Being Black in India

African students try to lead a normal life in India despite fears of racial discrimination.


The African community in India, among the largest foreign groups in the student population in the country, pans across several cities like Delhi and Bengaluru. Most of them come to India with hopes of getting better education, and some stay on to seek jobs. Though their stay in India is sometimes marred by racial discrimination and misunderstandings, they seem to have found a way to live with such incidences and constantly try to blend in.

“I had no idea about the Indian festival Holi, when I first came to India,” Grace Mutombo Umba tells Little India. “When I saw people in New Delhi roaming around with colors smeared all over their body, I felt I was in a crazy city,” says Umba, who came to India from Kinshasa, Congo, in 2011. Umba, 29, was keen to pursue a course in graphic and interior designing. “Moving here was easy cause my brother and some of my close friends were already in Delhi,” he adds.

The African community in India is constantly trying to break barriers of race, color, language and culture in the hope that they will, one day, blend in, in the country.

For many, stories of racial discrimination are mere tales and unless they face it themselves, they don’t want to believe in rumors. For Danny, who has now returned to Congo, things were fine until he was bullied and verbally abused by an Indian. “I faced a strange incident in 2013,” he recalls. “Me and my friends stopped at a 24×7 restaurant to buy some food, when a drunk man started making lewd comments at us. When we ignored him, he tried to attack us. We asked the others present at the store to help us, but no one came forward,” he narrates.

The communication gap that exists between the two communities is an issue that makes Africans worry about their safety and security in India. Tryphine Clara Dzimbanete from Zimbabwe, who studies at Christ University in Bengaluru, tells Little India that incidences of hate can rattle the community, but they have now mastered the art of survival.

“Some of us felt as if we may not survive the next day in India,” says Dzimbanete, who is also the vice president of the Federation of International Students Association in the city. “But I feel that these hate crimes are a result of misunderstandings between the two communities. As a woman, I fear for my safety, especially in public areas and it also makes me suspicious of my surroundings and the strangers I meet along the way.”

Cities like Bengaluru and New Delhi, that have a large population of Africans, are easier for them to settle in. “Most Africans live in Kammanahalli in Bengaluru and it now feels like a small African locality there,” says Dzimbanete. “I get to see a lot of African nationalities and get to converse with them,” she adds, talking about they share the African products that students bring back from their countries. A few small restaurants have also come up in the area that serve African food.

Tryphine Clara Dzimbanete at the Federation of International Students Bangalore Regime

Delhi too has some places that are favorite haunts of Africans, and offer African staples like dry fish, plantains and cassava leaves. “I visit INA Market to procure African ingredients that we get back home,” says Umba, who lives in South Delhi.

What astonishes many in the community is that light-skinned people from Africa do not feel discriminated against, and have a rather different version of their lives in India. Anour Hach, who holds a dual citizenship from Algeria and France, has not faced any discrimination since he came to India seven years back. “I am not a dark-skinned African, so I haven’t faced the kind of discrimination that my other friends from Africa talk about,” he says.

The discrimination faced by African nationals also eats away their job prospects. Hach reveals that many of his friends were denied employment due to their skin color. “It is very difficult for a colored person from Africa to land a job in India. Many of my friends have gone through rejections, not because they don’t have the qualifications, but because they are colored,” he adds.

But all is not lost, as some like Dzimbanete believe that India is full of opportunities that have not been fully explored, and all that the African community needs is a chance. “Indian companies should be open to offer jobs to African students,” she says, adding that they are supported in many ways by their Indian friends, especially when it comes to tackling discrimination practices.

“Besides Indian friends, organizations like Friends Beyond Boundaries (FBB) and ISHOINKA that work with African and other international students, are a huge help,” adds Dzimbanete.

The Federation of International Students in Bangalore is another such organization that deals with issues affecting African students, along with others like Pan-African Federation and Student Union India (PAFASUI), and Association of African Students India (AASI), which also help African students understand Indian beliefs and customs.

The members of the African community are stepping out of their cocoons and trying to socialize with others to blend in. “The church I go to in Delhi has helped me come out of my shell and meet people of different nationalities, including, of course, Indians,” says Umba. “I feel so much more at home when I am around them, knowing that they will be there for me.”

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