Muhammad Asif is in hurry. After eight hours of tiring labor work it’s time for some fun.
He is a traditional African dance performer.
“African dance is my passion, I have no interest in anything else. By the grace of God and the training of my teacher today I’ve reached this place.”
Asif belongs to the Sheedi community, a group of African descent, who settled along the coasts of the Arabian Ocean centuries ago.
And this is how African dance made its way to this part of the world.
Another dancer, Muhammad Ramzan, leads the group. He has trained many boys.
“Once the trainer of my trainer went to visit Africa from where he learnt this dance. When he came back he taught it to other community members, who are a tribe descended from black Africans. Whenever we perform people are amazed to see African dance here in Pakistan. They really enjoy it.
Some 18,000 Sheedis live in the southern city of Karachi.
Mostly of them live in the slum locality of Lyari, where gang warfare over the drugs and arms businesses is rampant.
Some two-kilometers away life is very different.
This is the first luxurious restaurant in Pakistan to hold live African dance performances.
Many visitors like Qamar Ahmed are fond of the dance.
“I really liked and enjoyed the fireworks, the dance and the music. It seems like people have come from the African jungles to entertain us here. (LAUGHS) My family, my in-laws loved it.”
Faisal Baig is the brains behind the idea. He is the manager of the Port Grand Restaurant
“We’ve given them new opportunities. The visitors see their performances and hire them to perform at family or social gatherings. People had negative perceptions of them. Now, they meet each other face to face and go home with new impressions.”
For many Africans in Pakistan, dancing has become a way of surviving.
Asif has been performing at weddings for the past five years and finally took it up as a profession last year
“I’m married with one child. Dancing merely for fun can’t help. Even one job is not enough to earn food for the family. With two jobs I earn 120 to 150 US dollars a month.
African dance is an expression of joy and happiness.
Over time, the African dance has been influenced by Islamic mysticism. Some believe it’s sacred.
But legendary performers like Nabi Ahmed, are angry with the youngsters for performing for money.
“African dance is only for fun to express joy. I’ve danced throughout my life and many Presidents of Pakistan have personally appreciated what I do. But, I never danced for the sake of money. It’s not to earn money.”
The community recently formed an alliance to press the government to give them equal rights and job opportunities.
Yaqoob Qambrani is the President of the Pakistan Sheedi Ittehad.
“All the doors to success are shut on us because we face discrimination at various levels, including in schools, workplaces, etc. We’re tabooed. People say that we were brought to this part of the world as slaves, so we should remain slaves. We want to dispel this myth… we were not slaves. Our conditions are changing slowly, but a lot is yet to be done.
Until that happens the community has no other option but to continue dancing to earn a living.