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Living with prejudices

In the grungy lanes of Malviya Nagar’s Khirki Extension in New Delhi, amid small chai stalls and walls adorned with colourful graffiti, Ben John, a young Nigerian, makes his way to a general store and asks for a bori or jute bag. “Kitna?” he asks the shop attendant and hands him a Rs 10 note before sauntering off. “I need the bori for the goods I export,” says the small-time businessman who exports Indian handicrafts back home to Nigeria. But, given the spurt in recent cases of racist abuse against Africans in Delhi, John is planning to move back to Lagos, his hometown. “Back home, there is a lack of opportunities. I came to India to do business. I have been relatively successful, but the social oppression and stereotyping is painful,” he says.

The capital is home to thousands of Africans, mainly from Nigeria, Uganda and Congo. Having left their countries for India in the hope of a better life and education, the Africans instead encounter a lot of problems. But more than the food or the weather, it is the stereotype of being criminals and drug dealers that the foreigners find painful to live down.

Jessica Mthembu, a 20-year-old South African medical student at Noida’s Amity University, came to India with great expectations. The Durban native had hoped that her stay here would be an experience of a lifetime. “I came here because India has good colleges. Most of the universities back home cannot boast of such good facilities,” she says. As she stands outside a grocery shop in a busy street in south Delhi’s Arjun Nagar waiting for a friend, pedestrians give her a disdainful look as they pass by. “Sometimes, they complain about the way I dress. Local shopkeepers don’t treat us nicely either,” she says irritably. Incidentally, the Residents’ Welfare Association of Arjun Nagar had, earlier this year, planned to pass a resolution instructing local landlords and property dealers to stop renting apartments to Africans. In 2013, a group of Nigerians in the area was accused of killing a child and cannibalism. “These are just attempts to drive us out of here. We do not eat people,” says Mthembu.

At Khirki Extension, the prejudice is worse. It is the same area that was witness to a midnight raid by Aam Aadmi Party leader Somnath Bharti in January this year. Bharti, then law minister in the Delhi government, charged a group of Africans with running a drug-and-prostitution racket in the locality. On Friday, he was pulled up by the National Human Rights Commission for “violating the law”, but his actions have already led to a massive exodus of the African community from the area. Owing to this sense of insecurity, more than 30 per cent of the African population previously residing here has moved to other localities in Delhi. Interestingly, statistics at the Malviya Nagar police station show that in 2013 more than 450 foreign nationals, mainly Africans, were deported from the area for involvement in criminal activities – the most for any police station in Delhi.

The mob assault on three African men – two from Gabon and one from Burkina Faso – at the Rajiv Chowk metro station in September has deepened the insecurities of the black community living here. What had started off as a minor scuffle between the locals and the young men had turned into a full-blown assault on the trio. The Africans had allegedly made anti-India remarks while boarding a metro coach. In a shocking video that surfaced after the incident, a mob can be seen mercilessly beating up the Africans, while they try to take cover in a police booth at the station. There is no policeman in sight, and other commuters are seen happily capturing videos on their mobile phones. The police registered a case of rioting against the mob, but till date no action has been taken against any person.

As we move deeper into the congested lanes of Khirki Extension, we find a young African sitting outside a shop. A blue coloured board reads “Divine African Barbing Saloon”, and it is embellished with pictures of different African hairstyles. John Paul, 25, hails from the Nigerian capital of Abuja. He too is a hairstylist and runs a barber’s salon in south Delhi’s Deoli village. He pulls out a hair trimmer from his backpack and says, “I’m here to get this fixed. The salon owner is a friend.”

Paul is one of over 2,500 Nigerians who live in Delhi. He calls himself a wanderer who landed in Delhi four months ago. He spent the whole of last year in South Africa, working as a barber and doing odd-jobs. His salon in Deoli village, which he operates with a fellow Nigerian, charges Rs 100 for a haircut. He only caters to African customers. “I only know how to style Afro-textured hair. I don’t have much idea about the Indian hair type,” he says. Ask him about how he finds life in India, and he seems content. “This is an interesting country, extremely diverse with all kinds of people.” Business is good for Paul, but he is perturbed by the unwelcoming stares. When asked about the “friendliness” of Indian people, he is quick to express his annoyance over the hostile attitude of some locals. Owing to their history of crime ranging from violence to drug peddling, Africans in Delhi are often viewed through a prism of skepticism and distrust. “I have been subjected to racist abuse in the past. There are times when
I don’t feel welcome in this country,” he says. Indian food and the muggy Delhi weather also pose problems, but Paul says that’s something he can live with.

Walter Ogdubo, a 23-year-old student residing in Mahipalpur, has a similar tale. Ever since he landed in Delhi from the southern Nigerian state of Abia a little over a year ago, Ogdubo has been the recipient of several racist slurs. He is used to being called “Kaalu” now. Ogdubo barely speaks Hindi, but the ceaseless use of the pejorative irks him. As he picks up a bunch of bananas from a fruitseller in Saket, Ogdubo tells me about the ordeal he faced trying to find a decent house in Delhi. “The toughest thing in Delhi is to get accommodation. The moment they get to know you’re African, they refuse straight away,” he says. It was only when an Indian friend stepped in that Ogdubo was able to get a tiny one-room flat in Mahipalpur, for which he pays Rs 7,000 a month as rent.

As I hop into an auto, the driver fumes at the mere mention of Africans. “These people are rude. They never talk to you nicely and always fight over petty change,” he says. “I ferry a lot of them to areas like INA Market and Munirka every day. We don’t know what they exactly do here.” This sentiment is echoed by a paan seller barely 100 metres away from the Malviya Nagar police station. “They don’t mingle much with the locals. They only keep to themselves,” he says. Ritesh Mishra, a photographer who stays in a rented apartment in the area, calls them troublemakers. “They are involved in prostitution and drugs. Drugs are easily available here. We are wary of the Africans,” says Mishra. A sense of dislike and animosity towards the community is palpable in the area.

Because of the incessant complaints from locals, the police in the area are extra leery when it comes to dealing with the community. In the past one year, the Malviya Nagar police have stepped up random checks and clamped down on foreigners overstaying their visas. “When we get a complaint against an African resident, we take prompt action. We do not differentiate between Africans and Indians,” claims S S Yadav, an officer at the Malviya Nagar police station. “Most of the complaints are related to violence, indecent behaviour and drugs.” According to Delhi Police figures, more than 500 Nigerians are languishing in Indian prisons.

Although the Nigerian High Commission in New Delhi does not have the exact number of Nigerians living in India, the figure is estimated to be in excess of 10,000. The All India Nigerian Students and Community Association (AINSCA), a non-official arm of the Nigerian High Commission, helps members of the community living across India. AINSCA assists Nigerian students with admission in universities, aids them in getting houses, access to banking facilities, and provides help in emergencies. “Living in a foreign country is not easy,” says David Oguye, a member of AINSCA. “We co-ordinate with the embassy and do all we can to help our fellow Nigerians. We try to address all their grievances.”

John and Ogdubo would like to call India home. But the growing insensitivity towards their community, along with the strict eyes that the police keep on them, has led to widespread insecurity. India may soon cease to be their land of opportunity.

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