Many of the Africans brought into the Indian subcontinent entered through the ports of Baluchistan and Sindh, where they worked as dockworkers, horse-keepers, domestic servants, agricultural workers, nurses, palanquin carriers and apprentices to blacksmiths and carpenters.
In 1851, the linguist Sir Richard Burton, who served in the British Army in Sindh, noted how up to 700 Bambasi, Habshi and Zangibari—all Africans—were imported annually into neighboring Baluchistan. Females were in greater demand and were priced at around 50 pounds, while children were bartered for grain, cloth and other goods. Much of the vocabulary used by the Afro-Sindhi descendants of these migrants is a modified Swahili. For instance, the word for shield in Swahili, ngao, is gao among the Afro-Sindhi; the word for moon (or one month) in Swahili, mwesi, is moesi in Afro-Sindhi.
Pakistan has the most people of African descent in South Asia. It has been estimated that at least a quarter of the total population of the Makran coast is of African ancestry—that is, at least 250,000 people living on the southern coast of Pakistan, which overlaps with southeastern Iran, can claim East African descent. Beginning in 1650 Oman traded more heavily with the Lamu archipelago on the Swahili coast and transported Africans to the Makran coast. As a result, today many Pakistani of African descent are referred to as Makrani, whether or not they live there. On the coast they are also variously referred to as dada, sheedi and syah (all meaning black), or alternatively, gulam (slave) or naukar (servant). The children of Sindhi Muslim men and sidiyani (female Africans) are called gaddo—as in half-caste. The population geneticist Lluis Quintana-Murci of the Pasteur Institute in Paris found that more than 40 percent of the maternal gene pool of the Makrani is of African origin.
“Mombasa Street” and “Sheedi Village” in Karachi speak to the African presence in modern-day Pakistan. The predominantly Muslim Afro-Pakistani community in Karachi continues to celebrate the Manghopir festival, in honor of the Sufi saint Mangho Haji Syed Sakhi Sultan. Outside the main shrine in Karachi, there is a pond with crocodiles that are served specially prepared food. The crocodiles, which were venerated by Hindus before the advent of Islam and are also regarded with esteem by Africans, have become an integral part of the shrine. Although the Sheedis no longer understand all the words of the songs they sing, they pass along this tradition to succeeding generations.
Maritime activities on the Pakistani Makran coast influenced the music of Afro-Baluchis, many of whom were seafarers who maintained contacts with eastern and northeastern Africa through the middle of the 20th century. There are distinct similarities between the Afro-Pakistani drumming and singing performances called laywa in the Makran and those called lewa in coastal Oman—songs consisting of Swahili words and references to both East Africa and the sea.
BY: Kweku Darko Ankrah