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Wednesday, 13 March, 2002, 02:52 GMT
Pakistan's Sidi keep heritage alive
A Sidi man feeding a crocodile
If the crocodiles take the offering, the year will pass in peace
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By Zaffar Abbas
BBC correspondent in Pakistan

One of the Pakistan's smallest ethnic communities is made up of people of African origin, known as Sidi.

The African-Pakistanis live in Karachi and other parts of the Sindh and Baluchistan provinces in abject poverty, but they rarely complain of discrimination.

Sidi women with fish
The Sidi community is very poor
Although this small Muslim community is not on the verge of extinction, their growing concern is how to maintain their distinct African identity in the midst of the dominating South Asian cultures.

Centuries ago the Sidis' forefathers came to South Asia. Some say they were slaves, others think they were warriors.

The tiny community of African-Pakistanis have become fully integrated into the local way of life.

Mangopir festival

Ghulam Akbar's family members are even ardent cricket fans.

But as a Sidi elder, Mr Akbar is the custodian of an ancient tradition. And for two days every year the community's African roots come alive.

Sidi elder Ghulam Akbar
Akbar: The festival continues as it did in the time of our forefathers
A combination of celebration and prayer that has retained a distinct African beat through the centuries, the annual Mangopir festival, is held in honour of a Muslim saint near the city of Karachi.

The festival attracts people from all ethnic groups, but its colourful rituals remain the preserve of the Sidi tribe, giving it a uniquely African flavour.

"The festival that we have here continues as it did in the time of our forefathers. I think this festival is different from any other event in the world," says Mr Akbar.

Crocodile disciples

It is different indeed. The crocodiles outside the shrine are considered special disciples of the Sufi Saint Baba Mangopir, and Sidis believe they will not harm the saint's followers.

The festival kicks off as young Sidi girls come out with specially prepared offerings for the crocodiles that live near the shrine.

A Sidi man at the festival
The devotees dance and pray together in a rising frenzy of piety
The march towards the crocodile pond begins, with elder women singing on the African drumbeat in a language that no one else can understand.

Sidis say it is a mixture of a Swahili dialect and a local language, Baluchi.

As the dancing continues, the elders from the community approach dozens of the crocodiles without any fear.

According to the ritual the elders first offer the oldest crocodile meat from a freshly sacrificed goat.

The offering is hungrily accepted, which means the coming year will pass in peace.

Roots unknown

No one can say for sure which part of Africa these people came from, or how much of these customs they brought with them.

But the Sidi festival shows how uniquely these ancient African customs have blended with Islamic mysticism in this part of the world.

For two days and nights, the devotees dance and pray together in a rising frenzy of piety and passion.

But for the Sidis, this festival is also a time to revisit their cultural heritage, and may be the only thing that still connects them to Africa.

See also:

27 Nov 00 | South Asia
The lost Africans of India
24 May 00 | Africa
Kenya's Asian heritage on display
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