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  • A Moment of Kinship in Unexpected Places
  • Bettina Ng'weno (bio)

Her office is full of stacked paper and waiting people. As the village panchayat member for land and welfare, her office is full. My friend has brought me here to meet BH, as she is one of the few Siddi community members in this part of Gujarat who is in local government. She sits behind a large desk deep in conversation, her curly gray hair peeping out of the dopatta that covers her head. She barely glances up as we walk in and take a seat in two empty chairs in a line of people along one side of the room. The man sitting in line next to my friend takes an interest in us, two strangers speaking English. In Gujarati, he asks what my religion is. My friend asks me how she should respond. I have no idea. I take the easy way out and reply, "Tell him I am Christian." And so she does.

BH looks up suddenly from her work, abruptly interrupting her discussion of land. All others fall silent. BH turns to me and says something in Gujarati that makes everyone else go back to whatever he or she was doing and my friend laugh. My friend tells me, "She says 'you can change your religion but not your hair. As far we are concerned, you are Siddi.'" A moment of kinship in unexpected places. A recognition of race. A placement in community and in history. My curly hair the giveaway. That being said, it was also a different articulation of diaspora than I was used to—one that came with religion and caste built in, one built outside the Western notions of African diaspora and Blackness, but no less encompassing or universalizing. It was one where hair was more important than skin color and religion and caste linked, one that called up alliances to Sufi Islam and to specific saints and acted as a political statement in a space of constant and persistent religious tensions. It was one that interpolated me, as a foreigner, as Siddi and, in doing so, did work in that room for the one minority Siddi representative of local government.

A year earlier, I had been sitting beneath shelves of trophies in a football club in Lyari, an old inner-city neighborhood of Karachi, talking to AL. AL mentions how he was on the Pakistani national football team and how his father had played for the Iranian national football team as well. He speaks of relatives in Oman and tells me about the city of Gwadar and its connections to East Africa. Excitedly, AL tells me I must travel to Gwadar and talk to people there. I am daunted by the prospect, with all the security restrictions and tensions. He shrugs and tells me, "You can travel with us by bus. No one will notice. All you have to do is change your clothes. You look Pakistani." [End Page 18]

I sat there trying to understand in what ways I looked Pakistani. Only after visiting his home and neighborhood in Lyari, where people indeed looked pretty much like me, people of African descent of varying shades, hair textures, and eye and hair colors, did I understand how I fit into Pakistan. But it was not just me who "fitted" into Pakistan—a Kenyan colleague working on a turtle breeding project in the Indus delta, where the river meets the sea in Karachi, was specifically understood as Sindhi by the fishermen of the delta and was not allowed to be foreign.

I started my Indian Ocean anthropological journey through an investigation of inheritance of land in coastal Kenya because I was unsettled by a particular accepted universalizing discourse of private property (Ng'weno 1997, 2001). I thus became enmeshed in the entanglement of concepts of law, religion, custom, mobility, gender, kinship, citizenship, and, of course, land. I was later to follow some of these trajectories to Atlantic and Latin American spaces, only to return with more questions than answers, but with new perspectives, to the Indian Ocean. As a Kenyan anthropologist working in the United States, and returning to Indian Ocean...


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pp. 18-23
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