Rohit Majgul has stood up to racism and rejection in India as part of a marginalized community tracing its roots back to Africa – but he still dreams of bringing sporting glory to his country.
The 16-year-old is one of a group of teenagers practicing martial arts in a sunny field near the village of Jambur in Junagadh district, Gujarat state, western India, where his parents work as manual laborers.
Having grown up around the open drains and swarms of flies in the remote village, he and other members of the local Siddi community were abused for their distinctive dark features and curly hair.
Majgul, a school dropout, sees his judo training as the only way to escape a life riddled with poverty and discrimination.
“Nobody believes me when I say I’m Indian,” he told AFP news agency. “They think I’m African, they call me by different abusive names, they tease me.
“I was also kicked off the bus because of my color, but I put up with everything calmly because I want to play sports and forge an identity.
Two years ago, Majgul won silver medal in judo at the Asia-Pacific Youth Games.
Its determination to represent India on the international stage was reinforced by government action aimed at identifying the athletes of the Siddi community, which is said to have come from the Bantu peoples of sub-Saharan Africa.
Some are said to have been brought during the Islamic conquest of the subcontinent as early as the eighth century.
Many more were likely brought by the Portuguese to India three to five centuries ago, researchers say.
But they are still considered strangers.
‘Nobody cares about us’
When British colonial authorities abolished slavery in the 19th century, the Siddis fled to the jungles, fearing for their safety.
Gradually they settled on the west coast of India, working as farm laborers while adopting the local culture and languages.
India is now home to around 250,000 Siddis, researchers said, most of them living in Gujarat and Karnataka – the two coastal states facing the eastern tip of Africa across the Arabian Sea.
Those who live in Gujarat are Muslims, making them the target of further discrimination in predominantly Hindu India.
“Nobody cares about us. There are no facilities in our village – no running water, no proper toilets, nothing, ”said Majgul.
Near his house, children with tangled, unwashed hair ran barefoot through narrow streets lined with barracks.
Hope came in the form of a program started in 1987 by a government keen to increase the country’s dismal number of summer Olympics, with Indian athletes winning just nine gold medals in the last century. .
“We were looking to see if the Siddis had a genetic advantage,” track and field coach R Sundar Raju, who was part of the project, told AFP.
“Normally, it takes a few years for an Indian athlete to reach the national level, but the Siddis did it in just three years.
But authorities abandoned the project seven years later, after realizing that the impoverished Siddi were more interested in a related program that encouraged Indians to pursue sports careers by offering them much sought after government jobs.
“They came from families so poor that the moment they got a job under a sports quota, they seized the opportunity and quit training halfway,” said Raju.
‘I used to curse my fate’
In the years that followed, some Siddis in Gujarat instead made their living organizing dance performances for tourists or training as forest guides for Gir National Park, a sanctuary for endangered lions.
The state government relaunched the program in 2015, focusing primarily on judo and athletics. The promising young Siddi are now training at a state-run sports academy.
A Karnataka nonprofit group is also mentoring 50 aspiring athletes from the community.
“We felt that this particular group has high potential but has been very neglected,” said Nitish Chiniwar, founder of the Bridges of Sports Foundation.
Shahnaz Lobi, an aspiring putter from Jambur, jumped at the chance to pursue a sports career after watching her worker father struggle to feed his family.
“I used to curse my fate. But one day, I learned of the existence of sports events and I participated in them, ”she said.
Lobi told AFP that she dreams of competing in the 2024 Olympics.
“I was selected and sent to the National Sports Academy. I don’t have any friends there but I don’t mind. I just want to win an Olympic medal and let the world know I’m Indian.