Building Bridges to Peace for Africans in India

Acceptance and peace are necessary to build a cohesive community, and Indians in Africa have seen the benefits of that.

File photo of a protest in Bengaluru after a Tanzanian woman was attacked. Credit: PTI

File photo of a protest in Bengaluru after a Tanzanian woman was attacked. Credit: PTI

After hearing about the multiple acts of violence against Africans in India, I felt it necessary to respond to the senseless acts. My perspective is unique – I consider myself a Tanzanian-Indian-American. I was born in Tanzania to a Tanzanian father and an Indian mother. My paternal grandfather, who was orphaned at a young age, was taken to Moshi, Tanzania from Gujarat, India in the early 1900s. My grandfather settled in Tanzania and built a life for himself. Many years before I was born, he passed away. Although I never had a chance to meet him, what I know about my grandfather is that although his roots were Indian, he enjoyed living in Moshi and considered it his home.

As a third-generation Tanzanian, I have always thought of Moshi as home. Not only was I born there, I spent a significant part of my formative years in the town. Even as we maintained our Indian roots and culture, I consider myself Tanzanian because it is the only country that is familiar to me. While I have visited India three times, I have never stayed there for long periods and have only seen India as a tourist.

There are many reasons why Indians like myself have continued to not just survive but thrive in Tanzania. The first key component is acceptance. Long before I was born, in my grandfather’s time, Indians were welcomed in Tanzania. They were accepted warmly, despite cultural differences. In fact, Indian culture has become so intertwined with the local Tanzanian culture that samosas are sold at many street corners. Until we visited India, many of us did not know about the true origins of such food. My Tanzanian friends also appreciate other parts of our culture, such as Bollywood movies. Famous Hindi songs such as ‘I am a disco dancer’, in which Bollywood actor Mithun Chakraborty dances in flashy clothes, are well known.

Also read: How Can India Put an End to Racism Against Africans?

The second component is peace. Tanzania never had a civil war or religious strife. Although Christianity is the predominant religion, people of different religions have been able to practice their own customs. As a Jain, we celebrated festivals in our temple and opened it up to the rest of the community; people of other religions did the same. Acceptance and peace are necessary to build a cohesive community.

Africans have migrated to India as students and professionals. Just as Indians did in Tanzania, Africans have tried to build a life for themselves in India. Yet, the circumstances they face are far different from the treatment Indians received when they migrated to the African continent. In India, Africans have been given various labels – from ‘dark’ to ‘wild’ and ‘violent’. Indians see them as the ‘other’, which automatically builds a barrier between themselves and the Africans. Similar to the Indians who live in Tanzania, the Africans who live in India have a different but rich culture. However, instead of learning about their culture and building friendships, Indians are fearful of them. It is due to this mixture of fear, narrow mindedness and prejudice that people of African descent, women and men alike, have been subject to various kinds of harassment in India.

Also read: A Story of Racism in India

Atithi devo bhava’ is a Sanskrit phrase from Hindu scriptures, which essentially means that a guest in your home should be treated as god would be treated, with warmth and reverence. By virtue of that philosophy, I would imagine that any guest in the country, including ones who come from the continent of Africa, would be welcomed warmly and treated respectfully.

In Swahili, many proverbs talk about treating guests with love and respect. One of them, ‘Shereheka na mgeni wako kama vile ambavyo ungependa ushereheshwa ugenini,’ literally means ‘Celebrate your visitor as much as you would like to be celebrated as a visitor.’ Another one, ‘Usigombane na mgeni; siku zake ni chache,’ means ‘Do not fight with a visitor; his/her stay is short.’ All of these denote the kind of cultural experiences I witnessed in Tanzania.

African students in India demonstrate against racist violence. Credit: PTI/Files

African students in India demonstrate against racism. Credit: PTI/Files

It is clear that discriminative practices stem from deep-rooted hierarchies around colour and caste that exist in India. People fear those who do not resemble them. In recent years, I have heard of incidents in which Indians have felt offended when they are discriminated against in other countries. Violence against Indians has caused outrage within Indian communities abroad. Such violence forces us to condemn bias, hatred and xenophobia together.

Also read: ‘Africans Are Cannibals,’ and Other Toxic Indian Tales

I believe there are constructive ways to deal with cultural differences. First, the local community can come together to create spaces for dialogue. Through this dialogue, deeper relationships can form. As communities form stronger bonds, they will develop a better understanding of their inherent biases and discriminatory attitudes. Understanding these will help form a plan to combat discrimination. Second, as a bridge-building measure, local institutions can host orientation sessions between foreigners and locals. This will develop a better sense of unity between the groups. Lastly, we know that acts of violence take place because the justice system is not targeted to help the marginalised and laws are not enforced. Therefore, there should be a list of local organisations which can mediate matters, should misunderstandings arise.

People travel to different parts of the world and take their cultures with them. We cannot expect them to give up their beliefs just because they are in a different country. Instead, we can learn ways to live together peacefully.

Rupal Ramesh Shah, a Tanzanian-Indian-American, lives in Boston, Massachusetts where she works as a quality improvement consultant at Boston Children’s Hospital. She regularly writes for Spare Change News, a Boston-based street newspaper, and The Citizen, a national newspaper in Tanzania.

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