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Explorer Spotlight: Asha Stuart Documenting the Lost Tribes of Africa

Asha Stuart is a Young Explorer grantee, and is also part of the Young Explorer Leadership and Development Program. A National Geographic Society grant funded her work so that she could go and document the Siddi tribal people, an African diasporic community that was forcibly taken to India between the 15th and 19th century.  Exploring...

Asha Stuart is a Young Explorer grantee, and is also part of the Young Explorer Leadership and Development Program. A National Geographic Society grant funded her work so that she could go and document the Siddi tribal people, an African diasporic community that was forcibly taken to India between the 15th and 19th century. 

Exploring the African diaspora is not new for Stuart. Before, Stuart was in Mexico exploring the Afro-Mexican villages in Oaxaca. Before that, she was in Haiti documenting voodoo ceremonies.

Courtesy of Asha Stuart

She became interested in highlighting the Siddi in 2012, when she studied in India. During her time there she traveled across the country, and witnessed its immense geographic and cultural differences. One particular weekend she was coming from Tamil Nadu, an Indian state right next to Karnataka, where some Siddi people live, and arrived to the state of Goa. She was in a bus station and she remembers seeing a dark-skinned man. Both stopped and looked at each other and serendipity was found in the way they tried to communicate how they looked alike. The man was trying to communicate that Stuart looked like one his cousins, and Stuart was trying to communicate how he looked like her, an African-American.

About this meaningful occurrence, she said: “For a brief moment we kind of connected. And we walked away from each other. A couple of years later in 2014, I was in Haiti doing research, and in that time I learned a lot about the African diaspora. And while I was there I had a memory of this man I had met at that bus station and so I had to start doing more research about the African diaspora in India, and came across the Siddi people. And once I kind of put one and two together, I started trying to figure out how I could go back and document who they are.”

After she applied and was awarded a Young Explorer grant, she went to tell the stories of India on a three-part expedition through Karnataka, Gujarat, and Hyderabad, exploring the daily lives of the Siddi people. She filmed and documented for about a month and a half. She created a short documentary and photo project titled “Lost Tribes of Africa,” and which you can watch here.

An important element in her work is selecting and creating profiles of specific people and communities. Basing her stories on specific people and their complexities, she is able to illustrate larger themes and issues in simpler ways. This is the case with selecting and acknowledging what makes the Siddi tribal people, and their experiences, unique. There is not a concrete root or etymon for where the word Siddi comes from, although some linguistic explanations and origins suggest it comes from the Arabic word for master, sayed, as well as a similarity with the Sanskrit noun siddhi, or attainment.

When asked about her identities, being an African-American woman, and her experience with the Siddi people, she said:

“I think that one of the things I did realize when I visited the Siddi people was realizing this universal feeling of being in the actual diaspora, you know, being black, having ancestors from Africa but never going there…As an Explorer I thought it’d be interesting to see how people may look like me…how we wear different clothes, we speak different languages, but we still are similar. And I wanted to see how they…internalized being black in a country like India.”

For all practical purposes, Siddis are Indian citizens, and the tribe is recognized by the Indian government as a scheduled tribe, as about 75,000 of them live in the country. But the fact that seems to matter more than others is the social construct of race, and how Siddis are perceived as third-class citizens because of their skin color. They are, and feel, like outsiders.

One of the factors that contributed to their alienation is the British rule of India until 1947. To hide, and due to colonization, most Siddis stayed in the forests and created their communities, isolated from British rule, and it maintains itself today.

Photograph by Asha Stuart

Another one is the caste system, which is a cultural pillar from the second wave of Hinduism, and which plays a major role in the stratification of societal classes, often contributing to castes being considered as unchangeable. Bears reminding that India has a major Hindu population that still uses the caste system as its main social structure. This contributes to the fact that Siddis are considered untouchables. The Hindu Siddis in Karnataka are considered to be in the Shudra category. And although the Shudra are in the bottom of the caste system hierarchy, also known as the varnas, they seem to be below this and are labeled as untouchables.

An example of this is how they are not allowed to go into Brahmin’s houses — a caste of teachers, priests, and protectors. This limits them in very practical manners, as Siddis cannot eat the Brahmin’s food, use their cups or plates, and thus they have to eat outside, and clean after themselves. This, because other castes believe they could “get infected” from interacting with them.

Another factor that adds to their isolation, is assimilation. The transition from a rural life to an urban one is particularly hard for Siddis. Not having the tools so that they can be learning the different languages used in the cities, as well as race being used to discriminate them, contribute to this.

When asked about what this experience makes her reflect about her own story, her own identities, Stuart said:

“That is one of the reasons that I went, because I wanted to reflect on my own identities, you know, being black inside of Africa is a different kind of struggle than the one you have to internalize here [in the United States] or in India…because you have to think a lot about this kind of forced displacement and about the ways in which you internalize and accept it, while also trying to understanding your roots that come from Africa. I think that this reflection on the essence of blackness, and to be able to connect with it when we’re centered in a world where blackness is not necessarily accepted or considered to be a positive thing, is very important. To come to terms with it.”

Courtesy of Asha Stuart

When asked about what she considers one of her most important lessons on her time spent with the Siddi people, she said:

“I think it’d be the amount of resilience they have. They don’t have a lot of money, a lot of them live in poverty, a lot of them are subsistent on the land because they can’t find jobs. And I think that the fact that they’re so positive, they’re so culturally in tune to who they are, is inspiring. Being black in India, and learning to do it in their own terms, is to me the most inspiring aspect that I found from that community.”

Some of the questions that appear from this analysis are: How does a community learn oppression from a cultural lense? How do you empower the youth of a tribal people who are considered subhuman? Stuart saw that Siddis, by isolating themselves from caste, from hate, are free to be who they are — proud Siddis. And although unfair, it’s a choice that has somehow been forced on them too. Hopefully they don’t have to continue doing so.

After learning from this experience, Stuart won’t slow down. Some of her upcoming projects include showing her documentary at the Telluride Mountainfilm Festival in May, as well as going to the Peruvian Amazon with National Geographic Photographer, Erika Larsen, to film and photograph indigenous tribes there and their connection with endangered species. It is not only important to select with empathy and respect the stories that we tell, but it is also important to acknowledge who is the one behind the lens, and the decisions they make. Let’s wait to see what comes next through Asha’s lens.

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Camilo Garzón
Camilo is a digital editor, multimedia producer, and staff writer at the National Geographic Society. He is often writing about our human journey, our changing planet, our wildlife, and the Explorers that are helping us reach a planet in balance. Some of the topics that he is interested in often appear in his pieces, such as: exploration, science, humanitarian aid, social justice, human rights, conservation, international affairs, international education, teaching, comparative literature, music, art, semiotics, philosophy, and religions.