Africa on My Skin

Stories of India by People from Africa:  I

Following the spate of (allegedly racist) attacks on African nationals in India, Gaurav Kumar chronicles the impressions of some African students during their stay in India. 

“I have heard that they (Africans) eat all kinds of meat, and roam around naked after dark. You often hear that they deal in drugs, but nobody really knows what they do behind closed doors.”

-Anonymous respondent, Uttam Nagar, New Delhi

Herodotus, a Greek Historian, who died in 425 BC wrote that Africans resemble bats in traits such as their speech. More than 2000 years later, the image of animal-like African survives.Does it matter that Africa is not a monolith of a single race or country but a continent of 54 sovereign countries, nine territories and two de facto independent states? Within the continent we have a country like Nigeria where the strength of the Indian community is estimated to be 35 000. As per a brief on the website of Ministry of External Affairs, India, about 25,000 Nigerians obtained Indian visas in 2015, mainly for medical treatment, business or opportunities in tertiary institutions and higher education. From another country Zimbabwe,202 people used scholarships and fellowships provided by the Indian government (under ITEC and ICCR) in 2014-15 to come to India. Both these countries have their unique cultures, histories and traditions of engagement with India.

To many Indian minds, however, they are all Habshis(whether or not their ancestors came from the historical empire of Abyssinia, which was probably the root for this Arabic word) and Kalus (Blacks) with degenerate appetites and passions. Black skin becomes the destiny and defining story for anyone from Africa.

But what if we could hear not one, but multiple stories from the continent? Do people from Africa really have the time, money and desire to roam around drunk and naked after dark? What about Africans who are vegetarians? What about Africans who study crimes rather than committing them? What does a day in Delhi look like for some of these Africans? What stories would they want to share, if one tried listening?

Patience Ngamira, Zimbabwe


“…till spring, which slowly lifts /the heart, broke into prose

And suns you had forgotten/Blazoned from barrows.”

-Exile; Derek Walcott

Remembering the suns from her home country comes easily to Patience Ngamira. In her three years of studying Hotel Management, Travel and Tourism, at Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi, she hasn’t been able to make friends with any Indian student. She tells me that her headphones have been a great help. She tries to reach exactly in time for her classes, wearing her headphones, and leaves as soon as the classes are over.

Patience is a 23 year old undergraduate student from Zimbabwe, affectionately known as Africa’s Paradise. She tells me that her home country is one of the most peaceful countries in the world with one of the best climates, a place where smiling is extremely contagious and the people warm.While she was working at the Ministry of Higher and Tertiary Education in Zimbabwe she won The Indian Council for Cultural Relations Scholarship and came to India in 2013.

Her first shocking encounter was with the climate in Delhi. Highest temperatures that Zimbabwe experiences are between 37 and 38 degrees centigrade. The second was the visceral and blatant racism that she had no experience of. She tells me that it has reached a point where even if a group of people approach her from behind, or are anywhere close, she feels alarmed. She has been called Kalu and a monkey countless times. She cannot forget this one incident when she was called names and stoned by a bunch of boys. While trying to rent a flat, many a times the advance amount was returned to her after a couple of days because the neighbours in the locality objected to the presence of an African. She was thrown out of a restaurant in Greater Kailiash 2 because some of the patrons objected to her presence.

The university campus is no different . She describes an incident that happened in her class. “I remember this other time we were talking on how to improve the tourism trends in India. My professor was of the opinion that the only way to ensure that it happens is to make Delhi a safe destination for foreigners.

One guy who was sitting right next to me asked pointedly what the foreigners were doing in our country if they feel that Indians are racists. They should just leave India. I felt attacked because I was the only foreigner in my class.”

Her experience with Delhi police hasn’t exactly been reassuring. “Once we couldn’t get a cab in Hauz Khas village and had to walk from the village to a church in Green Park. When we got there a police truck full of policemen halted and the superintendent started hurling insults at us, calling us dogs. We sat down and asked what was wrong. We were told that there is a law in the Indian Constitution that doesn’t allow gatherings near holy places and that we had committed a crime by standing close to the church. Like, really? If the law enforcers can exhibit such racism, what examples are they setting for the general populace?”

Despite such bitter memories, India has given Patience many reasons to continue her stay. She loves the opportunities for education and employment in India,its affordable clothes, internet and a manageable cost of living. Her favourite food list includes chicken biryani and chicken momos that she tasted after coming to India. She tells me that back home they are more used to eating red meat, and chicken or poultry is reserved only for special occasions like Christmas.“I have had so much chicken here that when I go back home I will not be able to have chicken for years”, Patience tells me while laughing.

When asked to point out some differences in the cuisines of India and Zimbabwe, she recalls that her family doesn’t use as much of spices as people here do. They also avoid sweet things because they are supposed to kill appetite. “Our staple diet is Sadza, made from maize, green vegetables and meat. Here in India we improvise with sooji for Sadza, Palak for green vegetables, and meat”, she says. Whenever she wants to cook Zimbabwean food (which is most of the time), INA Market is her place to go to for the ingredients.

Patience misses her home most when she hears stories and news about racist attacks on Black people. Sadly, feeling like she doesn’t belong is a far more frequent experience. She had to leave a WhatsApp group because her classmates only talked in Hindi and rarely acknowledged her messages. Despite being the topper in her class for most of her undergraduate years, she was not given the allocated scholarship because she has a different nationality (while the rules on record say nothing about it, she insists).

She urges everyone to join hands in order to end this atmosphere of hostility and misunderstanding.“The highest population of Indians outside India lives in South Africa and you never hear of any cases of xenophobic attacks against Indians. They live in peace and without constantly having to look over their shoulders. If India really cherishes tolerance and diversity like we have heard, why can’t we replicate that arrangement here?” Patience asks.

Despite its hostility to the colour of skin she was born with, Patience wants to continue living in India. Africa, she would like to tell everyone, is so much more than dark skins and darker stories.

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