Their Indian horror: Africans recount everyday racism

  • Ravinder Vasudeva, Riddhi Joshi, Sudipto Mondal, Namita Kohli, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Oct 12, 2014 20:35 IST

Last month, a brutal attack on three African students at the busy Rajiv Chowk metro station in New Delhi shook the sizeable African student community in the capital. According to several news reports, one of the students took to Facebook and described the attack as one that was triggered off when the African students asked co-passengers why they were clicking their (the African students’) pictures. Subsequently, the passengers started “misbehaving” with the students, after which they were all taken to a police officer’s cabin. Several racist comments later, a fight broke out between those who were present there and the three students, who were severely beaten up.

The incident brings back memories of the fatal attack in 2012 on Yannick Nihangaza, a young Burundi national and student of computer science at a university in Patiala. In July this year, Nihangaza succumbed to the injuries that were inflicted on him.

India is not new to incidents of racist violence and neither is India’s African community, many of whom testify to the everyday racism that they face, right from just after they land in the country. From being overcharged by auto and taxi drivers to being the butt of racist jokes, the subject of racist comments based on their skin colour, and being branded as ‘drug-traffickers’, Africans in the country face it all.

And it isn’t as though some metropolises are friendlier than others. Africans living in cities across India seem to face similar problems: not being allowed to enter pubs, encountering difficulties in finding decent accommodation because landlords are "suspicious" of Africans owing to their own prejudiced view that all Africans are criminals. Earlier this year, AAP leader and former Delhi Law Minister, Somnath Bharti led raids in Delhi’s Khirki village, accusing the Africans there of running prostitution rackets and "peddling drugs".

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Racial stereotypes are also clearly divided along gender biases. While African men are sterotyped as "dumb", "dangerous" and "prone to violence", the women are branded as sex workers. Significantly, instances of discrimination and violence are felt not just by African nationals but also by African-Americans. They reveal that they too have been subject to comments about their skin-colour, been questioned about their country of origin, and in extreme cases, faced physical violence on the streets.

Some Africans such as Ayodeji Aiyesimoju (25), a student in Noida, feel "disappointed" that such incidents happen in a democracy, one with which African countries such as Nigeria share strong economic relations. "The trade between Nigeria and India amounts to several billion dollars. Such incidents would affect the trade as well," he says.

Apart from the fact that racism is hateful and ugly, homegrown racists would do well to remember that students like Aiyesimoju,who travel to India for higher education at private universities, pay twice the amount of tuition fee as an Indian student does. "African students in Jalandhar have also resulted in the proliferation of the Paying Guest business here," says Aman Mittal, deputy director of LPU. Unfortunately, all this hasn’t translated into a pleasant life for Africans here and a few express cynicism about their Indian experience. "In this country, even Kashmiris, who are from the same nation, are not spared discrimination. Here, I see racism everywhere," says an African student. Given the recent unsavoury incidents, he is probably right.

‘Accused of being a nuisance’

Yannick Ntibateganya, a Burundi national, at Patiala aviation club before being air-lifted back to his countries. He succumbed to his injuries this year.

Africans studying in Punjab feel that they are definitely discriminated against and that racial hatred and racist stereotypes persist. In the recent past, there have been two incidents of violence involving African students in the state. In both the cases, the Africans involved have alleged discrimination at the hands of the police. In April 2012, Yannick Ntibateganya, a Burundi national who was studying at Jalandhar’s Lovely Professional University (LPU) was brutally beaten by nine locals, most of whom belonged to affluent families. Investigations into the incident only started two months later, after Yannick’s father Nestor Ntibateganya took up the matter with the chief minister of the state. The murderous attack left Yannick with severe head injuries and he remained in coma for a couple of years before he was airlifted to Burundi in June this year. Yannick succumbed to his injuries a month later. Seven of the accused men were convicted and sentenced to 10 years rigorous imprisonment by a Jalandhar court for attempt to murder.

In another incident that took place in June 2013, the local police booked as many as 21 African students following a brawl with a Jalandhar-based resident. In the FIR, the accused were referred to as ‘kale’ (blacks). A human rights body from the Democratic Republic of Congo has since taken up cudgels against the police for the alleged use of the derogatory word ‘kale’ in an FIR.

The incidents seem to have intimidated many in the African community in Punjab and as a result, many are reluctant to discuss the issue with journalists. Currently, students from African countries such as Nigeria, Burundi, Zambia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rawanda, Tanzania and Ghana are living in several areas in Jalandhar and Phagwara.

"There is a sense of fear among Africans. It has become difficult to even talk freely without the fear that we may become targets of racial discrimination," a majority of African students told this reporter. "Kale (Blacks) and Negros — this is how students from African countries are referred to" said a student. Racial prejudice is evident in the areas where they live. Contrary to evidence from shopkeepers in these localities, many residents still insist that African students "are a nuisance".

Even State politicians are guilty of such prejudices. During a recent debate in the state assembly on a bill regarding the setting up of private universities, a few senior leaders objected and asked the government to "check the activities of students from Africa who are admitted in private universities".

African students say they feel handicapped as they are unable to converse in the local language. As a result, it is difficult to handle the policemen who stop them at every corner. "We are accused of being drug addicts!"students said.

'Even at parties, guests ask me if I sell drugs’

K Kwasi*, 39, has been married for three years but says he won’t start a family till he can return to the US. "I don’t want my kids to face the discrimination I face in India, especially in the metros," he says. "Everyone here thinks I’m a drug peddler, especially in Mumbai. I cannot drive my car without being stopped by the police and questioned. Even at parties, I am stopped by other guests and asked if I sell drugs."

A software entrepreneur, Kwasi moved to Nashik from the US in 2004, to set up a business there. "Back home, I used to work for a company based in India. I had a good friend in Nashik who said, ‘Why don’t we set up our own enterprise together?" he says.

Read: Violence, abuse part of life for Africans in Delhi

Initially, he tried to settle in Mumbai as the woman he was dating, and is now married to, lived there. But he gave up and decided to move to Nashik after three years. "Finding a flat in Mumbai, for instance, was next to impossible for me," he says. "I finally managed to lease a place in Malad, where I stayed for three years. But that was only because it was a new building and the housing society hadn’t been formed yet. I think smaller towns are more accepting than metro cities and I am certainly more comfortable in Nashik." He now runs a software business and chain of retail stores there, which employs 200 people.

Married to an Indian, Kwasi says his wife’s family was also very resistant to the union at first, mainly because of his colour.

That discrimination, too, persists.

Some time ago, while visiting his wife’s aunt, he was asked to remain in an inside room until the other guests had left, so as not to cause embarrassment to the family. "I didn’t want to create trouble, so I complied," he says. "But then, it was time for us to leave and the other guests were still there, so I was asked to take a back exit."

Kwasi still visits Mumbai frequently, because his wife’s parents live there.

"I am never allowed entry to a pub in Mumbai," he says. "Every time, the rest of the group will walk through and I will be stopped. Usually, I’m politely told that it’s a private party and outsiders aren’t allowed. I have now stopped going to such places," he says.

It’s all about public perception, and the media has a large role to play. "When Indians visit Ghana, they aren’t discriminated against at all. We have had Indians in our country for several years and we like them," he says. "But the Indian media only writes about African drug dealers, never about an African who has aced an exam, is doing social work, or set up a company that is creating jobs and employment. This has to change."

Until it does, Kwasi plans to move back to the US as soon as possible. "I am working towards setting up a system through which I can run my businesses in India from the US," he says. "Once that’s done, I’ll be out of here.

*Name changed on request to protect identity

‘I am used to men calling me ‘blacky’’

Much before it earned the IT capital tag, Bangalore was known as the ‘student capital’. Thousands of students from Central and East Asia as well as Africa have been coming here since the early 1970s.So it came as a rude shock when, in the summer of 2011, many pubs imposed a discreet ban on the entry of black people. The owner of a city pub even said on live television: "Blacks are more incliced towards violence". The pubs were forced to fall in line when the then chief minister BS Yeddyurappa threatened to revoke their licences.

In 2013, Wandoh Timothy (44), an Ivory Coast national, was attacked by a mob that kept calling him "Negro" and "African". Ironically, Timothy holds a Person of Indian Origin (PIO) card because he is married to an Indian. On the recent attack on African students at a Delhi Metro station, Timothy says: "I don’t know why but people’s attitudes towards the so-called ‘outsiders’ has changed a lot in the last few years."After his attack, Timothy says he has become more wary but bears no grudges. "As a good Christian, I have forgiven the people who attacked me. I have withdrawn my complaint. I think after this gesture, they will never again attack somebody for the colour of their skin," he says.

Cristelle Kouassi, 21, from Ghana, however, feels that the city is yet to learn its lessons. "Recently, my friend and I were not allowed to enter a pub. The bouncers told us the place was closed but they allowed others to enter," she claims. Her friend Osseyan Chiakafou Rine (19) from Ivory Coast says she is routinely heckled by men who call her "Blacky". "I am used to men coming up and asking ‘how much?’" she says.

‘It is very hard for Africans to rent decent housing’

Ayodeji Aiyesimoju

Ayodeji Aiyesimoju, 25, says he understands the need to be "diplomatic" when in a foreign country. He has made sure that he expresses enough interest in Indian food — even if sometimes it’s only vegetarian — and Indian ways of living, to bring himself closer to the new country he has been calling ‘home’ for the last year. A student of Journalism at the Sharda University in Greater Noida, Aiyesimoju says he has even made enough friends now to get by in the country. Despite the diplomacy, however, there are times when he says he is treated like a "persona non-grata". "All people are not the same," he says, "but some do hold negative views about Africans". "Last week, when some students from Tanzania, living in Greater Noida, refused to allow some people from the colony to enter their house, the people beat them up with cricket bats."

Aiyesimoju describes his experience in India as a "mixed one". He has been the victim of racial stereotypes of "dumb black men" even as there have been instances of friends apologising for speaking in Hindi in front of him. On the streets, Aiyesimoju says he has been mocked. After he started learning Hindi, it became clear that foul language was being hurled at him.

Aiyesimoju feels that the racial sterotyping and discrimination stems from the portrayal of Africans as "drug-traffickers and criminals" in the media. "In the international media, Asians and Africans are always portrayed as criminals, terrorists and frauds. They focus on reports around drug trafficking that involves Africans, and then everyone gets painted with the same brush." In such an environment then, African students such as him face trouble finding decent accommodation, and even when they do, they "can be evicted in 24 hours".

Aiyesimoju, who decided to come to India last year — instead of going to the United States, where his family stays — to understand the challenges faced by a fast-developing country such as India. "I had thought Indian people were as warm and welcoming as those in Nigeria. I had thought that Indian people would be just like they are in Bollywood, singing and dancing all the time. I had no idea this would be the case," he says. But Aiyesimoju adds that while such incidents are indeed "saddening and disappointing", they are not completely discouraging. "I have had some very good experiences too. I have travelled in India and lived in the homes of Indians, who have been quite welcoming," he reveals adding that he believes that much of the discrimination is a result of a lack of education. "People in a democracy need to understand that they can’t take the law in their hands. Respect the law and let it take its own course and decide who is a criminal and needs to be punished."

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