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Looking At India Through African Eyes

By Runoko Rashidi

11 January, 2004

As I am now in the process of completing the finishing touches on a French language collection of my essays on the African presence in Asia I find myself reviewing and evaluating the body of work that I have been compiling on the subject over the past quarter century. During this process I realize that I am now able to trace to some extent my own evolution as a thinker and doer.

In 1987 I began to physically travel to Asia in search of the African presence. By this time in my I had concluded that it was not enough for me simply to haunt the libraries in the United States for data. I thought that it was important for me to actually go to Asia and see it for myself.

My first travel experience to Asia, appropriately enough, was to India. I say appropriate because India has been at the core of my Asian researches from the very beginning. So in October 1987 I journeyed to India for the first time. It was the farthest I had ever traveled from the United States and it was a trip that became a foundation stone for all of my subsequent travels and research.

On this 1987 journey I visited Mumbai (it was still Bombay at the time) including her slums and red light district, Bangalore (capital of the state of Karnataka), and Tamil Nadu (particularly Madras, now Chennai). The highlight of the trip, however, was the First All-India Dalit Writers' Conference in Hyderabad, Andra Pradesh. This was my first visit to South India and I was honored to not only speak at the conference but to formally open the gathering by placing a garland of flowers around a photograph of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar--Dalit hero and the author of India's constitution.

In 1998 I returned to India on possibly the most momentous travel experience of my life. This journey took me first to the historic city of Delhi in the northern center of India One of the highlights of the 1998 trip was a visit to the state of Bihar. Indeed, my arrival in Patna, the capital of Bihar, seemed to me to herald that I was finally in the "real India." Even getting there was exciting. I could look out of my window on my flight from Delhi and see the Himalayas.

The urban poverty in Patna and the rural despair in outlying villages I will never forget. It was also in Bihar that I journeyed to the ancient Buddhist university of Nalanda and one of the holiest sites in Buddhism, Bodhgaya, where the Buddha is supposed to have received enlightenment. It was also in Bihar, under the guidance of M. Ejaz Ali, M.D., that I encountered Indian Tribals for the first time.

>From Patna I traveled with a second class train ticket and then by bus and taxi to the Ajanta Caves in the state of Maharastra, and then by private car to the city of Nagpur in the very center of India. Here I gave a speech on African-Dalit unity, interacted with more Tribals, and met for the first time representatives of the Kerala Dalit Panthers.

>From Nagpur I flew to Kerala where I was hosted by the Kerala Dalit Panthers. Not only was I surrounded by Black people but the climate made me feel like I was actually somewhere in the Caribbean. The Panthers were incredible hosts and escorted me throughout much of Kerala state where I was taken to villages and shrines. In Trivandrum, Kerala with the Panthers I marched through the city streets and gave what I thought was a rousing speech.

>From the city of Cochin in northern Kerala I ventured into the rainforests where I met more of these Tribals. When I say Tribals I am referring to the aboriginal occupants of the land. Like the ones that I met in Bihar these were extremely small people but perhaps not as dark-skinned. And some of the Kerala Tribals had platinum blond hair. I had never seen anybody like them even in the anthropological texts that I had been examining and this experience, dramatically and forcefully, reconfirmed for me the importance of international travel and first hand research.

These forest dwellers told me that strangers rarely visited them and if they did they chased them away with their machetes! I assured them that I came in peace and what phenomenal care takers they turned out to be! They walked me through the dense foliage of what seemed like half a mountainside. They took me into their homes and fed me. I drank tea and honey with them and politely asked them all of the questions that I could muster. The highlight and crowning memory of the visit though came when I was politely confronted by one of the community elders. This lady had been following me all day up and down the mountainside. She was small and serene and projected great dignity. What I remember her telling me through the translators was roughly this:

"I know that you are not from here and must be from somewhere far, far away. But I feel that you are a part of me and I will never forget you."

Of all of the trips that I have taken it is very hard to surpass the emotions that I experienced that day.

On April 13, 1999 I returned to the United States from my third journey to India, a highly successful tour entitled "Looking at India through African Eyes." It was a sixteen day educational go round accompanied by numerous local people and sixteen Africans from the United States and the Caribbean. We visited many of the significant temples, tombs, castles, palaces, museums, and monuments in India including the Taj Majal in Agra (stated to have been built out of grief for an Ethiopian woman) and described as "poetry in marble," Amber Fort and the Palace of the Winds in Jaipur, the National Museum in New Delhi, the massive Konarak temple in Orissa, the Buddhist temple caves at Ajanta, the magnificent colossal rock cut temples at Ellora, the abandoned city of Fatehpur Sikri, and, back in Bihar, we waded along the banks of the Ganges River.

Overall the Black people of India were extremely gracious to us and embraced us as family. We visited them in their homes, offices and villages. In the course of our travels we encountered a religious mosaic of Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Parsis, Sikhs, and Animists. Sometimes the sense of oneness and community seemed almost mystical and everywhere we went we developed deep bonds of familyhood. The members of our group were treated like visiting dignitaries and I was treated like a prince. At times it seemed overwhelming.

We were guests of honor at numerous receptions, cultural programs and educational forums, many of them sponsored or initiated by Dalit Voice editor V.T. Rajshekar. It seemed to us that African unity was in the air. At a major reception in New Delhi the keynote speaker, Union Health Minister Dalit Ezhilmalai, focused on the life of Malcolm X. At a program in Bhubaneswar the moderator, Dr. Radhakant Nayak (who reminded us of John Henrik Clarke) closed the afternoon session with a stirring recital of Claude McKay's glorious poem of resistance "If We Must Die!" In Trivandrum I was presented with three ceremonial ankhs (the ancient African symbol representing male and female union and sometimes referred to as "the key of life") made of coconut shell and adorned with red, black and green beads. At an airport reception in Calcutta we were greeted with shouts of "Free Mumia Abu-Jamal!"

We were hosted by Black youth groups who told their life stories and detailed their village origins, their hopes, their dreams and aspirations. We were entertained by scores of singers and drummers and dancers. We met with Black women's groups who performed skits portraying family life and a vibrant new spirit of resistance to domestic violence and centuries-old oppression. We visited some of the most downtrodden communities on earth, witnessed the miseries of the Dalits--the Black Untouchables of India and were guests on university campuses. In a program in Chennai we were hosted by Bishop Ezra Sargunam of the Evangelical Church of India where I was the guest speaker with Dr. K. Ponmudy, a major Dravidian scholar, in a program designed to address the Black and Dravidian movements.

In Orissa I saw and photographed the blackest human beings I had seen up to that time. In fact, it was my impression that the blackest people were here the most highly esteemed and considered better than the others who were not so dark! In one community, at an elaborate and emotional public ceremony, we presented school supplies to the entire student body of an aspiring educational institution followed by cash contributions for the continuation of the work. We saw ourselves not so much as tourists but as family members come to try to make things better.

"Looking at India through African Eyes" was family reunion, a resounding success and the culmination of my early travels to South Asia. I came away from India convinced that African people around the world were on the rise and that there is a revolution going on in the hearts, souls and minds of Black people everywhere.

Runoko Rashidi is an African-American historian madly in love with Africa. He is currently organizing educational tours to Vietnam/Cambodia for April 2005 and Brazil for November 2005. For further information contact Runoko at [email protected]. Visit Runoko's award winning Global African Presence Web Site at











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