Gujarat's African-origin tribal athletes battle for recognition
One of Gujarat's medallists at the National Games 2022 belongs to the marginalised Siddi tribe. This medallist is not in Athletics, as originally predicted, but in Judo.
Gandhinagar: Having entered the 36th National Games with the largest contingent, Gujarat has already registered its best-ever show in the Games. One of the medals won by them, a bronze in Judo, while not the brightest in the cabinet, adds the latest chapter in a thousand-year-old story of migration from Africa to India.
Amongst the hundreds of athletes from the host state competing at the National Games, a grand total of five – three in Judo and two in Athletics – belong to the Siddi tribe, which has a population of around 8,500 here.
This marginalised community, which originally belonged to the Bantu tribe of sub-Saharan Africa, have completely embraced Indian culture and nationality over the years. They have a small settlement in a village called Jambur – some 24kms south of the famous Sasan Gir, in the Junagadh district of Gujarat.
While their prowess in Athletics was identified by the Indian government's sports programmes in the late 1980s, it is in another sport - Judo - that has given the Siddis a stage to shine in recent years. But they say there is almost no recognition of their achievements, thus keeping them in obscurity.
"Our judoka Rohit Majgul won a bronze in -66kg on Friday, but no one really knows about it. If he gets proper recognition the others in the village will be inspired to take up sports," says Lobi Shehnaz, an Athletics coach of Siddi origin.
"We get weird looks everywhere, it's not much different here," she says about the centuries of 'otherness' her community has lived through.
Present at the Judo hall at the Mahatma Mandir Convention and Exhibition centre here with a few of her athletes, Lobi, after multiple requests, agreed to chat with The Bridge.
"Tamne Jambur khabhar che? (Do you know Jambur?)," she enquires right at the start of our conversation.
Familiarity with her culture thus established, Lobi goes on to narrate how sports still offers people from her community the only chance to escape poverty despite the failure of the sports programme directed at honing their natural skills in Athletics.
Sports as an escape from poverty
"I was an athlete myself. I have won multiple national-level medals in shot put, but had to leave the sport and switch to coaching during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 because of financial constraints," she says.
Lobi was first spotted and recruited by the Sports Authority of Gujarat during a trial under the state government's talent identification scheme in rural and tribal areas in Jambur.
"Amara gaam ma ground ne badhu nathi pan ame badha chokrao bhagam-dodh karta rahta. Gaam ma ek nanakdi school che jya SAG na officials aaya ane trials ma mane select kari didho (We do not have any grounds as such in our village, but we used to keep playing here and there. There is a small school in our village where SAG officials came once and selected me during trials)," Lobi says about the start of her sports journey.
The athlete-turned-coach says that the trials were all about running and it was only later that she switched to shot put.
"Trials ma to 800m bhagadya ane pachi Bhavnagar centre ma todhu training karuyu ane mane gola fek ma muki didhu (They made me run 800m in trials and then me to a government-run centre in Bhavnagar. I trained there for a while in a lot of sports, before I was permanently put in shot put)," she says.
Close to 150 athletes from Jambur are still recruited by the SAG yearly, most of whom come from backgrounds of extreme poverty.
"My parents are labourers. We have been settled here for years, but I was the first one in the family to get into sports. Now, my sister, Muskaan is also training in athletics in Bhavnagar. Her permanent sport will be decided soon," says Lobi.
'We still do not understand our sports potential'
"I have no intention of going back to the active life of an athlete. My only aim now is to help the kids in my village take up sports seriously and help them succeed in life and escape poverty," she says.
"While the SAG recruits 150-odd athletes a year from our village, a lot of them do not stay in the training centres and return back home. It is my duty to help them understand the opportunities they have once they get into sports," she adds.
While Lobi accepts that quite a bit is being done to get her community into sports, she believes a lot more needs to be done.
"Amne support toh made che, pan aatla thi kasu nathi thavanu (We get some support, but nothing will come out of these little efforts). We still do not have a proper ground or any sporting facilities in our village," she says.
"We have a lot of athletes in different centres from our community and if proper efforts are made, these guys will start dominating the national circuit in two or three years. A lot of the people who come back are also very good, but they just do not understand that," she stresses.