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'I felt like a demon', Africans in India point out on Mandela Day

For underground 'outsider' parties in Delhi, organisers find it tough to arrange venues for 'non-Indian' crowd (Source: We Da Party/Facebook) Photograph: (WION)

WION New Delhi, India Jul 18, 2017, 05.09 AM (IST) Devanshi Verma

18th July, the day Nelson Mandela was born, is marked as Nelson Mandela International Day. For 67 years, Mandela devoted his life to humanity—as a human rights lawyer, a prisoner of conscience, an international peacemaker and the first democratically elected president of a free South Africa.

As the world celebrates the 99th birthday of the leader, we explore at the state of Africans in India.

Indians and Africans: Existing together, living separately

On a rainy weekday morning, while driving past wedding venues and upmarket eateries on New Delhi’s Chattarpur road, I took a left into Rajpur Khurd to enter a different world altogether. One that looks much like any other slum of the capital city, this one is inhabited by a sizeable number of Africans.

Having visited the Tibetan and Afghani settlement in the city, I expected it to be a colourful melting pot of authentic street food, cafes and other notable demonstrations of the community’s presence. I was mistaken--there was no palpable sign of their existence--even though all of that was absent, it was a pleasant surprise to see a fairly large number of Indians as well. "They coexist together," the overwhelming thought clouded my head. On asking, they confirmed that several “habshi” reside here. I am unsure if any of them even knew what that meant. The terminology was used without realising the sensitivity around it. Most of them happened to use it with harmless intentions.

On asking, they confirmed that several “habshi” reside here. I am unsure if any of them even knew what that meant
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Incidentally, the word "habshi" historically referred to African and Abyssinian slaves and, thus, is a highly pejorative term.

Almost no Indian knew any of them personally. They would direct me to their houses or point to their shops but none said they were friends with them. It was a disheartening discovery. Neela, an Indian housemaid, even said that “the police took a lot of them about a week ago”. On enquiring why, she said “I don’t know this. We are not informed about their whereabouts,”. This brings us to the very obvious conclusion--even though the two communities share the same neighbourhood, they only exist together and lead very distinct, unshared lives.

In the lanes of Rajpur Khurd extension, Indians and Africans exist together but live separately. (WION)

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The Indians residing in the area belong mostly to the lower-income group. They work mostly as cab and auto drivers, maids, ice-cream vendors and small-scale beauty parlour owners. On the other hand, the African population includes students and young professionals from well-off, middle-class families. Most of them claimed that they were denied housing in other localities. The landlords in this area charge very high rents from them--10,000-15,000 rupees which would have been impossible to get from Indian tenants--considering the extremely poor infrastructure and unsanitary conditions.


Inside an African kitchen: ‘We wouldn’t treat our guests like that’

I ended up in a crowded, dingy alley that had African tenants--none of them too willing to talk. They seemed to be suspicious of me. I happened to notice the “Jesus Never Fails” boards on the houses situated in a lane opposite to a famous Shiv Temple.

Roaming around in the maze-like slum, the passersby led me to a building that they claimed was an African “kitchen” or restaurant. I had my doubts because it seemed like a tatty residential construction with no sign boards. On taking a dimly lit flight of stairs littered with cigarette butts, I reached what looked like the door of an average Indian flat. An African woman nervously opened the door, she probably saw me from the door viewer. When I inquired if I could get food, she refused. I assumed it was only when I am accompanied by her confidante, I would be allowed to enter. I found Collins in the markiet area, a friendly man from Congo, who took me to another so called “kitchen” in a similar unmarked, poorly constructed house.

 

The Indians residing in the area belong mostly to the lower-income group. On the other hand, the African population mostly includes students and young professionals from well-off, middle-class families. (WION)

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Collins has accepted racism to be a part of his identity outside Africa. “I have widely travelled and it is everywhere. People is China are shy but they are more helpful than Indians,” he said.

The “kitchen” was set in a double-bedroom flat--the lobby, permeated with the stench of cigarettes, was laid with a variety of tables, barstools, and couches. The multicoloured projections emanating from Chinese bulbs added to the look. I finally discovered the signs of cultural difference--hidden from the outside world.

The fridge was packed with beer and a table by the kitchen held a home audio system. Only one table was occupied. “The crowd mainly comes in the evening. It’s a real ball--we have live music sessions over the weekends. Only Africans come here almost all the time. We cannot publicise the place too much--it is underground after all,” said the 35-year old Imani* from Kenya. 

Most of them come to India for quality education that is more affordable compared to the west. They are aware of the fact that adjusting in a new country would be difficult but the experience for some has been horrific beyond imagination “Being teased and overcharged is one thing but the people here think that we are all criminals involved in prostitution or drugs. We wouldn't treat our guests like that back at ome,” says Imani.

Being teased and overcharged is one thing but the people here think that we are all criminals involved in prostitution or drugs
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The kitchen is a safe haven “It is a place that reminds us of home--we feel we belong and are not looked down upon,” she adds. African immigrants living in Delhi find a slice of home in the home-cooked meals and music of these kitchens.

A business owner’s message to the government

Onuel Uka was unable to find the traditional African technique of clipping hair in India. He utilised the gap in the industry to open Salon Afriq, which is now a popular spot for African clientele. The staff and customers are from Africa but an Indian is rarely seen in sight. He came to India eight years ago “India was not the original idea but it was god’s plan,” he said, who intended to go to Canada after a stop in India but happened to do his MBA from Stratford University, New Delhi. He did not expect it to be a rosy ride and the initial period of adjustment is described as “painful”.

When asked if he will recommend his friends and family to come to India, he said “It depends on why they want to come here. If they have a good educational or job opportunity here, they should come. But if they have an option between India and the States, then obviously they should head to America,” he explains

He also believes that his country is not any less than his present home “It’s not that we come here because we feel India is better than Nigeria. India is good but not good enough to be my home,” he said.

There is only one main thing he misses about home “It is the feeling of being at home. You do not feel like an outsider. Everybody has the same skin colour so they don’t find you odd and you don’t feel out of place,” he sighs.

 

Salon Afriq is owned by 44-year-old Onuel who is happily married to an Indian woman (WION)

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Onuel like every other African in India is a victim of racism. “I will explain through an experience. I visited a neighbour and their kid opened the door. When he saw me, he screamed and cried as if seen a ghost. I was so embarrassed. How is it the kid’s fault? Children are innocent and they embrace what comes their way. The notion that our colour and physique is scary is planted in their head by the society. How is one expected to feel respected and accepted in such a society? Our president once said that ‘If you ignore children, you are ignoring your future’ but how do we even interact with children in such a situation?” I had no answer to his question.

Being a business owner, he is distressed by the lengthy, tedious paperwork for renewals. He feels the government is not supportive enough “Government should have some arrangement to issue temporary paperwork instead of cancelling licenses. There should be workshops and events organised for foreign students. They are very talented but do not know where to start from,” he says. He is also worried about the impact of the implementation of GST.

It is the feeling of being at home. You do not feel like an outsider. Everybody has the same skin colour so they don’t find you odd and you don’t feel out of place
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He is an admirer of Mahatma Gandhi as much as he is of Mandela “Gandhi did so much in South Africa. Indian government should also initiate some event to honour Nelson Mandela for our community,” he says.

Besides the struggles, the 44-year-old blushes when asked about his love life. He is happily married to an Indian woman with two kids pursuing studies.

The outsider’s party

Amidst of all this, the community has learned to live with racism and at the same time found a place of their own. They blow off steam after a long day just like Indians do but away from them.

Greater Kailash market is a familiar area for any Delhiite. The elite crowd frequently cools off in the posh bars and lounges of the market. However, this time, I visited the place at an odd time--post midnight--when the outlets have almost shut down, the staff is winding up by cleaning and packing. The parking lots are deserted and the typical Delhi crowd is either heading home after party or looking for hangover cures. But for the African party-goers, the night had just begun.

In the basement of a mediocre club of the famed piazza, an underground, unofficial beanfeast was beginning to unfold. Loud thumping music, a bit alien but foot tap-worthy. If you aren’t African or Northeastern––you are likely to feel like an outsider, which is usually the case with these people when they are out of this pub, in the midst of the judgemental Delhi and its so called "multicultural" crowd. These outsiders here get a night out free from stares and slurs in a scene hidden only because most of us would never think to look for it.

Mostly everyone was tipsy, with a few people in clusters sitting around either making out, dancing, drinking or just talking.

'You don't have to be a foreigner to be an outsider' says Gurmat from Manipur. (WION)

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The party organisers mentioned that it was a task to find venues that allow non-Indian crowd and, therefore, most parties happen after-hours and some off the record. An active DJ and party-enthusiast in his native country, it was difficult for Abeo* to enter the Indian entertainment industry. The crew dedicated a decade to create a parallel nightlife in the city. The main takeaway: Indians might find it weird to see a group of Africans or northeasters at their party, but this one has doors and arms wide open for anybody willing to pay the cover. The main agenda behind doing these parties is to create a space where nobody gets turned away for being who they are.

The tales of discrimination are narrated everywhere. A country which differentiates and rejects between the residents of the north and south, imagine what a person from a far off land may feel. “You don’t have to be from another country to feel like an outsider,” says Gurmat Durjoy who hails from Manipur. 

The dapper Salim* from Uganda studying at Sharda University talked about the "dark" realities of being an African in Delhi "Very few Indians accept Africans. They take you for drug peddlers and racists only because your skin colour is not their preferred shade. It is pure hypocrisy--at one end Indians dislike being called brown and explain the horrors of racial rule by British, who considered themselves superior. They do the same to you. We are bullied, mocked, teased and even touched as if we are demons. I feel unsafe and cannot wait to head back home" he said. 

Almost every African migrant I spoke to, narrates the challenges of finding accommodation in the city. Many found homes but were later asked to leave by landlords as the neighbours complained of not "feeling safe" in their presence. They also complain of being classified as a Nigerian due to ignorance of the fact that Africa is a continent and not a country.

“Next time you see someone from Africa--if you can’t pass a smile, at least don't pass a racist comment,” Salim said.

The community has created a parallel nightlife over the time to cool-off in India's capital (WION)

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*Some names have been changed to protect identity

Devanshi Verma

Devanshi is a freelance feature writer. When not writing, she loves to travel and explore food cultures across geographies.

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