Several years ago, in what was my maiden voyage to Africa, I found myself in surroundings that felt way more familiar than I would have ever thought possible. It was a pre-monsoon day in a tiny village near Malindi, a historical town near Mombasa in Kenya’s Swahili Coast. The vegetation, the light, the breeze and even the smells reminded me of a place across the vast ocean and inland. I could easily have been in my ancestral village of Palode in Palakkad district. The only differences in these places separated by thousands of kilometres were the languages and the physical features of the people.
The friendly villagers, who assumed I was a Gujarati from Mombasa, were eager to strike up a conversation when they realised that I wasn’t a fellow Kenyan. Among the common beliefs that the beautiful people of the village shared with my ancestors was that an owl is a bad omen. As I saw Catharanthus Roseus flowers near the ancient Gede ruins, a local guide spoke of a time when Indians and Africans travelled freely to each other’s continents in search of trade opportunities. “It’s possible that some of your ancestors came and lived here,” he said, adding that it was a popular myth that European colonialism brought our peoples together.
The simple lunch I had in the village, consisting of chappatis and cherupaiyar (moong dal) cooked and flavoured exactly the way my mother does it, made me feel even more at home. Could someone have introduced this combination to the African villagers from India or maybe it was the other way around?
In India we know of the Siddis who live in Gujarat. The African-origin community did not assimilate with the Gujaratis and have managed to keep their identity and culture alive, but they probably did the opposite in Kerala and assimilated into the state’s already diverse ethnic cocktail.
There aren’t any historical records that establish the arrival of East Africans or Sub-Saharans in ancient times in Kerala, but given how important a transit point the Horn of Africa was that connected southern and western India with Europe, surely some Africans must have come and settled in Kerala. The peculiar type of curly hair that many Malayalis have may indicate that some of us indeed have African blood.
Unfortunately all records of an African presence in Kerala go back only to the Portuguese era. The brilliant African Heritage India project website (https://africanheritageindia.org/) makes several interesting references to the African community in Kerala during the age of Portuguese colonisation. “While fragmentary evidence indicates that African soldiers were present in Colonial Cochin, the positions in which Africans served Portuguese and Dutch military contingents are uncertain,” according to the site. “Often fragmented information about Africans along the Malabar Coast and in places like Cochin can be found in European sources and in travelogues written by the Dutch and English visitors.”
The website also states that Das Buch der Welt, a book from the time parts of Kerala were under Dutch rule, has a painting titled Chinese Fishing Nets of Fort Cochin, which depicts Africans with brightly coloured textiles wrapped around their waists operating the nets. “Like in the case of Goa, archival sources on Africans in coastal Kerala are fragmentary and inconclusive, and one has to examine secondary literature on port cities in the Indian Ocean world during the Portuguese era to learn about Africans in port cities such as Kochi,” states African Heritage India.
Kerala also has strong religious links with the continent, given the large Arabic influence on Islam practised both in the state and large parts of east Africa. There are also strong ties between the Orthodox Church in Kerala and its counterpart in Ethiopia.
With the Gulf boom slowly entering its twilight, Africa may just provide the kind of opportunities for the next generation of Malayalis who are seeking a better life abroad. In all likelihood our ancestors saw the people of Africa as distant relatives and equals and it’s important that many of us get rid of our racist tendencies and seek out a meaningful and mutually beneficial cooperation with the continent.