The ngomas of India

Surely I’m not the only thinking first and foremost of the Americas and the Caribbean as the regions hosting African diasporas. The transatlantic slave trade that saw so many Africans subjected to the middle passage and violently resettled in the New World has spurred much research and is prominent in the public awareness of slavery and forced migration from the African continent. In previous posts, I have written about Atlantic diaspora communities from the Upper Guinea coast in Peru and North Eastern Brazil, and about the spirit of Mama Jombo lingering in Louisiana.

But on the continent’s Eastern shores, the Indian ocean connects it with South Asia, which, just like the Mediterranean and the Atlantic ocean, has facilitated bidirectional traffic for much of the last millennium. I will not go into the details of the many trade networks through history in this post. Instead, I focus on India, where a diaspora of Afro-Indians assumes a distinct identity today, although of course, as with all diasporic groups, their heritage is a dynamic reconfiguration of multiple influences rather than the retention of traits of a supposed culture of origin.

Sidis or Siddis, as Afro-Indians are called today, live in several Indian states, with their largest concentration in Karnakata, Gujarat and in Hyderabad. Sidis speak Indian languages, but in some of their musical practices, vestiges of Swahili and other East African languages remain. The drums in a Sidi Sufi musical perfomance in Gujarat bear witness of their origin: they are called goma or ngoma. In Swahili and related Bantu languages, this word denotes a type of drum, and in parts of East Africa, the word ngoma also designates a social event involving dance. The word Ngoma in a Sufi ceremony in present-day India beautifully illustrates how the merging and adaptation of cultural practices neither statically preserves nor completely obliterates their origins but blends and remixes multiple roots into something ultimately new.

You can see a video of a Ngoma performance at a Sufi festival in Gujarat here.

More on the history of Afro-Asians in and beyond India, plus a wealth of references can be found on this piece by Shihan de Silva:

If your in-law’s name smells of grass

Taboos are a popular topic among readers of this blog, for understandable reasons. They give insight into people’s beliefs, as in the case of night-time taboos that can be found all over Africa, including Mali and South Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Or they illustrate the rules that guide social interaction, as is often the case in naming conventions. In any case, how speakers replace words that can’t be uttered in certain situations testifies of their linguistic creativity. Additionally, and that’s an important bonus for linguists, avoidance strategies also offer access to how speakers perceive similarity between words.

Today, I turn to a language that has a fairly developed system of avoidance words, often called an avoidance register by linguists. The language in question is the Tanzanian Nilotic language Datooga. Datooga-speaking women face a special task once they are married: they are not allowed to pronounce the names of most of their male in-laws. Not a big deal, you may think, but the taboo goes further: not only are the names themselves not permissible, but also any word that resembles them. So, if your father-in-law’s name is Gídámúlda (gídá meaning ‘male’), you must avoid all words beginning with mul – in consequence, words such as múlòoda ‘log’ or múlmúlánèeeda ‘thin metal bracelet’ are off limits.

No female speaker of Datooga masters the entire avoidance register. This is because extended families live together in compounds, and co-wives of a husband and sisters-in-law share the same male relatives. Consequently, they only need to avoid those words that resemble their limited set of names. This is a probably a blessing, since Datooga names are freely descriptive: people can be named after landmarks such as lakes, rivers, fires, after noteworthy events, or after characteristics of their birth year, etc. So imagine your in-law’s name ‘smells’ – this is how similar-sounding words are described in the language – of grass, nyéega. You can avoid this taboo word by referring to a particular type of grass, ng’àróojiga. Many taboo replacements work this way, by substituting a word with a semantically related one. The versatility entailed by constantly having to think up lexical alternatives (for married women) and interpret them correctly (everybody else) must make Datooga speakers extremely good at crosswords!

Remarkably, there is one context in which Datooga women are allowed to pronounce the name of their husbands’ ancestors: when they are in labour. Apparently, enraging their spirits will wake them up and so incite them to help in childbirth.

Read more on Datooga women’s dynamic avoidance practices here:

Mitchell, Alice (2016): Words That Smell like Father-in-Law. A Linguistic Description of the Datooga Avoidance Register. In Anthropological Linguistics 57 (2), pp. 195–217. DOI: 10.1353/anl.2016.0004.