Racing for a better future: The African-origin tribe in K’taka that’s turning to sports

For the last two years, a not-for-profit has been training members of the Siddi community in athletics, and some hope to represent India in sporting events.
Racing for a better future: The African-origin tribe in K’taka that’s turning to sports
Racing for a better future: The African-origin tribe in K’taka that’s turning to sports
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The morning sun glistens over Ravikiran Francis Siddi’s head as he steps out onto the field for his warm-up run. Dust puffs up from around his feet forming a cloud as he sprints back and forth in the field in a matter of seconds. His friends form a human outline on the edge of the field watching in equal measures of curiosity and adulation.

Inside the Loyola High School grounds on the outskirts of the postcard town of Mundgod in Karnataka’s Uttara Kannada district, this has been a daily routine for Ravikiran, ever since the school’s physical education teachers chanced upon the 17-year-old member of the native African Siddi community living in the heavily-forested areas of the district.

The teachers admit that they came across Ravikiran’s obvious sprinting capabilities when they were scouting another member of the same community, Jackson, a district-level kabaddi player, in June 2017. “The local physical education teachers here went to the forests around to scout for new Siddi children who have the potential to excel in sports. Actually, they never went to find Ravikiran. They had gone in search of another kabaddi player and while they didn’t find that player, Ravikiran came to the attention of the teachers. He is now studying at the Loyola High School and is focused on his athletic training alongside his studies,” explains Nitish Chiniwar, founder of Bridges of Sports, a not-for-profit organisation that is working with schools in north Karnataka to train children from tribal communities in sports.

In just under two years of training, Ravikiran’s coaches have improved his 100-metres timing to 11 seconds, which is just 0.7 seconds short of the Indian national record. “What we found was that he had a great potential not just in terms of ability to run but also good mental strength in that he was serious about running and he would want to be on the ground everyday irrespective of a coach being there,” says Nitish. The organisation is also planning to work with sports scientists from the Center for Sports Science and Medical Research in Manipal.

The hope is that members of the community will one day excel for India in sports and Ravikiran is the latest person carrying the burden of expectations. “Before I began training, I used to run in a different way but here we have to run in a particular way and I learnt that through the coach. In the future, I want to keep training and run nationally and maybe even internationally,” he says.

Ravikiran Francis Siddi with his parents Roja Siddi and Francis Siddi

‘Arrival as domestic slaves in India’

In and around Mundgod, Ravikiran has turned into a symbol of hope for the Siddi community, which has lived in relative seclusion in India for more than five centuries. Historians have speculated about the arrival of the tribe in India. It’s widely thought that the Siddis docked in Goa in the 16th century as domestic slaves of Portuguese traders living there, though some suggest that their arrival in India predates that. “They were brought to work as domestic slaves in Goa from Mozambique in Africa, which was also a Portuguese colony at the time. This movement started around the 16th century in the beginning of the Portuguese rule in Goa and continued during the 17th and 18th centuries,” says Mark Pinto, an anthropologist based in Goa who has studied the Siddi community.

When slavery was outlawed in Portuguese colonies around the world in 1869, the Siddis migrated to the forest areas in Karnataka, Gujarat and Maharashtra. In Karnataka, the Siddis sought refugee from the rulers of the Bijapur Kingdom. Today, around 40,000 members of the Siddi community live in the forested areas of Yellapur, Mundgod and Haliyal in Uttara Kannada.Almost all of them live in the margins of poverty, and many do coolie work for plantation owners. Racial discrimination also severely affected the community and for centuries, they remained alienated from urban society.

Santhan Juje Siddi (80), one of the oldest members of the community in Uttara Kannada

Tapping into sports potential

In 1987, the Sports Authority of India (SAI), spearheaded by the then Union Minister of Youth Affairs and Sport Margaret Alva, began initial efforts to set up a sports scheme to scout and train members of the community in hopes of tapping into yet undiscovered athletic abilities of the Siddi people.Around 65 athletes were chosen to be trained in various athletic events. They were even taken to Bengaluru for training after an initial period of training in their schools.

However, the ‘Special Area Games Scheme’ was discontinued six years later in 1993 leaving members of the community who enrolled for the programme stranded. “The scheme was not planned well. The community has been isolated for so long. So a scheme like this is essentially an integration into mainstream society and not just a sports training scheme. You actually needed mentors, people who would be able to mentor the Siddis and integrate them. This was not well thought out and that is why they started and stopped, and the scheme never came to fruition,” Mark says.

The programme was later revived in 2009 and then again in 2016 with a small change. This time around, athletes enrolled in the scheme were trained in schools near their homes in Uttara Kannada and Dharwad districts. But the lack of specialised coaches meant that the athletes’ training was once again hampered. Veeranagowda Mallanagouda, a physical education teacher in Mundgod’s Loyola High School, recalls, “[Sports Authority of India] started a project to train Siddi children here but they did not send mentors and instead asked us to train them. It is not possible for a physical education teacher to give sports training to so many children.”

The uninspiring performances and lack of discipline of the athletes were also factors in the Sports Authority's  decision to discontinue the programme. “The performances of the athletes trained was also deemed to be unsatisfactory. There was also a trend of athletes dropping out and there were a lack of trained coaches who could stay in Uttara Kannada and Dharwad and train tribal athletes”, says Shivali, who worked with SAI on implementing the programme in Dharwad.

The programme, however, did help in bringing the different sections of Siddi community together. The community is divided on religious lines. Many members of the community are Christian since they  were baptised by the Portuguese when they were brought to Goa. Many others became Muslims after they left Goa and sought refuge in the Bijapur Kingdom ruled by Adil Shah while several became Hindus after they took up work in Hindu households and took up the religion of their employers.

Forests of Uttara Kannada where the Siddi community resides

An alternative inclusive model

The failure of the scheme also raised questions about its short-sightedness and whether an alternative inclusive approach could have benefited athletes. Bridges of Sports now hopes to revive this plan by identifying local coaches who will train athletes from tribal communities. “When I started working here eight months ago, I was a junior coach. We conducted a league and we took in the top athletes including Ravikiran who performed well and began coaching them,” says Rizwan Bendegeri, a national level sprinter from Mundgod who is now coaching a group of 15 tribal students.

Bridges of Sports founder Nitish says that they hope to create an ecosystem where children can thrive with proper athletic training “irrespective of whether they are winning or losing.” The organisation is training students from the Siddi, Golla, Lambani among other communities.

“Some of them might become professional athletes while others can become coaches who train younger athletes. We have athletes like Shweta Siddi who will be coaching young girls next year because it was very difficult to find women coaches,” explains Nitish.

Shweta Siddi, another 17-year-old athlete from the Siddi community, has been an accomplished runner since her primary school days and is set to begin coaching young athletes once she completes Class 12. “I am interested in coaching young athletes because there are only a few members of the community who run and many of them do not have any practice,” Shweta told TNM before taking to the field for her warm-up.

Shweta is also hoping to fulfil her parents’ dreams of her racing in state-level competitions. Both her father Suresh Siddi and her mother Shanthi Siddi were interested in sports and running, but could not continue doing it after they dropped out of school. “I used to be interested in sports but there was nobody to encourage us to take up sports or even study. So now, we are hoping our children achieve something we couldn’t do in sports,” says Shanthi Siddi in her home in Bilki, a forested village around 30 km from Mundgod.

Shweta Siddi (right), another 17-year-old athlete from the Siddi community

Shanthi Siddi (mother of Shwetha Siddi)

Racing to break barriers

This is a sentiment shared by Ravikiran’s parents Roja Siddi and Francis Siddi. “He is bringing a name to the community. We have seen Usain Bolt on TV. After seeing that I told my son, you have to give it a shot once in running and only then do other work. We have been undermined and scared to venture out of our comfort zones. When we go to banks and post offices we are asked which country we have come from. So to see my son achieve something in sports makes me proud,” says Francis.  

The community also faces everyday racial discrimination. “You will find many accounts of Africans, including students, talk about their bitter experiences in India so it is not surprising that the Siddis too have faced it for a long time. The community is isolated and there are a lot of prejudices about them that they are lazy and they are not trustworthy. It is because of this condition of Afrophobia in the Indian psyche,” says anthropologist Mark.

Sport has helped the small community find work and access a better life. Renewed efforts to train children is not in the hope of winning medals, but also to help the community break social barriers and expand the notion of what it means to be Indian. “There were suggestions to send them back to Africa but they will never be able to adapt because they don’t speak the language or know the traditions there. They speak Indian languages fluently, their dressing style is Indian. They have African blood but they are Indians. To correct a wrong, you can’t make another mistake. You can’t uproot communities time and again,” Mark says.

All Photographs By Dhruv Khanna

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