For over a decade I have been fascinated with India. Perhaps it stems from the childhood curiosity with a Hindu friend’s religion. At sleepovers, I’d spot a little shrine in her house. At its centre was the sculpture of a many-limbed man, often adorned with colourful flowers. The smell of incense from the shrine wafting through the house and overpowering even the ever-present aromas of cardamom, chilli and cloves.
Or perhaps, much closer to adulthood, it was the close friendship I struck up with an Indian girl who looked more east than south Asian, making me aware for the first time of the wildly different cultural, ethnic and religious groups all housed under India’s flag. We spoke of the great railway links that criss-crossed the country and how together one day we ought to travel those ancient tracks. Well that day finally came. My old friend was getting married and I, needing no better excuse, booked my ticket to India. It would have been pointless to go that far and not take the opportunity to travel so I took two weeks off to discover northern India before catching a flight and making the nauseating road trip to the scarcely visited but beautiful Shillong for the wedding.
Now, a grown woman, India’s appeal was only stronger. I was keen to earn my backpacker stripes first in India’s pulsating and chaotic capital, Delhi, then on the road to Agra (home of the Taj Mahal) and finally, on to Jaipur. As a writer with an interest in African and world affairs, I was also fascinated by this giant nation, that from my perspective has so much in common with much of Africa: from a shared colonial master to other tragedies like the crippling effect of usury interest rates on smallholder cotton farmers.
And India’s relationship with the continent is often lauded as a partnership of equals. Long before India was able to give China a run for its development assistance in Africa, it provided technical support (Ghana’s coast guards, for example, have had training on Indian bases) and education for intellectual elites. Malawian President, Bingu Wa Mutharika, was himself Delhi educated. Learning that there are 3 thoroughfares in Delhi which pay homage to Africa – Africa Avenue, Kwame Nkruhmah Marg and Nelson Mandela marg – I was even more excited about what I was to find and equally curious to discover what it means to be an African in India.
But first, I had to embrace the chaos. On day one of my travels, I quickly found myself elbowed out of the way as people took the gap between me (standing politely behind the yellow line) and the person being served as an invitation to move in! Nor does securing a seat on said Metro make me exempt from sharp elbows. Whatever space is left in between seats, if a person can squeeze themselves into it, they will.
I found it easy to adapt to these particularities, after all, I’ve travelled between Cape Coast an Accra in a trotro, whizzed through Nairobi in a matatu and taken a shared taxi in Douala which can seat as many as 7 people – excluding the driver! Later, when I met a young English couple and a Black-American mother and daughter pair, all complaining bitterly about their time in Delhi, I was glad I had my African experiences to draw on and keep me sane.
Still, India’s the world’s second most populous country and nothing quite prepares you for the swarm of humanity, many emaciated and clearly homeless; for the aggressiveness and persistence of north India’s street kids (one jumped in an auto-rickshaw with me, pleading – as the driver scolded – for me to give him money.) Nothing prepares you for the filth that is no respecter of peoples. Even in well-heeled neighbourhoods, animal and human faeces and all other manner of trash keep the pedestrian eagle-eyed, in a desperate attempt to beat this most pungent of obstacle courses.
What I could not have reached within my psyche to cope with were the incessant stares. Usually on my travels, white is premium currency. My skin colour allows me to slip away from eager vendors largely unacknowledged but here, it’s the opposite. My every move is observed, my picture constantly taken, my conversations listened to with unabashed openness. At one tourism attraction in Jaipur, I turn around mid-conversation to find more than a dozen people have surrounded me to listen in. But no one would tell me why I was the flavour of the month. That is, until I meet a Sikh auto-rickshaw driver.
The conversation begins like many of the exchanges I’ve had with locals. The opening question is always: “Where from Ma’am? Nigeria?” As I shake my head, he guesses again: “Ghana? South Africa?” I can’t decide if he’s exhausted his knowledge of African countries or has simply decided that the others don’t matter. So I decide to probe a little: “Are there many Africans in Delhi?” I ask.
“Oh yes!” comes the reply. “Nigerians are many here. Some people from Ghana I like but Nigeria…” He trails off, waving his hand mid-air and from side to side in a way that indicates, what I can only assume, is his disapproval. Slightly irritated, I decide to drop it but a few minutes later, he pipes up again.
“If you want to see Africans, you have to go there.” he says, pointing at a monolith by the side of the road.
“What is it?”
“The Supreme Court. If you want to see Africans, go to the courts when they give bail and you will see 30-40 outside.”
As we wind our way through rush hour traffic (the unspoken rule here is to drive where ever there is space) my guide to Africa in India, explains that numbers from the continent have grown in direct proportion to India’s drug trade. I hazard that not all Africans in India are drug dealers but he seems unable to accept that proposition. And he’s not the only one.
I make friends with an educated young professional, employed at an international NGO. Meeting in Saket mall – a sprawling tribute to the capitalist ideal and her suggestion, as she promises to show me “how the middle classes live” – I recount my conversation with the Sikh rickshaw driver. She asks me to forgive his ignorance, but then in her next breath, proceeds to substantiate all his claims. “There are significant numbers of Nigerians coming to India to deal drugs,” she says. “Many are housed in sub-standard accommodation because landlords won’t rent property to them.”
Upon my return, a data search on African immigration to India comes up with nothing. What does become apparent though is that prejudice against Africans is not only prevalent but, as this article about the difficulties for Africans to rent property in Delhi shows, it’s unrepentant.
Yet, it is not only Indians who hold negative stereotypes of Africans. From Italy to Australia, Uganda to South Africa, west Africans in particular, are thought to all be drug dealers. But by the end of my second week on the subcontinent, it was the staring I could scarcely stand. I dread to think what it must feel like to live with that on a daily basis. Trying to reassure me, my young friend says: “it’s not so bad. Africans only come to malls because hardly anyone pays attention here.”
And she was right, aside from the small number I spotted at Saket, nowhere else on my travels through north India did I meet other Africans. And I was not the only one who’d noticed. Back in Delhi, an elderly American gentleman comes up to me, running and shouting while still some distance away: “You’re the first black person I’ve seen in three days!”
It would be too much of a leap to try and understand India’s foreign policy from anecdotes collected over a two-week adventure. But what I experienced tells me that while India’s government might warmly welcome relations with African states, back at home, the reception is considerably more frosty.