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.
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.
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.”
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.