5 African Nationals Share Their Experiences Of Living In India - Homegrown

5 African Nationals Share Their Experiences Of Living In India

A 2007 cricket match between India and Australia laid bare the face of India’s deep-rooted racism for me. I’ve never been a big cricket fan, but I remember this occurrence clearly, even a decade later. Andrew Symonds, painted as India’s greatest villain at the time, was walking off the field as Indian audience members taunted him with slurs and monkey, armpit-scratching gestures. Why did he have to face this? Because the half West Indian cricketer was not only embroiled in a face-off with two Indian players but became a formidable force in the series.

At the time I couldn’t understand the gravity of such an action. That a man of this stature, in cricket too which is beloved by the entire country, would be treated this way seemed preposterous. Little did I know that this was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to our discrimination against people on the basis of their skin colour, ethnicity and race. Just a small display, comparatively harmless gestures than the slew of hatred and violence that human beings are capable of.

Racism towards the African community has become increasingly open and apparent, what many of us don’t know is how deeply the histories of our countries are in fact entwined. Countless individuals from the African subcontinent came to India as part of the slave trade, some live on in the Siddi community, many even become reformers and rulers if we look through India’s past. Malik Ambar is probably the most famous among the latter—making his name one of the few that’s better known when discussing the African diaspora in our country. It is this rich history India and Africa have actually shared over the years that makes this turn of events particularly ironic.

As quick as Indians are to react in defence and denial of racism in the country – people in power even claiming we can’t be racist since we’ve always lived with South Indians and they are the “black people all around us.” – the reality is that it resides insidiously on every level. There is no group of people who’ve faced more mistreatment and abuse on a global level, than those of African descent.

The fact is that as small and mindless as such a statement may seem, thoughts like these can grow into something a lot more heinous, and such a mindset is evident when we look at the recurring physical attacks on African nationals in India.

I. “I didn’t come to India with preconceived notions after watching Slumdog Millionaire. Why can’t people here keep an open mind as well?”

“The first remotely racist thing an Indian asked me was whether I could slam dunk like Jordan, second, whether I was ‘well endowed’ and third, whether I had any drugs to sell,” says Idrees Muhammad Yohané. Idrees came to New Delhi in 2015 for a period of three months on a language exchange programme from his university. “It was fine at first, I guess. I saw it as jokes, and then just simple ignorance.” Though what really bothered Idrees, and surprised him the most, was the treatment he received at a friend’s party one night. “There was this one really loud obnoxious guy who kept referring to me and calling out to me, and at me, as ni-gree-riya, which I’m guessing he thought was an amusing name for someone from Nigeria,” he shares. At first, Idrees dismissed the party-goer as a friend of the host, but as the night went on it only aggravated him further.

“This guy was just being incredibly disrespectful, it wasn’t even funny after a point. There was another guy there who was northeastern and he kept saying things like ‘hey pedicure! Your flatmate better hide his dog from you.’ It wasn’t even that he was drunk, I could have also made shameful jokes about him being a big flamboyant homosexual, but I didn’t because that’s not how people behave,” he added. He had gotten accustomed to the stares of people while he would walk on the road but says he never expected an educated peer to be so abrasive. “There was a racist thought underlying that man’s behaviour. It didn’t even make sense after a point. My parents are American citizens, and I’m from Seattle!” he concludes.

Idrees’ time in India wasn’t all bad though. This is evident when he explains his love for Hauz Khas Village’s nightlife and Dilli Haat, especially the food. “I didn’t come to India with a preconceived notion of what to expect after watching Slumdog Millionaire. I just don’t understand why people here can’t open their minds in the same way. The least we can do, as human beings, is be kind to one another. If I make you uncomfortable for something I’ve said or done, then that’s a different matter. If I come with a smile on my face then just be kind. That’s all I ask, and what I try to do as well,” he concludes.

II. “I love being in India because has given me an opportunity and good education that I wouldn’t have been able to afford in my own country.”

Mona* came to India when she was 19 years old as a student to a prominent Delhi college. Here she bumped into Khalid* who happened to also hail from Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The asterisk next to their names indicates that for the purpose of this interview they requested that their names be changed. Other than one individual, none of the respondents were comfortable with their image being posted either. When I asked Mona and Khalid the reason for keeping their identity undisclosed, both of them expressed the same sentiment – not wanting to draw attention to themselves for any kind of critique they made.

Both are currently studying in the national capital and following the string of attacks on African nationals in the region, neither are comfortable with too much exposure. “I was genuinely scared. I was told that 8-9 people were just attacked on the basis of suspicion. They weren’t even the ones involved whatever was happening, this was just plain violence. It could have been anyone of us with black skin,” said Khalid. “I’m simply just a black man to them. In moments of stress and crisis, I wouldn’t even be able to properly communicate with them my intentions, my English isn’t very good, and becomes worse when I panic.”

Khalid says he loves India – its diversity and incredible culture but doesn’t feel as safe as he once did in this country. “I worked hard to come to this country. I love it because it has given me the opportunity and good education that I wouldn’t have been able to afford in my own. Here I feel I actually have a future to look forward to. For that, I respect India so much,” he says. It was hard for him to find accommodation initially – “When I say I’m from the Congo all people think is drug dealer or pimp.” He ended up sharing a two bedroom flat with three other African nationals he met through the students association. Through the association, he got in contact with other people in the same situation and by the end of it had they had to get a letter from the association head, as well as the college administration vouching for them.

He loves his course and enjoys studying – “I’m getting to learn new things, you can’t understand how exciting for me this is!” – but racism is something he’s had to face regularly as well. “It’s mostly little things from time to time. I was buying fruit from the market once, and as I was walking away I felt something hit my shoulder. I turned around to find a banana lying on the floor. I couldn’t tell what It was for, did someone throw it at me? Maybe it was a mistake?” As Khalid began to walk away he heard laughter and monkey calls from behind him, and another banana hit him in the head. “If they want me to be a monkey, I can be a monkey!” Khalid laughed over the phone and proceeded to make monkey calls for me too.

It seemed he brushed off the incident as jest and child’s play. Being an Indian myself, familiar with the Indian mentality and the reality of the situation, I didn’t really view it with the ease that he did. I got the feeling that Khalid tuned out such situations, holding over racist incidents the gratitude he feels for being in a land that has granted him access to a better life.

Representational image; source - The Sidi Project by Luke Duggleby
Representational image; source - The Sidi Project by Luke Duggleby

III. “People just look at me and assume I am here for prostitution. How much can I hide?”

Mona gets into many disagreements with Khalid because of his “rainbow India” mindset. “He likes to make himself feel better like this,” she says.

“India for me was a mirage. A promised land that failed to match up. I’m getting an education, but at the cost of my dignity and self worth,” she adds. She came to Delhi two years ago, and says she can’t wait till she gets her degree and can leave. “I came here because it was affordable for me. I knew of many people to came to this country and have stayed on or gone back home happy. I thought things would be better,” she explains. We talk about the difficulties of getting around Delhi as a woman. Being a Delhiite myself, I’ve always been told to be cautious, be aware and ‘be modest’, something that Mona is herself very aware of. For her, there’s a double discrimination. Not only is she a woman, but a dark-skinned African. “I came here as a confident and strong lady but I don’t think I’m going to go home the same way.”

Too many times she’s had to hold her tongue, had to cover up her body even more than other woman. “I can’t change my skin colour, I can’t change where I am from. “How much can I hide?” she says exasperatedly. “If you don’t like me, don’t want to look at me, that’s fine. But why say and do mean things?”

Mona recalls her first ever ride on the Delhi Metro – “I was a little scared, I was pretty sure I was going to get lost or fall on the tracks, it was so busy” – as a moment she will never forget. “I don’t know what was worse, the general or the ladies compartment. The met keep trying to touch you, and the women just stare at you like you are a joker. Once I even asked a friend I was travelling with if there was something on my face that they were looking at.”

Returning home from one of her first few days of college she took a late train and was just leaving the station when she started getting catcalled. It wasn’t an uncommon occurrence she had been told, and was advised to ignore it and keep walking on. “Suddenly I felt someone snap the strap of my brassiere. I quickly turned around but I saw no one, the area was just so crowded. I saw a group of boys hanging outside and looking at me as I swivelled left and right trying to figure out what was happening.” The further she walked down the road, she soon noticed that the group had followed her down the path, this time they were in a car. “They suddenly drove down and pulled over on the sidewalk right in front of me. They had dark windows but I could see from the windshield they were drinking. One boy rolled down the video and asked me ‘How much for two hours?’ I was frozen in spot, unsure of what he was saying, I was scared. He then started making obscene gestures and I turned and ran back to the station as fast as I could.”

Mona sat outside the station under a street lamp. She wanted to avoid any ‘dark spots’ in case someone tried to grab her again. “I sat there for over an hour until two friends from the PG where I was staying came and picked me up in a rickshaw. I just burst into tears and cried all the way home,” she shares.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the only time that someone made untoward advances and comments. “I’ve even 1-2 boys at college make such remarks. People just look at me and assume I am here for prostitution. If that were the case why would I be spending so much money on a college education? There must be women with my skin colour here that are prostitutes, that is their choice and situation,” she adds.

Mona isn’t the only female African national who has dealt with such remarks, she tells me that it happens a lot more than I’d think, and the kind of people who make such remarks range from the richest to the poorest.

“I remember someone called me a demon once, it was very strange,” Zaharaddeen Muhammad, Academic Director at the Association of African Students in India, told Homegrown in a previous conversation. “India and Africa are actually pretty similar. We both have such interesting histories, diverse kinds of people and rich culture. I want to share my culture with people I meet here so they can see that. We aren’t so different, that’s what I tell people and explain to them when they make such comments.”

Source: Al Jazeera/AP
Source: Al Jazeera/AP

IV. “If you’re dark over here, you’re not South Indian, you’re African. And if you’re light you’re not Punjabi or Kashmiri, you’re American, I don’t understand that. How is whiter or darker skin not an Indian thing as well?”

When it comes to racial profiling, breaking a preconceived mindset can be hard. What is perhaps more difficult at the moment though is how the person reacts and deals with it. Princeton Ugoeze Aguocha prefers to deal with such situations with comedy. “I realised that being angry about it is something that I’ll have to live with for a long time and for that matter, I’ll always choose laughter over anger to have a simmering feeling to have to live with,” he says. Born to a Nigerian father and Indian mother, Princeton has lived in India practically all his life. Currently, he hosts karaoke nights in different places in Mumbai, although he shares that he is trying to do something more in the music industry, while also a bit of modelling on the side. “I’m basically a Bombayite, I’ve lived here since I was three years old. I speak Hindi, Marathi and since I live in Danda even the Koli dialect is something I’m familiar with.”

He’s always identified as an Indian, as has all his life. “I’ve always been more in touch with the Indian side of my genetics, so it’s really easy to understand and pick up on the little intricate details of how a person reacts to a certain image put in front of them. I say it’s easy because, unlike what people in India may think, I’m really not a foreigner here. Though, for many of them, I do look like one. There’s always those classic snide comments here and there, jokes, and there’s one thing that’s common to all - it’s always in a different language. There’s the assumption that I wouldn’t understand it or speak it, lekin mujhe Hindi aati hai aur Marathi bhi (but I know Hindi and Marathi too). So it’s just funny sometimes to hear the kind of descriptions they come up with of the person in front of them.”

Princeton takes such incidents with a grain of salt, but it’s not always easy being othered – being made to feel like an outsider in your own country. “With the kind of hair I have, the three most common names that get thrown at me, in every language really, are Bob Marley, Malinga and Andrew Symonds. All three of them give me an indication that this person that you know nothing about is definitely talking about you and your hair right now. It’s little things like this that are a constant reminder of the fact that yes, I have been living like a foreigner in my own country. In the music industry too, people see me and think ‘Oh cool’ thinking ‘because you have ‘African hair’ you can definitely rap, you must be into reggae.’”

He doesn’t hold such misconceptions people have against them, in most cases. He believes that a lot of it stems from curiosity. “They’re coming at me with a curiosity that is so blatantly open about its rawness that it just hits you hard. That while the world has moved on to matters about not judging a person on the colour of their skin or the texture of their hair, I have people directly ask me ‘Hey, are you from Africa?’ and I have to say yes, but not every person who has hair like mine is from Africa and not every African has hair like mine. It’s not like they’re walking up to everyone who has curly hair and asking that. If you’re dark over here, you’re not South Indian, you’re African. And if you’re light you’re not Punjabi or Kashmiri, you’re American, I don’t understand that. How is whiter or darker skin not an Indian thing?”

“It’s just basic misinformation, a lack of education or curiosity enough to doing research on your own instead of openly showing your ignorance. So instead of doing that people tend to walk up the person closest thinking ‘Ok, this person is here right now, might as well ask him’ but even if you want to ask questions, there’s a way of asking someone what they’ve been their entire life.” For him, maintaining control in any situation of racial discrimination is key. “Try hard as you can to not lose your mind because that’s what everyone wants you to do. Everyone wants to take control and define who you are – don’t give in. Keep them angry, keep them coming at you because that’s just how life it. But hold onto that control because that’s the only choice you have.”

When the most recent Noida attacks happened, one of the initial reactions I heard from a friend was “we’re racist and discriminatory against people of different skin tones in our own country. So it’s not surprising we’d do it to people coming in from others.” But how does this make it alright? Both Mona and Khalid acknowledged that there are people from their country who come to India and get involved in the drug trade and prostitution, but profiling all individuals just by the way that they look is unacceptable – “There is a larger issue here. How can society ignore that? If government officials condemn such attacks but also say there’s no racism, how does that make sense? What is it then?”

What can we do to address such issues? Zaharaddeen believes it more spaces for conversations and cultural exchanges that are needed. Laws, policies and public condemnation of such behaviour mean nothing off paper unless it is embraced and upheld in the hearts, minds and actions of citizens as well.
So where do we begin? What everyone agreed upon through the course of our conversations is the need for open-mindedness and education. Learning kindness and respect is something that goes way beyond school textbooks.

Here we look to parents of every Indian young Indian to instil in their children ideas of equality, empathy and kindness. We can no longer be silent bystanders. Speak up if you witness a wrongdoing, it doesn’t have to be a violent reaction, but a conversation acknowledging that these things exist and need to be addressed. Doing and saying things is easy when you know you can get away with it – call out racist behaviour, discrimination and gender bias. It’s not a broken record statement, many of our problems, misconceptions and skewed mindsets can be altered, even if just a bit, with proper, wholesome and all-inclusive education and by just being kind, plain and simple.

If you enjoyed this article we suggest you read:

From Slavery To Kingship; How An African Man Fought The Mughals In 16th Century India

Exploring India’s African Diaspora With Luke Duggleby’s ‘Sidi Project’

Grace Wales Bonner’s Photographic Tribute To India’s Malik Ambar Is Incredible

This Photographer Is Capturing The Lives Of Africans In India

‘India Is The Most Racist Country I Have Been To’ - An African-American’s POV

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