By Rajiv Singh, ET Bureau | Apr 09, 2017, 06.26 AM IST
John Uche Jesus, fashion designer. A Nigerian, John came to India in 2010 to study fashion from JD Institute in Delhi Turned entrepreneur in 2012 by starting his own fashion label Diamond Ark
It’s 8 pm on a muggy Tuesday. Saffron Restaurant in Jagat Farm shopping centre inAmritpuram is just 2.5 km from Ansal Plaza mall in Greater Noida, where a bunch of African students were brutally thrashed by a mob on March 27. A week later, it seems as if things have returned to normal for African students in the locality, who are celebrating a birthday at Saffron.
The students are mostly from Noida International University. The boys are dressed in Bermuda shorts, funky sleeveless Tees and sporty caps. The girls are clad in Tees and jeans or long skirts and sport vibrant scarfs. An effort has been made, it appears, to be ‘fully covered’. At least by most of the girls.
Charles Kennedy, vice-president of the Nigerian Citizen Welfare Association in Uttar Pradesh, spots a girl in a short dress, who evidently hasn’t followed the unwritten dress code. “Which country are you from ma’am,” he asks politely.
“Tanzania.” “Please go back and dress yourself properly. You can’t be here like this.” Kennedy then fires a barrage of instructions to the youngsters: “Don’t stay late. Don’t go back alone, stay in a group, and take an Ola or Uber. Avoid an auto.” Kennedy, who is ‘big brother’ to most of the students gathered, is answerable to their parents back in Nigeria. He came to India as a student in 2008, began a professional career with Apollo Hospitals as a facilitator, assisting African nationals coming to India for medical tourism, and married a Punjabi. Now a father of three, Kennedy has a day job at Jaypee Hospital in Greater Noida. But it’s the other hat he wears, as a community leader, that’s taking more of his mind space these days.
The African community may want to get on with life, and business — and the party. But it may not be quite that easy. Since March 27, Kennedy’s cellphone has been constantly buzzing with calls from anxious parents. “I have barely been able to sleep over the last week,” he confesses.
Though the attack on March 27, which drew global outrage and condemnation, was described by the heads of several African missions as racist and xenophobic, Charles stays away from making a sweeping statement. Had the country been racist, he lets on, he would not have been able to marry an Indian and live in India with his three kids. Admitting that the India he is seeing now is not what it used to be when he came to the country in 2008, Charles doesn’t want to tar all Indians with the same brush. “It’s a country that still gives me hope.”
Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj labelled the attacks as “criminal acts” and said that they could not be called racist — at least not before the inquiry was complete. That’s difficult for many of the 2.5 lakh-oddAfricans in the country to swallow, as they battle deep-rooted prejudices virtually on a day to day basis.
Misperceptions that range from the stereotypical to the primitive abound. For instance, it’s common to typecast an African as a drug dealer, never mind that it’s only a fraction of the community that may be involved in peddling narcotics. The more bizarre rumour that spread in Greater Noida was that the community was partaking of human flesh, which led to the Greater Noida police actually entering homes for a check.
“We are black. We are Africans. But we are not cannibals,” thunders Kennedy. It’s devastating, he adds, when the police barge into your home and search your refrigerator for human flesh. “There is an urgent need to dispel the ignorance about Africans.”
Over 70 km from Greater Noida, at Vikaspuri in West Delhi, ignorance about the community is in ample display. “Ye habshi insaan kha jaate hain (These Africans are cannibals),” insists Avtar Singh, a shop owner. Singh proudly discloses his credible source: my father and grandfather used to say so. Habshi is a term used to describe Africans who traditionally came to India as merchants, fishermen and slaves.
Gulveen Kaur, another resident of the Punjabi-dominated locality that has seen a steady influx of Africans over the last three years, harbours a similar perception. “Ye janwar hote hain. Jungle main rehna chahiye (These are animals. They should live in forests),” says the 35-year-old homemaker. There’s no particular reason for her prejudice as she has never encountered any problem with the African community in her area. Blame it perhaps on conditioning.
Problem of Perception
Oblivious to whatever his Indian neighbours think about Africans, John Uche Jesus has been busy with his small fashion boutique. A Nigerian, Jesus came to India in 2010 to study fashion The African community may want to from JD Institute in Delhi, and turned entrepreneur after two years by starting his own fashion label Diamond Ark.
“At times, it is best to ignore, to pretend that you haven’t heard anything,” says Jesus, who named his three year old son Rahul after the eldest son of his landlord. Attacks like the one in Greater Noida notwithstanding, he prefers to look at the brighter side. “I am what I am because of India.”
Had the entire country been hostile, he would have never been able to stay and do business. “The problem is not racism but the perception.” A n t h o ny Re g a l Ibokette, who came to India three years back to study information technology at Lovely Professional University in Punjab, agrees. Generalisation, he reckons, has done more harm than good to the African community across the world. The erroneous perception that all blacks are drug dealers would be equivalent to an equally misleading conclusion. “It won’t be fair to label the entire country as racist,” says Ibokette, adding that it was only because he had met enough “good” Indians back in Nigeria that he came to the country.
While conceding that he was heartbroken to see the video of the Greater Noida violence which went viral across the world, Ibokette believes it was the work of a few who were uneducated and unexposed (to other lifestyles). “Such things can happen anywhere in the world. It can’t be said to be an India-specific thing.” Ibokette, one of three Africans who stay together at Rani Bagh in north-west Delhi, is emphatic that he has not encountered any racist comments or violent behaviour either in his locality or at his college. “We are the only blacks in this part of Delhi,” he says, “and I hope that things get back to normal as soon as possible.”
Ibokette is not the only African who hopes that India will remain true to its nature: “magnanimous and welcoming”.
Blessing Freeman too decided to continue her stay in Delhi, in spite of few shameful incidents that tarnished the image of the capital city over the last few years.
In 2014, a mob attacked three African men in a metro station. The same year, Delhi’s former Law Minister Somnath Bharti led a vigilante mob in Khirki Extension in south Delhi, accusing African women of being prostitutes. But what caused a global outrage was the way in which a student from the Democratic Republic of Congo was beaten to death following an argument in May last year.
Badly shaken after the Greater Noida incident, Blessing who is pursuing dentistry from a college in Ghaziabad was in a dilemma: to go back or to stay. A call from her mother in Nigeria reinforced her hope. “Don’t worry. God will protect you.” Staying with her younger sister since the past five years, Blessing contends that socially it will take India years to evolve and mature. Asserting that while the cultural norms in Africa are as strict as India, people back home in Nigeria don’t judge on the basis of clothes that one wears. “Here people keep staring and laughing. I don’t like it,” she says, adding that it has become increasingly difficult to hold onto the belief that the country has place for those with black skin. “But I have not given up hope.”
Meanwhile, the ripples of the Greater Noida incident are being felt in Bengaluru, home to a 25,000-strong African population. The fury of Russell (he didn’t want to reveal his full name) is evident on a phone call with this writer. “We are not slaves, and we won’t tolerate violence,” says the 21-year-old studying in a private college. What really worries and scares him is that African students have not yet been violent in India, but he contends that they are fast running out of patience. “It’s no more about if, but about when,” he says, hinting that unless the students retaliate they will continue to be treated as punching bags. “Imagine if we start hitting Indians back in Africa. What happens then,” he asks, adding that Bengaluru too has been infamous for mistreating Africans.
In March 2015, four African nationals were assaulted by a group of locals at Byrathi in Bengaluru. Last year in February a mob attacked a 21-year-old African woman and set her car ablaze. Last month, a Nigerian man died in an apparent accident, but the African community alleged it was a murder.
Keeping emotions and tempers in check can be difficult in such times, and that’s precisely what keeps Bosco Kaweesi busy. A social activist and legal adviser to the Africa Students’ Association, Bosco came to India in 1995. “It’s tough to preach tolerance to people on both the sides: locals as well as young African students,” he says. The biggest challenge, he reckons, is to make the local population understand that it’s not fair to judge the Africans by their accent and tone.
“It’s their normal accent that makes them sound aggressive. They are not violent,” he says, adding that the task becomes all the more complex because at times the local authorities too are not aware of the culture.
Bosco, along with the local police authorities, has been conducting campaigns to sensitise the local population and the African community about the need to be tolerant and understand each other. “The more they mix, the more they will understand each other.”
Seeing Beyond Colours
Back in Delhi, slowly but surely perceptions may be crumbling. Harleen Goyal, a homemaker, impression that all Africans are drug dealers, to the recurring news African nationals being arrested on charges of drug peddling. It was quite rare, she confesses, to read about people from other nationalities being indicted for illegal drugs. “This made me believe that all Africans are into the business of selling drugs,” she says, adding that her perception reinforced because she had never interacted with an African. Her outlook changed when she enrolled her 11-year-old son for football coaching by a Nigerian, OA Jeshurun, aka Jessy, at Sujan Singh Park near Khan Market in January this year.
“Jessy has been terrific,” she says, adding that she could not have hoped for a better coach for her son. Somebody who till recently would have been perceived to be an “alien from dark lands and jungles” is now a “polite, modest and nice human being”. “We have to see beyond black and white and get rid of our prejudices,” shrugs Goyal.
Ranjana Kumari, a social scientist and director for Centre for Social Research, explains how the imagery of Africans being ‘uncivilised and alien’ got built. Indians were always made to believe that ‘foreign’ means ‘white.’ So for an Indian, a foreign land would be Australia, America, Canada or Europe. “It would never be Africa.”
Another issue that helped shaped the perception about blacks was the colonial hangover of Indians. “Being ruled by white skinned for so long, we started emulating our masters,” explains Kumari, adding that caste system too played a part in perpetuating the stereotypes. In the Brahmanical scheme of things, people from socalled lower castes were the ones who were dark skinned, if not black. And those were the ones who had been exploited. “Caste and colonial ideology made only a fair-skinned superior.”
So can Indians break away from their prejudices and stereotypes? Kumari reckons it won’t be easy. It will take at least a century for Indians to evolve sociologically. “We are racists,” she says. “The growth of fairness and skin-whitening market in India underlines our love for white skin. As long as we don’t accept the way God made us, the problem will persist. Africans in India are as hard-working and honest as any Indian.”
Meanwhile at Sujan Singh Park on a Wednesday evening, Jessy is training hard with the kids. The toughest task is to make them realise that football is team work, and that they need to pass the ball to their teammates, he says. “Keep passing, keep rolling,” he screams. A professional football player from Nigeria, Jessy came to India in 2013 for greener pastures and turned coach in a few months. Conceding that the Greater Noida incident was devastating, Jessy calls for some introspection by the African community in India. “We must learn to assimilate and be sensitive to the local culture,” he says. Playing loud music or going overboard with celebrations shouldn’t cause inconvenience to locals. Jessy contends that the gulf between the two communities would get bridged as more and more Indians start talking in English. Though he himself has learnt Hindi ‘thoda thoda’, he reckons that mastering the language is a tough ask.
As the coaching session comes to an abrupt end with children running for cover due to an unexpected evening drizzle, Jessy packs his bag, and waits for the parents to take back their children. “The kids are my responsibility,” he says. The trust displayed by the parents is a small beginning in tearing down barriers and fallacies built over decades, even centuries