Racial row: Africans in India share their experiences

  • HT Correspondents, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Jun 10, 2016 14:32 IST
African students and refugees during an interaction session with Delhi Police Deputy Commissioner Madhur Verma at Delhi police Mess at Civil line. (Raj K Raj/HT Photo)

Last month saw a spate of alleged racial assaults in the national capital on people from African nations. While a Congolese man lost his life, after being allegedly assaulted and battered to death by three intoxicated men following an argument over hiring an autorickshaw, there were other incidents of violence too. Earlier in the year, a Tanzanian student in Bengaluru was assaulted, after a Sudanese national killed a local in a road accident. Much was said by the country’s political leaders following the attacks. While the attacks were not really condoned, there was an effort by some to downplay the severity of the incidents and a reluctance to accept them as racially motivated. Meanwhile, people from the African community in the national capital have renewed efforts to understand and assimilate with what they call the “Indian way of life” so as to cohabit harmoniously with locals. Hindustan Times speaks to a few from across the country to find out their experiences in India.

HYDERABAD: ‘Difficult to get house on rent’

Damilola Kazeem after he was injured in an alleged assault

When I came to Hyderabad three years ago, I had a very good experience with the people here. They didn’t interact with me much, but when they did they were very cordial. But over a period of time, I experienced several instances of racial discrimination, which have changed my impression about India,” says 23-year-old Nigerian Damilola Kazeem, who was injured in an assault by a local resident at Hyderabad’s Banjara Hills on May 25. The row had been sparked over parking issues.

Speaking to HT, Kazeem said he had chosen Hyderabad over other cities in India, because he was told this was the best place to study Information Technology (IT). “That is why I joined Bachelor of Science in computer sciences in Nizam College under Osmania University. The opportunities here are much better than in our country,” he says.

The India-Africa relationship has has many aspects. It is rooted in solidarity and fraternal feelings. The ties between government to government has been good. But whether Indian society is open to ‘outsiders’ the a question. The attack against Africans is not racial. But Indian people seem to have a problem to what they consider outsiders. The people from north east face problems in Delhi in a similar vein.

India and Africa have common interests to leverage in many areas. India enjoys a great deal of goodwill with them. India was never a coloniser, and stood by African countries in their struggle against colonialism. In some areas, Africa-India partnership has great potential such as skill development and capacity building.
JAMAN MOHAMMED MOOSA, Associate Professor, Centre for African Studies,School of International Relations, Jawaharlal Nehru University (As told to Jayanth Jacob)

Kazeem’s family is still in Nigeria, and he came here with friends for his graduation. Asked whether he had any problems in getting accommodation in the city, Kazeem said: “Oh, yeah; we had to face a lot of difficulties in getting a house on rent. Nobody was willing to rent a house to us; maybe it was because we are blacks. Finally, we found an apartment at Banjara Hills, thanks to some African friends who had already been staying here.”

Though those in his immediate neighbourhood are good, he says he has faced discrimination when he goes out. “When I came here I had no knowledge of Hindi or any other Indian language. I could only interact with people in English. Often I felt I was being cheated at shops. Even in RTC buses, I realised that I was charged more, but I had to pay because I could not argue with the conductor,” he said.

Since the May 25 incident, Kazeem has been staying at a friend’s house. Speaking to the media recently, Telangana Director General of Police, Anurag Sharma, said that there was no racial angle in the attack on the Nigerian student. “It was a spur of the moment action, during the course of an argument over parking of a vehicle,” he said. - By Srinivasa Rao Apparasu

BENGALURU: ‘No one wanted to sit with me’

David Amum (left)

David Amum is the secretary of the All African Students of India, Bangalore Chapter. He is also a fourth year student of Electronics and Communication Engineering. A citizen of South Sudan, he hails from the Upper Nile province. Finding accommodation was a big problem for him. “No one in the locality was willing to rent a place to me. Finally one person agreed, but he warned me that if there was a single complaint against me I would be thrown out the same day,” he remembers. Amum, however, decided to set an example and continues to live in the same house till date. There are, however, many cases where African students are made to pay almost double the standard rate for a house. Where `4500-5000 is charged for locals, Africans are made to pay over `7000, he says. College too was a lonely experience to start with. “I would sit alone on a bench and no one in class wanted to speak to me or sit next to me. After a week, a student named Shivakumar joined me on the bench. I asked him why he wanted to sit with me. He assured me that he wanted me to not be alone, and my race or country was not an issue with him,” he says.

Following the assault on a Tanzanian girl in Bengaluru earlier this year, the police commissioner had proposed an interaction between the police and African students in the city, to promote understanding between the two. “It did not happen, however. It would be good if such an interaction takes place,” says Amum. - By Cynthia Stephen

MUMBAI: ‘There’s little awareness about Africans’

Yaw Kwakye with his Indian wife Sharmeen

Yaw Kwakye, 41, says he is routinely denied entry to upscale pubs in Mumbai if he arrives by himself. “Usually I am stopped politely right at the door,” says the American businessman of Ghanaian descent. “At times my own friends have already arrived and are inside, but I am told that the place has been booked for a private party. I have stopped going to such places. I am fed up of trying to explain that I am not a troublemaker.”

Kwakye has lived in India for 12 years and employs 70 Indians at the software solutions company he runs in Nashik. His wife is from Mumbai, so they visit frequently and it is in Mumbai and other metros that he says he faces the most discrimination.

“I think when it comes to business, Indians are pretty open-minded and accepting of different nationalities and skin colours, but not when it comes to social interaction,” he says. “I have never faced any discrimination as a businessman, just the usual delays in acquiring permissions and licenses. But at parties I am usually asked — often in a friendly way — if I have drugs on me. When I say I don’t deal in drugs, people think I am lying and some even get upset.”

Interestingly, Kwakye doesn’t think it’s an inherent racism that is at fault. “I think it’s poor awareness about Africans because of their portrayal in the media,” he says. “We are still shown as the bad guys on TV and in movies. People don’t know any better, so they fear ‘Africans’.”

As an example, he cites his in-laws. Kwakye has been married to an Indian for five years. “That went without any problems as both families were accepting of the relationship,” he says. - By Riddhi Doshi

DELHI: ‘Was searched for drugs’

Levyf Lufungula of Congo at the private institute in New Delhi where he is training in computer networking (Saumya Khandelwal/HT Photo)

Levyf Lufungula, from Congo, was 19 when he came to India in 2011 to study business administration. He had chosen India over France because it was the land of Mahatma Gandhi, whose fight against apartheid in South Africa, had had a deep influence on him. Besides, he thought, he was more familiar with India, after watching Bollywood movies.

But, much to his shock, the India he experienced turned out to be completely different from what he had imagined. “I was living in Sant Nagar and when I walked down the streets, many people would call me ‘Kalu’,” he says. “In the second week after my arrival in Delhi, I was assaulted on the road by a group of Indians. I had never experienced such mob violence. I was shocked and scared. I called my parents and told them that I wanted to come back home.” On his parents’ advice, however, Lufungula stayed back to complete his studies. He shifted to the hostel of the private university in Gurgaon where he was studying. “I thought I would be safer in a hostel,” he says. But hostel life brought a fresh set of challenges.

Two months after he shifted to the hostel, the dean of the university called him to his room. There were a few policemen in the room with him. The dean told him that someone had complained that Lufungula kept drugs in his room and the police wanted to search it. “They found nothing, but it was difficult to deal with the feeling of being treated like a criminal,” he says.

We are missing the importance of Africa. African countries hold key to the future on many counts. They have got 60 per cent of arable land in the world for example. They are rich in minerals and hydrocarbon.

There are hardly any high-level visits to Africa from India.That makes Africans feel they don’t figure in India’s scheme of things in any significant manner. What stops the leaders from visiting at least very important countries in the continent? The leaders to leaders interactions are very important in boosting bilateral ties.

Africans for years urged India to set up universities there. As Indians waited, other countries such as Turkey, South Korea and the US made use of the opportunity. I was Indian envoy to Nigeria. Out of the 80,000 visas the Indian mission issues an average to Nigerians to visit India, 40,000 are for medical treatment. What stops Indian firms from setting up hospitals there?
Ambassador A R Ghanashyam, severed in seven African countries as Indian envoy, including concurrent accreditations. (As told to Jayanth Jacob)

The onus, he says, is on the Indian government to spread awareness about Africa in India. “The first thing they need to understand is that Africa is a continent, not a country. It has many countries with different people, different cultures, different ways of life. Ninety per cent of the Congolese people in India are students and they are not into drugs. There is a much better understanding of India in Congo, “ he says. Lufungula is presently undergoing training in computer networking at a private institute and will leave for home in November. “I am not bitter any more. I received a good education, improved my English, enjoyed Shah Rukh Khan movies, and met my finance (who is from South Africa) here. But I will not advise anyone in my country to come to India until the government can ensure their safety,” he says. - By Manoj Sharma

DELHI: ‘Cops often say attack was not racial’

Thomas* from Ivory Coast was beaten up by an auto rickshaw driver and his friends your years ago. The 25-year-old, who is starting his export business in India, lives in Dwarka.

“Many a time, the police will say that an attack was not racial in nature. They will say it was a normal dispute. In my case, they said it was an attack that stemmed from an argument. Why then, when they were raining blows on me, did they call me a ‘habshi’. That is clearly racial in nature. An argument can be about something else entirely but it will always come down to the colour and the race,” he says.

Thomas came to India in 2011. His parents are still in Ivory Coast.

Thomas has stayed back in India for five years because of the opportunities and also because he has made many friends here.

He came here as a student at a private university but couldn’t continue after the attack.

“There are some wonderful things about Delhi. There is a lot to do. There are many Africans who have started flourishing businesses. There is openness here. There is life. If you are ready to stay back, you can meet some great people. But the racial abuse never stops. You have to learn to live with it and not react,” he says.

Maria*, a Ugandan, who runs a hair salon in the Saket area, agrees.

“I have met some wonderful people in this country and in this city. I have regular Indian customers who have become my friends. Initially, starting this business was an uphill task because no one was ready to mix with us. The business is still mostly underground. Very few people know about it still because we face harassment from the locals regularly. We have to be 10 times more careful about any conflict as we are a vulnerable lot. The argument can be about the price of vegetables but once it escalates, it is always about race. I have been in Delhi for 10 years now, but I am always looked at as on outsider,” she says.

Both refused to be identified by their real names as they were worried about a backlash from the community they engage with daily.

“I don’t want my landlord to get offended. Finding a new house in Delhi is among the toughest tasks for us,” said Thomas. (*names have been changed) -By Mallica Joshi

Read: Africans in Delhi try to assimilate

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