I’ve lived with Africans and this is what I learnt

A country that doesn’t even respect its own citizens can never respect foreigners.

 |  8-minute read |   29-03-2017
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I am rather saddened to hear of the recent attacks on Nigerians in Greater Noida. These attacks, over the spurious charges of murder and cannibalism, only go to show how racist Indian society has become. From Athiti Devo Bhava (“the guest is equivalent to God”), our welcoming maxim seems to have morphed into Athiti Ko Bhagao (“get rid of the guest”).

In 2014, a mob beat up three students of African origins at Rajiv Chowk Metro station. Last year was witness to a spurt of such racially motivated attacks. A Tanzanian woman was assaulted by a Bangalore mob that also set her car on fire. A Congolese man was beaten to death in Delhi’s Vasant Kunj area. Over a dozen African nationals were attacked in Rajpur Khurd village in South Delhi. Several such attacks go unreported as the police often refuse to file complaints.

These attacks always have an apparent reason for the mob to mete out their punishment. Sometimes they claim the African in question was eve-teasing a local woman (somehow the millions of times Indian men do the same doesn’t galvanise these mobs enough to protect their Indian sisters). Sometimes the Africans are accused of peddling drugs (because as we all know Udta Punjab is full of flying Nigerians).

Often Africans are accused of having parties and making noise (after all, we Indians are very quiet people on the four days out of 365 when we are not appeasing our gods with item songs). And now a mob accuses Nigerians of cannibalising a young boy and breaks into their homes to check their refrigerators (Indians who think that Nigerians are cannibals just because their neighbours said so are no different than the American who thinks that all Indians are savages who eat monkey brains just because Amrish Puri did so in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom).

I know a thing or two about living with Africans and would like to share my experience in a bid to dispel some of these ridiculous notions that Indians seem to hold.

Between 2003-2009, when I was studying and working in the UK, I happened to live with some Nigerians in Cardiff, Wales. This was not something I had exclusively planned. My only introduction to Nigeria before this was Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart which won me with its allegorical depiction of the clash between civilizations.

My Indian friends were quite baffled as to why I would choose to live with Nigerians and not them. They even held an intervention where they opined that I was “losing touch with my roots” and “becoming a wannabe”. I explained that I didn’t leave 1.2 billion behind just so I could come to another country and have parathas and listen to Daler Mehndi on “Desi Nights”. Indians abroad can get very clannish and I had no intention of living with people who argue over important issues such as whether the Punjabi food in Amritsar was better than the Punjabi food in Delhi.

I wanted to immerse myself in another culture. I wanted to come back to India with new experiences, new stories, a new understanding. Before the Nigerians, I had lived with people from England, Pakistan, Greece, Australia, Scotland, Mexico, Portugal and Wales. For a month, I even lived with a Chinese girl from Guangzhou (she asked me to move out when I nearly set the house on fire while cooking a Vindaloo curry).  

So when Yusuf, an acquaintance from university, told me that he was looking for a flatmate, I immediately jumped onboard. That is how the four of us (Yusuf, his brothers Ibrahim and Idris, and I) ended up sharing a house in Cardiff’s Roath district for nearly two years.  

Our acquaintance quickly turned to friendship. I soon realised that the Nigerians are an animated lot which has much to do with their weakness for music. I would often come home from work to find a happy gathering of people. Everyone and their grandmother was invited. Soon I became so ingrained into the group that I would go on road trips around UK with the boys, play football with them at times in Roath park or regularly go to house-parties hosted by other African students living in Cardiff.  Ibrahim cooked for all of us but took care to make me a separate stew as I didn’t eat tuna. Idris often drove me to work. Yusuf and I would load trucks for beer money.

africa-body_032917124911.jpg A country that doesn’t even respect its own citizens can never respect foreigners.

Through their friends I discovered the literature of Ben Okri and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I got used to the esoteric hip-hop and jazz playing around the house at all times. Tumi Williams, another Nigerian and a critically lauded musician who will be playing at Glastonbury festival this year, introduced me to the helter-skelter rhythm of Fela Kuti, to the soulful voice of Asa and the Afrobeat of Tony Allen (I later learnt that two of my favourite rappers, Nas and Tyler, The Creator, also had Nigerian roots).

We all got drunk at Yusuf’s wedding. His Pakistani wife and I used to converse in Hindi while everyone around talked in Nigerian. I got used to the sing-song Pidgin English being spoken around the house and even picked up a few phrases to jump into conversations (Wetin Dey – “how are you doing?”, You no dey hear – “you’re not listening!” and, my personal favourite, You dey craze – “you’re crazy”). We giggled on hearing Leonardo DiCaprio use the same phrases in Blood Diamond.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that the African diaspora, much like the Indian one, mostly comprises hard-working people from all walks of life. Any community cannot be judged for the actions of a few bad apples.

The recent attacks on foreigners are an example of an entitled majority having a go at the "other". We have no rights as a nation to criticise America or Australia for racist attacks on Indians when we do little to quell the continuing assaults on Africans in our country.  It seems that while we have stolen the swag of their hip-hop (which is evident in most Bollywood tracks these days) or the cheer of their fashion, we simply don’t see them as equals.  

Simon, a Nigerian footballer who has lived in India for a decade and who I know from his years in Calcutta, had something to say on the matter. “My desire to live in India has changed drastically after the attacks in Bangalore and Delhi. I have faced cruel racial abuse from Indians over the years. Everything is black and white and the colour of our skin. Even going to the shops or using public transport is a challenge with everyone abusing me and calling me “black monkey”, “kalu” etc. I don’t feel safe or respected here. I don’t want to live in India anymore and will probably go back home. But, before going, I want to tell Indians that the grave does not know whether you are black or white, Indian or African."

I remember Yusuf saying that he wanted to visit India because he grew up watching movies starring Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra in Nigeria. He thought he’d like authentic Indian food because it’s spicy, just like Nigerian food. But now I’ll tell him to skip this godless land that pretends to be holy. This cowardly nation that pretends to be the next superpower.

I’ll tell him to go to Little India in Singapore if he wants to see how Indians live. I’ll tell him to go Wembley in London that hosts the best of Indian cuisine. I’ll tell him to go to India Square in Jersey City, New Jersey to see how Indians abroad can thrive in another country even as they don’t want others to thrive in theirs. I’ll tell him to go to Cambodia if he wants to see a Hindu temple (because the ones in India probably won’t allow his Pakistani wife to enter them).

This India does not respect its own citizens if they raise a slogan. It does not respect its own citizens, who have lived here for 1200 years, if they are not Hindu and want to eat meat. It does not respect its own citizens who dare to question their government. A country that doesn’t even respect its own citizens can never respect foreigners.

I’ll tell Yusuf to go to any of the aforementioned Little Indias instead of the big one, the real one, the India I live in. Because, like the home speaking in African poet Warsan Shire’s poem, I don’t know what this India is becoming but I know that any of the other Indias is safer than this one.  

Also read: A white-skinned woman's unfair experience of racism in India

Writer

Abhishek Sikhwal Abhishek Sikhwal

Abhishek Sikhwal is a Calcutta-based writer.

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