Babu and Hiraben told me that although people know they are of African descent, there is no real knowledge of African culture. The only remaining tradition is a particular dance, the Dhamal, performed by some of the young men and which is related to nature. There has been no systematic recording or documentation of Siddi culture. I was especially interested in this subject because when photographing some of the children they repeatedly said (in English) "say Africa, say Africa" seemingly in the same way some people like to say "say cheese". It was explained to me that this comes from a TV advertisement for motorcycles which includes a reference to Jambur being 100 kilometres from Junagadh and describing it as "Africa in India".

A woman of Jambur
A woman of Jambur
Some Siddi are now becoming well known in non traditional fields. Siddi Babu proudly told me that one community member represents India at judo and another plays soccer at national level. Researching this article I also came across Abdul Rashid Qambrani, a Pakistani Siddi who represented his country in boxing at the 1996 Olympics. Still in Pakistan, Noor Mohammed Danish is a well known Urdu poet. Social change is also happening. More women leave the village now to find work whilst marriage with non-Siddi partners has begun to happen - although always within the same religious group. Hiraben is happy with these changes but wants things to improve more quickly.

Visiting Jambur and meeting the Siddi was a very special experience. I was touched by the easy acceptance of my visit, helped to a large extent by my being in the company of a young community member and I was honoured to be welcomed into the homes of Siddi Babu and Hiraben. It seems appropriate to give her the final word "I dream that not all Siddi will be labourers and that one day a young person will knock on my door and ask for help to become an engineer". 

A proud father with his daughter

You can see more pictures from India here.