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The Sheedi Community; A long-lost African tribe in Pakistan

Since protests have been going on against the discrimination and inequality faced by the black community in America and different regions across the globe, let’s look into our own black community in Pakistan. The Sheedis or Siddi, are descendants of African migrants over centuries in South Asia. The Arab merchants had bought them as Slaves in the 19th Century. The population according to the Young Sheedi Welfare Organization varies considerably from 50.000 to just under 1 million. Sheedis reside in southern Pakistan, with an estimated 50% in lower regions of Sindh, 30% in Balochistan and 20% in Karachi. Many Sheedis are Muslims with culturally diverse backgrounds.

The Sheedis have a long history in India and Pakistan and often served as guards or soldiers. Their arrival in South Asia began in the late 7th century as traders in the region of Gujrat. The second wave came across when soldiers were serving in the army of the young Arab general Muhammad Bin Qasim during the 8th century. Many East Africans came later on as the Mughal Emperor’s military guards. The Portuguese traders brought in East Africans as slaves with them to the sub-continent. Now irrespective of their origins, they form one of many minority ethnic groups in South Asia. In the sultanates of Deccani and Delhi, Sheedis also served in armies. Some Sheedis in those armies, such as Malik Ambar, and Jamal ud Din Yaqut, rose to high ranks. The majority of this community in Pakistan lives in the Makran coastal region and lower parts of Sindh. They are generally divided into clans and houses, which are named “Lassi Makan”, “Belaro Makan” etc. Makan means ``house’’, in Urdu.

The Sheedi have a rich, distinct culture. It is a mixture of their ancestral East African culture and the local Islamic culture. This would be most visible in Karachi. Just outside of Karachi is Mangho Pir, a town that contains the shrine of Haji Syed Sultan, a Sufi Saint. Hundreds of Sheedis gather at this shrine and sing Swahili songs and dance to this language which is now barely understood because of the language dying out due to mainstream culture. The really interesting part about Mangho Pir is that the shrine also contains crocodiles that are honored every year. This is done due to their belief that it will bring them happiness and prosperity the entire year. There is a legend that the lice on the great Sufi saint’s head were transformed into crocodiles.

Unfortunately, Sheedis have been victims of racism and discrimination due to their skin tones and appearance, this is more prevalent in rishta culture. Women, in particular, are frequently discriminated against in terms of living conditions and are poorly paid by their employers. These people face poverty and lack of opportunities in different fields because of this. In recent years there have been increased community mobilisations, including the formation of organizations such as the Young Sheedi Welfare Organization, which focuses on providing access to fundamental resources such as education, health, and livelihoods.

In 2018, an inspirational Sheedi woman, Tanzeela Qambrani, secured a seat in Sindh’s legislature, making her the first woman and member of the Sheedi community to become a lawmaker in Pakistan. She has been vocal about the discrimination she faced due to her African descent and how her community has had to struggle to preserve their African roots and cultural expression.

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