Strangers in a Strange Land

African Encounters with Racism in India: Episode 2

african encounters_spark

India takes great pride in its ancient civilisation, inclusive philosophy and internationalist world-view. But the country that many African students, workers and visitors encounter bears little resemblance to that self-image.

Bangalore-based independent photographer Mahesh Shantaram has spent months documenting the lives of African students and migrants across the country – the lives of those who have journeyed thousands of miles to study, work and live in India.

Tune in to ‘African Encounters with Racism in India’ every fortnight for a new episode.

There’s something that usually happens when I travel abroad. When I’m asked where I’m from, I say Bangalore, without any qualifiers. Everybody should know where Bangalore is. No excuses. More often than I’d like, the reply is, “Is that near Bangladesh?” (The only time I’ve been spared of this ignorance is last year. On a trip to Bangladesh.)

It came as a revelation to me that there’s such diversity in Bangalore. Sadly, that diversity does not make itself visible during a walk down M.G. Road on a Sunday afternoon. Africans are simply invisible in daily life. Back in Soladevanahalli (see Episode 1), I managed to gatecrash a party thanks to my friend Hassan. Over polite conversation, I had much trouble keeping up with nationalities over Zambian maize balls and boiled chicken.

Let’s see now. Is Central African Republic a country? Or a vague pointer to one? And the Republic of Congo, as it turns out, is an entirely different nation from the Democratic Republic of Congo? Really?! There are only two things in this universe that are infinite – Stupidity and Curiosity. (Yes, you heard it here first.) Both can be cured by googling around a bit.




Malawi - News of the Day: Woman brutally murdered, breast chopped off

Malawi – News of the Day: Woman brutally murdered, breast chopped off

She told me her name is Vitu. And that she’s from Malawi. Vitu studies psychology at a college in Bangalore. I felt a little uncomfortable that I knew nothing of Malawi. When I tried to roughly point towards it on the world map hanging above my desk, I missed it by half a continent.

It turns out that India has been welcoming African students for decades now. Back in 1964, a student from Malawi, Bingu wa Mutharika, came to India on an ‘Indira Gandhi’ scholarship to study Economics at Delhi’s Shri Ram College of Commerce. Mutharika founded the Association of African Students in India (AASI) that year. He also went on to become the third president of Malawi. The recently revived AASI celebrates Bingu’s Graduation Day every June to bring all fresh African graduates together under one roof.

Simbarishe / Zimbabwe

Simbarishe / Zimbabwe


Zimbabwe - News of the Day: The country is selling off its wild animals to beat drought

Zimbabwe – News of the Day: The country is selling off its wild animals to beat drought

For a long time, I’ve felt that if ever there is one leader in this world that I’d like to see the back of, its would be Robert Gabriel Mugabe. Naturally, when I met Simba, a brother from Zimbabwe, I bet a zillion zombie dollars (my 2 cents worth) that we’d connect over this fantasy at once.

Or maybe not. Simba looks up to the man who has been president for longer than he can remember, a man whose circle of life has been a wheel of amassing fortune. “He’s the most educated president in the world! He’s got so many degrees. Look it up on Google,” Simba challenged me. And so I did. Sigh.

What about that infamous hyperinflation? What’s it like living with that albatross round your neck, I wanted to know. In a manner of speaking, Simba’s course fees is hiked by 98%. Every day. Well, hakuna matata to that! Coming from a political family in Harare, it means no worries…

It becomes apparent that I need to put aside deeper conversations for another day. I was at somebody’s party, after all, and two beers down.

Later, curiosity led me to the work of a Zimbabwean photographer, Benjamin Rutherford, about as old as Simba. But his experiences growing up as a white Zimbabwean stripped of privilege led him to work on a long-term project about Zimbabwean diaspora in the UK. Benjamin writes, “I noticed that many felt that it was only the ‘whites’ that were affected by policy changes in the late 90s. I also found it interesting that many people chose to come to the UK, the former colonial power to find sanctuary. Yet unfortunately for many the UK is not very welcoming.”

Benjamin Rutherford: Zimbabwean Diaspora Diaries




Kelvin / Tanzania

Kelvin / Tanzania

There are only two things you need to fear in India. Corruption and racism.

Meet Kelvin, a business administration student from Tanzania. Those are his father’s words of advice, by the way. Kelvin’s father came to Bangalore all those years ago to pursue a B.Sc. His very first experience in India? As soon as he landed, the immigrations officer confiscated his passport and demanded a bribe to release it. As Kelvin now follows in his father’s footsteps, we see how the advice is not an inch out of place.

End note: Hey, Africa’s not a country! It’s actually 54 countries, only one of which is Nigeria. Take an interactive quiz to see how many African countries you can place on the continental map. I scored 50 points thanks to residual geography knowledge from school days. Your time starts now.

africa map_spark

The Africa Map Quiz: Click Here

Mahesh Shantaram is an independent photographer based in Bangalore. Find more of his work at Email him at [email protected].

  • The Wire

    Comment by Rohini

    This is an extremely condescending article. I have lived in Africa and am in love with it. I don’t know a thing about it when I went there and I feel that it’s a better place to be – no prejudices, no impressions.I got it all fresh through my experiences. Is th author abl to recognisea Kenyan from a Nigerian from a Zimbabwean from a South African? Can the author name African Languages or place people from their tattoos or English accents? Understanding the political ethos of the various parts of Africa is also part of that educations – Mugabe is NOT seen as a villain, unlike what the west makes him out to be. And while the west has decried blood diamonds, I wish the auhtor would take a trip to the desert regions and the Orange rivier mouth to see what diamond mining by the liks of De beers has done to the natural environment, with not a peep from the western environmentalists.
    ..and I am also Bangalorean and the author trying to put the onus on Bangaloreans to know about all of Africa is totally useless. I still don’t know Africa, after having lived there. And yes, it is not a place that is all peaches and roses and neither is it what the press makes it out to be – a place of war, disease and crime lords. Africa is unique – a beautiful land with good and bad intermingled. Just like India.

    Each person will find out as much as they are required to know about a culture as and when they come into contact with it. Asking a Zimbabwean, for e.g., where her country is and more about her country is NOT something to take umbrage fact, it is a positive that people in Indian are frankly curious about places they don;t know about. Look at it as a positive, not as a negative. For what can be better learning than to learn about places through the eyes of a citizn of that faraway palce – certainly, wikipedia cannot replace real life tales.