While studying in Nigeria as an undergraduate, Shobana Shankar heard the local people tell tales about the British that echoed the stories her parents and grandparents told her while growing up in India.
“I had always known that we people whose ancestors experienced European colonialism shared a bond, even if colonialism seemed to be a thing of the past,” said Shankar, an associate professor in the Department of History in the College of Arts and Sciences. “But I got so many questions from my hosts about Hinduism, the caste system, poverty and the condition of women in India, that I came to realize that a sense of solidarity did not mean being the same. In fact, I was often reminded of my difference, which was a good kind of discomfort in that inspired my curiosity to consider more deeply how complicated African-Asian relationships really are.”
In her recently published book, An Uneasy Embrace (Oxford University Press), Shankar tackles the controversial question of how Africans and Indians reconcile these differences.
“A lot of people don’t realize that there are Indians of African descent whose histories go back many centuries,” she said. “The Chinese, Persians and Arabs also have extensive relationships with Africans. African-Indian entanglements are diverse because they were made in many periods of history, in layers.”
After the British abolition of slavery in 1833, the British colonialists brought indentured Indians to places like South Africa, while Indians like Gandhi and the businesspeople he represented worked there by choice.
“Indians in Africa became associated with imperial enterprises and business, while they also sought to throw off European colonialism together with Africans by the 1930s,” she said. “At the same time, thousands of African soldiers from West and East Africa served with the British army in India and Burma during World War II. Some stayed. African migration to South Asia increased in the 20th century for education, work and other opportunities. So the African-Indian relationship has to be pulled apart into different strands, which is what I do in An Uneasy Embrace.”
Though the book focuses on the dynamic between Africans and Indians, the themes she explores are universal ones.
“Race, religion, gender, occupation and family history are all factors that determine social standing and inequality,” she said. “That holds true both here in the U.S. and around the world.”
Shankar added that while many in the United States would say that freedom of religion means that religion does not determine or affect one’s standing in society, it’s a view with which she disagrees.
“Religious differentiation and discrimination are perhaps less overt here than in parts of the world where I have lived and worked, especially Nigeria,” she said, “but it affects one’s status even in the U.S.”
In Shankar’s first book, Who Shall Enter Paradise? Christian Origins in Muslim Northern Nigeria, c. 1890-1975, she showed how marginalized people in Muslim society became Christian in the north of Nigeria, where today Christians constitute an often invisible and vulnerable minority.
“But how religion worked to make them vulnerable was not simple — their religious identity was connected to their public and private lives, their occupations and class, gender, who they married and the status of their ancestors,” she said. “I see similar intersectionality in the changing relationships and power dynamics between Africans and Asians.”
Shankar is currently researching the history of herbal medicines in West Africa’s networks with Asia.
“Herbal or traditional medicine is widely used throughout the world, even in Western and wealthy countries, and it is big business,” she said. “A lot of knowledge about the environment, methods of cultivation, and preparation and uses for humans and livestock goes into it and I am fascinated by how herbal medicine, which seems very tied to the local, expands across physical and cultural boundaries.”
Shankar noted that Africans and Asians have long used plant and animal matter in their environments for healing purposes, but in exchanging their knowledge and commodities of healing, how do they develop trust in others’ expertise?
“Trust is foundational in biomedicine, too,” she said. “We’ve seen how medical mistrust has grown even in America, where we assume there is a culturally similar outlook towards medicine. I am using a cultural historical approach to explore fundamentally important aspects of human relations in West Africa-South Asia relations, but these topics are not exotic or foreign. They have enormous relevance for what is happening in the U.S. and around the world.”
— Robert Emproto