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The Sheedi of Pakistan: Long forgotten Africans uprooted and still finding their place in society

By Annam Lodhi
Posted on Thursday, 5 August 2021 07:51

Sheedi men conversing in Machar Colony, 2021 Photo: Hassaan Ahmed

The Sheedi are a community of African-Pakistanis whose history to the region is not known for certain. Many were brought over by Arab traders as slaves as far back as the 8th century, while others claim a strong Islamic connection through the Prophet Mohammed. Centuries later the thriving community of over 250,000, are still not accepted as locals in their native Pakistan.

“So, you are a Pakistani?”, a question not uncommon for Abdul Hafiz Kasqali, a fire juggler or ‘jungli’ and folk dancer (specifically the lewa).

Kasqali, 38, has been dancing at both public and private events since the age of 16. Born and raised in Karachi, the largest metropolis of Pakistan, he grew up amongst the constant questions into his origins, forcing him to believe that he might not belong to this region.

Abdul Hafiz with his friends. Photo: Hassaan Ahmed

What he does know is that his ancestors migrated from Balochistan, the South-Western region of the country to Karachi. “People would call me black, Dada and Habshi. They said that my hair, nose and colour were odd,” he says, “They would ask me how are you here and not in Africa?”.

Pakistan is home to the largest population of African-descended people in Asia, by comparison to India, Sri Lanka and Iran. An estimated 70% reside in Sindh, the southern province and the remaining in Balochistan. The majority are Muslim, though a few are Hindu or Catholic.

Tracing roots to Pakistan

Due to a lack of education and connection to their roots, not many Sheedis can trace their origins. Like many others, Kasqali believes he is a direct decedent of Hazrat Bilal ibn Rabah (also known as Bilal Habshi), a companion of the Prophet Mohammed.

We have been called names since the time of the Prophet.

Al Habash was an ancient region located in the Horn of Africa, known today as Ethiopia. The people from the area were called Habshi. It later became an umbrella term used for Black people in Pakistan, mostly in a derogatory fashion.

“It is not uncommon, we have been called names since the time of the Prophet,” says Ali Muhammad Qambrani, who heads the Karachi division of the Al Habash Khair un-Khalak (good for society) Foundation.

Ali Mohammad and his team at the Al Habash Khair un-Khalak foundation office in Machar Colony. Photo: Hassaan Ahmed

The foundation’s office is located in Machar Colony, Karachi, a low-income area where a sizeable Sheedi community resides. The humble one-room space is where the members operate and help their community financially by collecting charity or physically through any possible means.

Other Sheedi are concentrated in similar densely populated and under-resourced adjoining areas – areas once riddled with crime and home to gang wars.

‘We have always been loyal people’

According to Ali, the foundation’s first stone was set in Badin in 1962 by Mohammad Siddique Musafir, an educated Sheedi who was a both a poet and published scholar, who wanted to help his people.

Musafir’s book Ghulami ain Azadia ja Ibratnak Nizara recounts how his father was brought over as a slave from Zanzibar to Tando Bago, a city located in the Badin district in Sindh – over 200km North-East of Karachi. His father’s master freed him due to his loyalty.

“We have always been loyal people, we never disgrace the land we are bought on,” says Ali while citing the martyrdom of General Hosh Muhammad Sheedi Qambrani, who died in 1843 fighting against the British forces and saving Sindh. He chants the famous slogan, Marvesoon par Sindh na desoon (We will die but not give Sindh [to others])

Ali recounts how his ancestors made their way from Africa to the sub-continent. His grandfather, Mubarak, a daily labourer, moved from Syria to Gujrat, India. One day someone asked him if he would marry Jannat, a slave girl who worked for a goldsmith in Gujrat. Jannat was an orphan and her master couldn’t find a suitable match for her because of her colour.

When people saw that Mubarak, who was tall, dark with curly hair, and looked similar to Jannat, they offered her hand to him. He willingly agreed as she presumably belonged to his race.

“That is where the seed of my family was sown. They gave birth to many children. We all lived in Gujrat where we have a huge community to date,” he says. His father was raised there, but Ali moved to Pakistan in 1975 from Gujrat along with his wife and started his family here.

Ali is amongst the few who can trace his history and still has a framed family tree in his office.

Ali Muhammad’s family tree hangs in his office. Photo: Hassaan Ahmed

‘The suffering of our people’

“We read Mohammad Siddique Musafir’s stories. My father even went ahead and traced where exactly we were from in Africa,” says Tanzeela Umme Habiba Qambrani, 42, a lawmaker in the provincial assembly of Sindh.

Tanzeela was born and raised in Matli, Badin in a middle-class family, where her mother was a former teacher and her father an advocate. Both ensured she learned the history of her ancestors, that goes back to Tanzania. “Our parents told us that we may be Queens and Kings on another land but here we were sold, trapped and were labourers,” says Tanzeela.

She recalls how her father gathered their community in Badin to show them the Television series, ‘The Roots’. “I remember everyone crying. They saw the suffering of our people,” she adds.

Tanzeela Qambrani sits in the Bilawal House in front of Benazir Bhutto’s picture. Photo: Hassaan Ahmed

Hot and cold reception

Ali’s youngest son is Qasim Qambrani, 28, the principal of ‘The Kid’s Academy’ – a school he runs for children from all communities. He describes how kids from other communities bully the Sheedi ones by commenting on their curly hair and dark skin. But he adds: “It is the job of t[he] parents to remove complexes from their minds and make them proud of their identity and heritage”.

Tanzeela agrees wholeheartedly and refers to her time at university. “They nicknamed me ‘Local Foreigner’”. This was because numerous students from Africa were enrolled at her university. Many come to Pakistan to pursue higher studies.

Sheedi children playing on the streets of Baldiya Town. Photo: Hassaan Ahmed

When people at her university found out she was in fact Pakistani, they were shocked. “They thought maybe my parents came from Africa and got married here. They didn’t realise that we have been here for almost four generations. It was also the first time for the African students to hear about their people being settled in this region,” she says.

Not everyone in her community had the same positive experience though. Tanzeela is the only prominent Sheedi in Pakistan to have made it into mainstream politics. Her protected childhood, however, did not prepare her for the tough journey she would have to make to enter parliament.

They ‘do not think of us as humans’

In 2017, Tanzeela was nominated as chairperson of the women’s wing of the party in Matli. In response, she faced mounting opposition. It was then she realised that “those people still do not think of us as humans”.

I wanted my generation to be exactly how we are. I didn’t want to mix blood.

“These were veteran politicians who said that ‘these people clean our children’s shit and you want them to rule us?’” The threats, though indirect, made her feel unsafe and began to take its toll on her eldest son. She soon moved her family to her mother’s house.

Her resilience paid off. In August 2018, after being nominated by the party’s chairperson Bilawal Bhutto Zardari for one of 29 seats reserved for women, Tanzeela was officially sworn in as the first lawmaker from the Sheedi community in the Sindh Assembly.

But her work has just begun, as she describes how both Sheedi men and women are made to feel inferior because of their colour.

She recalls an incident when a Sheedi man and his non-Sheedi wife were stopped by policemen late at night. “The officer was not ready to believe the fact that they were a couple and laughed at the man’s face for being able to ‘score’ a white girl,” she says.

A Sheedi woman in Baldiya town.  Photo: Hassaan Ahmed

Because many in the community are extensively bullied for their looks, men often try to secure a different future for their family by marrying lighter-skinned women, whose physical features are different.

She believes this is their way of dealing with the trauma they experienced growing up by mixing bloodlines to ensure the next generation are hybrids with lighter skin tones.

Tanzeela, on the other hand, made sure her husband-to-be was from her community. “I wanted my generation to be exactly how we are. I didn’t want to mix blood”.

Old habits die hard

Not everyone has endured negative experience as a Sheedi. Asif Ali Sheedi, 24, an entrepreneur and founder of the Sheedi Youth Welfare believes that the community wants to cling to the past and not break the cycle of abuse simply out of a general lack of interest in education.

Asif remembers a financially rough childhood. His father, a worker at the port, forced them to get educated. “My sisters are in universities. I continue studying animation and IT side of things,” he says. But throughout it all, “I have never been called names or [been] bullied and if anyone tried, we had better responses for them”.

Asif acknowledges that his community largely works in lower-income jobs, but believes they do so out of a lack of interest in prospering or breaking down those barriers. While parents are caught in a cycle of working these lower-paying jobs, they are unable to afford an education for their children.

Asif Ali Sheedi sits with the co-founder of The Sheedi Youth Welfare, Yasir Ali. Photo: Hassaan Ahmed

He set up his foundation to help those children. “I saw youngsters consuming drugs and being interested in rowdy behaviour because their parents couldn’t afford to send them to schools”.

But he soon realised how deeply rooted the culture of old habits is among the Sheedi.

In 2020, he enrolled about 70 children into schools of which, he claims, 50 were Sheedi. “Currently, as of May, only 10 of them are [still] attending school, which is free of cost along with school bags, books etc. If I throw a party today, I can gather 300 plus Sheedi in a minute to dance. But for free education, I couldn’t gather 50 students. I don’t blame society. I blame them”.

Tanzeela however sees potential and positive changes in society.

“It took me three years to make people realise that we exist in this country,” she says, adding that she has introduced two resolutions which are against bullying of children in schools and to promote education in her community. “I want an education system for the Sheedi as I am certain it is the only way to get us out of the rut”.

‘Sheedis are born to dance’

Abdul, whom we met earlier, learned the various dance forms from his Sheedi master ‘Malang Charlie’, who picked up the moves during one of his trips to Africa. “He saw that they were like us, who coloured their bodies, captivated the audience with their dance on interesting beats on the Magbana [drum] while playing with fire,” he says.

Though the dangerous dance form does not pay their bills or garner them much respect, Abdul says they dance because it’s in their genes do so. “Sheedis are born to dance”.

The Mangho Pir Festival is the best time to witness the true essence of the Sheedi culture through their songs and dances. The festival is held every year at the namesake crocodile shrine in Karachi.

The Sheedi believe their manats (requests to god) will be accepted if they feed the crocodiles in the lake at the shrine. During the week-long festival, the dhamal (dancing in procession) makes its way around the streets, while the the young and old alike fall into trance-like states from chants mixed with Swahili, Gujrati and Sindhi celebrating the Sufi saint Haji Syed Shaikh Sulta, known as Manghu Pir. Though many don’t know why or how the festival began, Sheedis consider it an intrinsic way to remain connected to their African roots.

Sheedi children playing the drums. Photo: Hassaan Ahmed

 

Over the years the festival has been reduced due to either financial reasons, or pushback from those who believe it goes against the teaching of Islam. Others have simply lost interest citing the senseless need to follow a culture of which the roots are unclear.

Reviving pride

In 2019, the Pakistani ministry of foreign affairs and the ministry of commerce organised a conference on an ‘Engage Africa’ policy.

The political efforts have taken years to come to fruit, says Amina Khan, Director at the Centre for Afghanistan, Middle East & Africa (CAMEA). She believes that other countries across Asia, namely India and China have better relations with Africa.

The policy is a means to revive the historical connections with Africa, adds Khan. “One of our missions in Somalia shared that there is a street called ‘Memon street’ where gold is sold”. Memon is a gold traders community made up of Indian Muslims who travelled and settled in Somalia during the late 19th or early 20th century.

A sheedi child beating the heat by eating fresh ice. Photo: Hassaan Ahmed.

Another connection comes via education. Over 982 Africans have graduated from Pakistan since its inception. “These are people who came here to learn skills, are part of the military and foreign service training and also graduated from our universities,” Khan says.

Building on such historical connections between Pakistan and Africa could be used for better political relations she adds. And ultimately it could help spark confidence within the community that has been pushed aside for far too long.

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