It’s 9 pm on a balmy June night and a group of about 50 Nigerian nationals, some anxious, others agitated, have gathered in a first floor hall of a house in a narrow, dimly-lit street in Chhatarpur extension in south Delhi. The hall, its walls festooned with colourful balloons, has upholstered sofas and about hundred chairs wrapped in ribbons. No, it is not a birthday party in progress, but a meeting of the Association of the Nigerian community in Delhi.
One of the agendas of the meet is to discuss the closing time of eateries run by Africans in Delhi and NCR.
Many community members, who have come from places such as Dwarka, Noida, Khirki village, believe that the late closing of some eateries is the reason why a lot of their people loiter on the roads late into the night, sowing suspicion in the minds of local residents.
Renewed efforts by African community
Such meetings and discussions are part of renewed efforts by the African community to understand and assimilate what they call the “Indian way of life” so as to cohabit harmoniously with locals.
The meeting was held in the backdrop of what many believe are racist attacks on people of African origin in Delhi, one of which left a Congolese teacher dead.
“We should understand that we are in a conservative foreign country, and should not do anything to offend the sensitivities of the locals. We need to reconcile our cultural differences,” Arinze Nelson, 38, the president of the All India Nigerian Students’ and Community Association, tells the gathering.
The association has imposed a fine of Rs 1000 on anyone found wearing “inappropriate dress”. Arinze says the association has fined about 10 people.
“It is normal for our men and women to wear shorts and singlet (a sleeveless garment) in Africa. But what is normal in Nigeria is abnormal here. We advise them to keep their body covered in Delhi. I keep telling them that prevention is better than cure. If they violate association’s rules, we will not come to their rescue if they get in trouble. They should understand that Indian law is not likely to favour them,” says Arinze.
Banquets and balls
Similarly, one of the stated objectives of the Congolese Community of India is to help the community meet the challenge of “acculturation into the Indian way of life”. The association organises banquets and balls across the country where it invites community members, mostly students and Indians so as to create a better understanding between the two communities.
John Uche Jesus, 35, who runs Diamond Ark, a fashion brand, in south Delhi, says that such efforts are necessary because the growing incidents of violence between the two communities are a result of cultural differences -- and a misunderstanding of the mores and manners of the two communities.
“In Nigeria, it is pretty common to stay out late on the streets, play loud music, but not so in India. Besides, a lot of people from African countries have loud voice and many Indians feel that they are aggressive. I believe that when in India, do as the Indians do,” says Uche, who has named his son Rahul.
“I have named him after my landlady’s son; she has been like a family to me. In fact, most of my friends are Indians and I often go to their birthday parties and weddings. I think how you get along with Indians also depend on how you carry yourself,” says Uche.
Tales of love and marriage
There are several other alternative narratives of love and marriage between Africans ad Indians that have been eclipsed by racial prejudice.
Ennamuel Ekufu, 36, from Nigeria lives in Greater Noida with his Indian wife from Chandigarh and three children.
He says there was a lot of resistance to the marriage from his in-laws initially. “They had many fears: her parents thought I would marry her and take her to Nigeria, that we will have black children. But I have stayed on in India and my children are fairer than my wife’s relatives,” says Ekufu, a businessman.
So, has he had to make changes in his lifestyle to find acceptance into his in-laws
family. “Before marriage, I would to go to clubs, drink and stay out late into night. But now I have stopped drinking. These are the things, I probably would not have done if I were married to a Nigerian woman,” says Ekufu.
Paul Patrick, a pastor at a church located in the basement of a house in Chhatarpur says that the church has been a meeting ground for Africans of various nationalities and local community for the past few months. Many Indians, he says, are part of the prayers on Sundays and Thursdays. One of the reasons, he says, is that many locals believe this church has healing powers.
“Many Indians say that they were cured of diseases such as asthma and diabetes after attending prayers at the church. The coming together of the two communities is helping foster better understanding between the two communities. I advise fellow Nigerians to lead a disciplined life in India. A lot them are beginning to understand the cultural sensitivities of Indians. ”
The evil of racial slurs
Talking of racial slurs African nationals face in India, Anrinze, who like Ekufu, is also married to an Indian, says that he has been trying to understand the meaning of ‘Habshi’ and has been offered many interpretations -- a big black man, a man who eats frogs, etc.
“Unfortunately, there is no one satisfying answer. Despite our best efforts to integrate into local culture, the results are not very satisfactory. I feel Indians are repelled by us. The discrimination is too deep- rooted,” he says.
“People need to understand that I have not chosen my skin colour, God has made me what I am. So, please understand us, before you judge us.”