Rights

Charity Begins At Home

African Encounters with Racism in India: Episode 3

Charity & Friends/South Africa/Manipal © Mahesh Shantaram

Charity & Friends/South Africa/Manipal ©Mahesh Shantaram

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.


KwaZulu-Natal is a province in South Africa of which Durban is the most important city. Every year, thousands of students from underprivileged backgrounds apply to the KZN government for sponsorship to study medical technology abroad. A meritorious few get selected. They are expected to finish their studies and return home to help build the public health sector.

The programme ran into controversy when a few students cut short their course in Cuba and returned pregnant. This left the government ’embarrassed’ at having to answer uncomfortable questions about wasted public funds over errant students.

In 2014, a new batch of medicos was assigned to Manipal University in India. Three days before their departure, the health minister organised a farewell dinner in Durban, where he sprung a surprise carrot at them. To avoid the ‘Cuban pregnancy scam’, it was declared that all the women in the group were to be implanted with a contraceptive that would prevent them from getting pregnant for three years!

The questions concerning human rights is surely a discussion for another day and place. One of the students, Charity Majola, said to a local daily, “I will agree to it for the sake of everyone, so that we ensure that money is not wasted. You know all this joy and all the warm words from everyone have really put a lot of pressure on us to perform.”

Stories like these get me thinking about the personal sacrifices that young adults make – and of such gravity! – when they leave home for distant shores to secure their future.

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Charity/South Africa/Manipal © Mahesh Shantaram

Charity/South Africa/Manipal © Mahesh Shantaram

I made a trip to the student town of Manipal, about a couple of hours drive from Mangalore. Over lunch at the university, I had long conversations with some of the professorial minds in the life sciences department about racism and allied topics.Then I spoke to some African students who are living out the daily practicals. I met Charity and her friends from a batch of thirty South African scholarship students, oldest of the ‘Born Frees’, a generation that has never witnessed the apartheid regime in their country.

When I first spoke to Charity, she told me, “I’m not in an area where we face real racism. If racism is there, I haven’t come across it yet.” But when I met her in person, it took only minutes to hear a different story. For example, African students do not feel welcome to sit at the common areas of the hostel lobby. The security guards chase them away in no time. But exchange students from the Netherlands are often seen hanging out there and nobody tells them anything.

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Natoya/Jamaica/Manipal © Mahesh Shantaram

Natoya/Jamaica/Manipal © Mahesh Shantaram

Everybody remembers where we were and what we were doing when the news broke out on that fateful day in December 2012.

So does Natoya. In the port town of Ocho Rios in faraway Jamaica, she was getting ready to go to the bank to prepare a wire transfer. She had just been accepted into the prestigious All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) university in New Delhi. At that moment, there was a breaking news alert on TV: #Nirbhaya

Natoya decided against going to Delhi. It took her two years to get over the shock and find a place suitably distant from Delhi to pursue her medical studies. That’s how she came to Manipal.

Little did she imagine that being a black woman in India would become a matter of daily combats. People would literally stop and stare at her, sometimes even spit. All she understood was ‘African!’ If she tried to stop and give them a geography lesson – that Jamaica is not in Africa – they’d run away or verbally abuse her.

And then those awkward solicitations from men who don’t know how to take ‘no’ for an answer. Natoya’s fellow students, several years her junior, haven’t seen the world as much as she has. They are fair-weather friends who enjoy the exotic value of her company but hesitate to be seen in public with her.

Close to two years in Manipal, Natoya’s found her peace and her space. Her mantra is to keep her head up, stay focused on studies and forgive people for their ignorance. This portrait was made in her new two-bedroom apartment where she lives by herself with only a Bible for company.

Charity & Natoya at Manipal University

Charity & Natoya at Manipal University

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© Sipho Mpongo from the series Born Free

© Sipho Mpongo from the series Born Free

End Note

Sipho Mpongo is the archetypal ‘Born Free’. At the age of 21, this budding young photographer won a coveted human rights fellowship from the Magnum Foundation for his work on the Born Frees.

However, a strange twist in Sipho’s life saw him indicted in a case of sexual harassment against his college-mate at the University of Cape Town. Sipho was charged with 65 hours of community service. Not only did he serve his sentence, he also turned his process of repentance into a public art project, offering an artist’s response to understand and share the problem of patriarchy in society. Dear South African Men is a coming-of-age story like no other.

In contrast, a familiar way out of a similar situation would be to use muscle power; to file a civil defamation suit against those who speak out against sexual harassment, as one Indian photographer and curator did.

Stories so far:

Episode 1: Journey of a Thousand Miles

Episode 2: Strangers in a Strange Land

Mahesh Shantaram is an independent photographer based in Bangalore. Find more of his work at thecontrarian.in. Email him at ms@thecontrarian.in.