The Hakki Pikkis of Karnataka in the Sudanese civil war

Marginalised back home, the bird catcher Hakki Pikkis of Karnataka, became herbal healers in Africa till the war arrived

Published - April 22, 2023 10:57 pm IST - NEW DELHI

The total number of Hakki Pikki in Sudan is likely to be around 300, with a majority of them in Khartoum. 

The total number of Hakki Pikki in Sudan is likely to be around 300, with a majority of them in Khartoum.  | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The story of how the Hakki Pikki, or bird catchers of Karnataka, got caught in a civil war in Sudan, tells a contemporary tale of migration, development, and the human desire to thrive.

Today, the tribe is scattered across the capital city Khartoum and in the Darfur region in west Sudan. A few stranded members of the community said their total number in the African country is likely to be around 300, including women and children. Out of them, approximately 250 are in Khartoum, while 33 are in Darfur, where a civil war has raged for many years.

Prabhu Dass, one of the 33, is now stranded in El Fashir, the capital of North Darfur. With gunfire in the background, he speaks in a steady voice in Mysuru Hindi, the signal coming and going, explaining how and why members of the tribe made the journey to Darfur between 2021-22. “Bird catching is our traditional occupation. But now we don’t have that kind of dense forest anymore and the birds have fled,” he said, adding that raising a family was not possible with their meagre earnings.

The Hakki Pikki of India are the latest group to arrive in Al Fashir, a region that has witnessed an influx of people because of the Darfur crisis, bringing a lot of displaced people to the city.

A nomadic tribe, the Hakki Pikki don’t have ready access to education and vocational training, so they relied on their native wisdom to earn a living, said Mr. Dass. “We make herbal medicines from gathering forest produce,” he added. It was this traditional knowledge that found a place in the post-pandemic world. Africa has its own indigenous medicine and these herbal healers from India found ready acceptance.

Back in the forests around Mysuru, the men heard that there was a demand for non-western forms of healing in parts of Africa. “Elders who travelled abroad had told us about the business potential of Africa and we thought we could try our luck,” he said, adding that they had oils for body and joint pain.

An informal tribal collective that produces Neelambari Adivasi Herbal Hair Oil participates in prominent tribal fairs in India and has seen interest from international travellers. They have been sending their representatives to sell hair oil in Africa. “Apart from Sudan, our Hakki Pikki representatives have visited Gabon and Cameroon to promote our forest-based items,” a person from the collective said, speaking from Pakshirajapura village, near Hunsur in Karnataka.

Once the world opened up, some families, severely hit by Covid, set off for the country in eastern Africa. They deny that they were sent to Sudan through a network of illegal immigration and say that they acquired Sudanese visas.

After reaching Sudan, they found a ready market. The Darfur conflict which left more than a million displaced, had wiped out basic amenities like hospitals. Also, “Many parts of Sudan do not have hospitals and our herbal solutions became well known here in El Fashir. It was a good opportunity to earn a few lakhs that we could never even imagine back home,” said Mr. Dass.

Rukmini Rao, founder of Gramya Resource Center for Women in Hyderabad, who has worked extensively with the marginalised tribal communities of the Deccan said the Hakki Pikki are one of the most vulnerable tribes of India. “Unlike the Banjaras who have managed to access some modern education, the Hakki Pikki have remained beyond the circle of education and public welfare. The erosion of their traditional life in the forest has pushed them to the bottom of the social pyramid of Indian tribes.”

However, they do not feature on the list of India’s particularly vulnerable tribal groups (PVTGs). She also said they are like the Birhors of Jharkhand, as forests that sustained their lives have been taken over by ‘development’ or are simply dysfunctional.

For now, those members of the tribe stranded in Sudan have just one demand from the Government of India: “We have no food or water, and our homes here are being shot at. We urge the government to take us back or shift us to safety in neighbouring Chad or Ethiopia.”

Unfortunately, their plea has turned political. A social media message posted on April 18, by former Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah drew attention to them, urging the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar, and Home Minister Amit Shah to intervene. The message received a testy response from Dr. Jaishankar, who termed it “appalling”, indicating that it was not advisable to reveal the location and identity of people caught in a conflict zone. In the ensuing war of words, a larger story about the fate of the Hakki Pikki was overshadowed, but only momentarily.

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