Rishi Majumder trails Mumbai’s African Community, right upto their retreat into suburbia
Photographer: Sachin Haralkar (For Dongri); Raju Shinde (For Motinagar, Bhayander)
Darren James dresses on Sundays in his Isiagwu (a shirt like top), Agwa (a wrap) and opu ogudu (a cap) — all elements of traditional Igbo (a Nigerian tribe) outfit. He then joins 20 others, dressed like him, who’ve come to his flat to offer Christian prayer, imbued with Nigerian custom. Michael Agu calls a fellow Ethiopian every week with a wish-list of African music CDs containing songs — traditional and contemporary — that he can’t procure on the web. For Danny Waage missing South Africa means missing soccer. He drowns his sorrow in egusi Soup made from pumpkin seeds or pepitas (substitutes for the traditional egusi seed). James, Agu and Waage are among thousands of other Africans settling fast to mark out ‘black buildings’ in outer Mumbai suburbs like Mira Road, Bhayander and Vasai.
BACK TO BLACK
Anthropological theorists trace the African-Indian connection racially, to the Indus Valley civilization, and the subsequent Dravidian race. In a more recent context is placed the Sidis – India’s ‘own’ African race, settled here for centuries that result in them speaking local dialects only, with only a spattering of Bantu. Most African nationals who came to the country a decade ago at most and divide their time in months between homeland and Mumbai don’t know these histories. “Nigeria, like India, has so many natural resources — but we don’t utilize them well,” says Chiderra Jel, a garments exporter, switching off from the Sunny Bobo VCD we’re watching at Oomo, one of Dongri’s two African restaurants. “That’s why we come here to manufacture items which meet the demand back home.” Getting products manufactured as per order in Mumbai and sending them to their parent country is a choice of business for most Africans. Jel even gets traditional Igbo outfits, to be exported to Nigeria, stitched in Wada, Thane.
Oomo, a shack with chairs, tables and a TV only, is popular, as is Puku, as a rendezvous spot for Africans working and living around Mohammed Ali Road, enabling them to catch up in between their work, or after it. These restaurants don’t say ‘nonon Africans allowed’, but the lack of publicity about them and wariness about Africans in the area ensures a racial exclusivity to its clientele. “But I’ll be leaving this place too, like many blacks have, and move to Mira Road,” says Jem. “Even if it means a long travel to work.” The main reason cited by many Africans for this shift is discrimination by local residents, often culminating in a violent brawl, where the Africans are outnumbered. Suburbs like Mira Road, with their new buildings and cheaper prices, enables them to rent flats in the same building complex, so they can stick together for protection, and identity.
‘God Is My Strength’ is the name devoutly given to a sixth floor living room converted into an African restaurant. Located in a Bhayander building complex called Motinagar which houses Africans only, it draws a mixed crowd of Nigerians, South Africans, Ghanaians and Kenyans from every corner of the area. “Suji, plantain, egusi Soup,” Fafore, who owns and runs the place rattles off the regular fare which means home to many. “But for festivals we have special preparations of Yam and Bitter Leaf.” Fafore further says that for Africans in Mumbai, comprising a diverse diaspora in religion and nationality, “naming a common festival for all blacks is difficult”. The Yam Festival, however, serves as an important connect. For this harvest fest held at the beginning of August, those who don’t fly back home come to roost at one of the four African joints in the city with special preparations of pounded yam, bitter leaf soup and a multitude of fish and goat preparations, or meet at one of the suburban building compounds they live in to celebrate continent-hood. Another draw to these plain but cozy enclaves is the African music videos constantly playing on their TV screens. From traditional Afro beats to African hip-hop, Osayo Morejoseph, Sunny Bobo and 2Face connect to their countrymen, and connect them with one another. “We would have celebrated our festivals in a bigger way,” says Adamu Okuma, a Nigerian who is earning a business degree at Mumbai university and managing his uncle’s export import business simultaneously. “But to be honest, we are a little scared to do so.”
WHITE IS RIGHT
Okuma’s reason for not celebrating festivals in a “bigger way” is the same as that for Africans moving to far out suburbs to stay in ‘only black’ buildings. “Why do Indians think we are after their women?” at least four African youth asked. Agu displays two stab scars he received from a fight two months ago over the fact that he “just looked at a girl in Dongri”. Waage speaks of a girl who yelled and raised an alarm because a friend was asking for her number at a bus stop. This isn’t unusual. One can imagine an Indian boy being stabbed in ultra-orthodox Dongri for “just looking at a girl”. One can also imagine an ultra-orthodox Indian girl raising an alarm over a stranger at a bus stop, whatever his
nationality, asking for her number. Okuma steps in: “That guy got stoned by the locals over that phone number and had to take stitches.” Okuma proceeded to say that girls and guys alike would have a problem talking to him politely even if he asked someone the time.
“It’s all in the skin Babba,” Agu says. “You guys were dominated by people because you were dark. And now you’ve found someone who’s darker than you.” The 50 odd dirty looks from onlookers, counted in the time spent travelling with Agu and Waage to Mira Road station, might stand testimony to this. But prejudice isn’t so simple. A distinguishing factor among African youth, that Indians aren’t used to, is their muscular build and vibrant body language. Those not thus intimidated are perplexed at their accent. Waage, for instance, uses “Yep” and “Ahem” in nearly every statement. When he says “park the car” it sounds like “pork the cow”. Add to this the fact that the South African twang was evolved via colonial army men who barked out every statement to make even “I love you” sound like an infantry command, and it’ll be easier to fathom why a man behind the ticket counter started yelling at him when all he inquired about was a train pass price.
Quoted often to legitimize this bias is the large number of Africans (especially Nigerians) proven to be involved in the drug trade, and an ‘advance fee email fraud’ that induces you to send in small sums of money in the hope of winning millions, which is dubbed the ‘Nigerian Scam’ by crime syndicates because of the country it is mostly associated with. “But even if most of the foreigners caught for drug trafficking are Nigerians, most Nigerians are not into drug trafficking,” argues Okuma. “We comprise 60 per cent of the Mumbai’s African population. How can you generalize?”
This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India: http://alturl.com/45te