An Exploration of the Experiences of Afro Students in the South Asian Sub Continent

Abstract: The South Asian Sub continent, has been host to a slew of youngsters in pursuit of their academic goals many of them drawn from far flung continents, Africa, the Middle and far East, Asia and in the recent past, a sizeable number from Europe. Most of them seem to have been taken by the county’s rich traditions, diverse customs and professed hospitality. All seemed to be going well in the past but there is a growing disenchant slowly creeping in that could have far reaching consequences. Though not entirely out in the open, a sizeable number of these students are becoming increasingly frustrated with a society they believe is insensitive to their concerns. The paper will focus on the experience of Afro students in India.

Bio: John Patrick Ojwando is a Kenyan national who can also claim a little of Indianess. I did my schooling in Kenya then left the entire higher education in the hands of lecturers in India. I have pursued a BA course (Mohanlal Sukhadia University, Udaipur). Then followed it with an MS in Communication course (Bangalore University). Currently, I am in the final stages of my doctoral research program (Department of Studies in Communication and Journalism, University of Mysore) as a self financing research scholar under the guidance of Dr. N Usha Rani, Professor and Chairperson of the same Department. The working title of my study is “Treatment of Development News in the Print Media and its Correlation with the Non Governmental Organization’s Perception of Development News: A Comparative Study of India and Kenya.”

Email: ojpatrick @ yahoo.com

Greetings to Sarai/ CSDS fellowship holders and team Sarai/CSDS!

For someone like me who takes pride in making a living by writing about people and happenings in the society, it is becomes a tad difficult to turn the spotlight on myself. I will make an attempt though.

The Persona:

I am a Kenyan national who can also claim a little of Indianess. I did my schooling in Kenya then left the entire higher education in the hands of lecturers in India. I have pursued a BA course (Mohanlal Sukhadia University, Udaipur). Then followed it with an MS in Communication course (Bangalore University). Currently, I am in the final stages of my doctoral research program (Department of Studies in Communication and Journalism, University of Mysore) as a self financing research scholar under the guidance of Dr. N Usha Rani, Professor and Chairperson of the same Department.

The working title of my study is “Treatment of Development News in the Print Media and its Correlation with the Non Governmental Organization’s Perception of Development News: A Comparative Study of India and Kenya.” The study is an attempt to explore the linkages between Print Media and Non Governmental Organizations.

The study documents the experiences of the actors in these sectors in both India and Kenya.

I have also been involved in a couple of activities the most significant being the leadership roles in international students associations, and voluntary activities with organizations such as Seva Mandir (Udaipur) and Samvada (Bangalore).

Aside, I have regularly written articles for The New Indian Express, The Hindu and Deccan Herald and delivered a guests lectures in a couple of colleges, including Garden City College, Bangalore.

The Study:

An Exploration of the Experiences of Afro Students in the South Asian Sub Continent

A life hinged on uncertainties and overwhelming expectations, the world of students especially those on foreign shores present fascinating as well as bewildering prospects. Surviving separation from loved ones, battling cultural shock and keeping afloat the larger goal, of building a career are some of the regularly documented facets.

Intriguingly, underlying the same, there are other subtle difficulties that if not rebuffed- getting in place appropriate structures or calling upon the students’ survival skills and loads of enthusiasm- could be a recipe for disaster.

The South Asian Sub continent, has been host to a slew of youngsters in pursuit of their academic goals many of them drawn from far flung continents, Africa, the Middle and far East, Asia and in the recent past, a sizeable number from Europe. Most of them seem to have been taken by the county’s rich traditions, diverse customs and professed hospitality. All seemed to be going well in the past but there is a growing disenchant slowly creeping in that could have far reaching consequences. Though not entirely out in the open, a sizeable number of these students are becoming increasingly frustrated with a society they believe is insensitive to their concerns and the result is there for all to see. Many students of Afro descent are now over flying the South Asian Sub Continent that not in the distant past was a favorite educational haunt for hitherto not so popular destinations. Others who have stayed back feel an entrenched distrust between them and their local hosts, remaining strangers despite spending years living and studying in the country.

Some Concerns:

Is this the result of growing insensitivity or absence of suitable support systems? Is this the outpouring of a malaise that has been prevalent in the society but so far swept under the carpet? Or perhaps a bias ingrained in the society? This study will draw upon the experiences of students of African descent, and look at the unique educational convergence in the South Asian Sub Continent that seems to be under severe strain. The study will document their experiences, lifestyles, ways in whichthey have managed to keep afloat their aspirations inthe face of great odds, and some of the novel ways they have added or taken during their sojourn.

Further, it will make attempts to cast a glance at some of the institutions that have made their existence possible, if any.

Background to the Study:

The study draws its inspiration from an article I wrote and published in the Deccan Herald, a leading English publication in Karnataka State, Here, I reproduce the article for the benefit of readers.

The Hostile Dark Side of Hospitality

Outgoing, talkative and confident, their faces suggest they are quite comfortable far away from home and building their career seems to have taken a prominent space in their lives. But this confidence, if you may term it so, is betrayed by a lurking sense of insecurity with what goes on around them.

For Said Mohammed, a computer software student from Sudan, the lure of ‘foreign’ credentials was too hard to resist. Considering the educational prospects and cost of living, India turned out to be his best option. That was then. Having come to Bangalore, he has come to believe that amidst the hospitality of the local communities, there is an underlying bias directed against the dark skinned foreigners, something he never anticipated in a culturally diverse country like India.

Mohammed is not alone. He and the numerous other African students in the city have come to discover that apart from the demands of academic erudition, there is the added burden of dealing with highly prejudiced local communities attitudes and pressures. The co-existence between these students and their host is one fraught with a host of contradictions and hard feelings. In most cases, it is extremely difficult for the students to get decent accommodation. ‘Vacant-To Let’ boards often vanish mysteriously when they seek rental houses. Promises of getting a rental room by real Estate agents more often than not end up with the ubiquitous ‘do not feel bad, we are like this only.’ Only if and when one can cough the sometimes highly inflated advances or is a married person would he be considered worthy to stay in the same environment with their hosts.

Also, in colleges, many Indian students, males and females alike, find it hard to digest that some of their colleagues go out with their boyfriends of African descent or take them to their homes. They do not understand how their parents allow ‘such’ things to happen. The girls are more happy talking to these ‘friends’ within the safe confines of the college walls, preferably with a text book on their laps.

Some would be glad to exhibit their supposed ‘foreign’ friends at home but are worried what their neighbors will think of them. Invariably, some of these students have come to discover to that invitations extended to visits some of their hosts homes is usually out of curiousity and seen as a great favour to make them ‘feel at home’.

“Even after staying with my Indian friends for such along period of time, they still have their own prejudices,” regrets Thadayo Okatch Okunda, a graduateof law. I have always felt the need to associate more closely with the local people but the questions they ask often leave me baffled. I feel I should stay aloof,’ he adds referring to the common questions the students of African origin face regarding their sexuality.

No matter how swift the denial may be, it is clear different yardsticks exist for the ‘fair’ and ‘dark’ skinned foreigners in the Indian society. An African going out with an Indian girl is frowned upon and some find it unacceptable. At the same time, no objections are raised if it is a ‘fair skinned’ foreigner. Does this mean a ‘black man’ is seen as someone evil?

Some of the Indian girls who have ventured out with students of African origins often find themselves on the receiving end. They are branded ‘loose’ or ‘of low moral character’. They become objects of ridicule and attract all kinds of glances and passing remarks whenever they accompany their friends to social gatherings or public places. “It is something I have leant to live with,” confides Vidya, a hotel management student. “To me, I am not really bothered because it is our friendship that counts and as long as we have common interests skin color does not count,” she adds. One wonders why eve normal friendship is also taken to mean ‘something more’.

But does this mean Indians are racists? While many Indians would like others to believe racism is a western phenomenon, the Indian society is racist as well though this is often downplayed. The tendency is more pronounced in public places, transport systems ofsocial functions where the sight of persons of African descent attracts unwarranted glances. Many would dismiss this as matter of curiosity but not the victims.

It is really embarrassing to travel in public buses,” says Kevin, a graduate of Law. Commuters look at you and pass racial remarks amidst boisterous laughter,” he hastens to add. Racism in the Indian context finds expression in different forms although one may find it subtle in nature. Whether it is in the day to day interactions, learning institutions or homes, there is a stigma attached to being dark skinned and this is ingrained into the psyche that no one ponders to think what it means to an individual, particularly an African.

In India, fairness of the skin is rated along side personal qualities such as ‘pleasant’, homely’, and even worse ‘domestically trained’, which are considered virtues in an Indian woman. A cursory glance at the matrimonial pages of the local newspapers which lay emphasis on fair skinned brides and grooms, and the aggressive marketing of the so- called fairness creams makes it clear that being ‘dark’ or ‘dusky’ is not ‘in’.

The tendency to demean other races because of their colour flows through the social structure of the Indian society. Often, you will find parents in the safe confines of their homes drawing attention of their children to a ‘kaalia’ passing by. The bottom line is that ‘kaalia’ is bad and should be avoided at all cost. To them, Africans are not only ‘bad elements’ but ‘a barbaric lot’. Taunts of ‘koothi’ (Monkey) are all too familiar insults.

Occasionally, while some of the African students retort back, others find it easier to ignore these insults than engage in verbal exchange of words, which could lead to physical confrontations. What then is the way out of all these divisions? Ms. Anita Ganesh of Samvada, a voluntary organization working with college students in the city feels that all societies have institutionalized racism. Children from an early age imbibe racial tendencies since their parents rarely look at its repercussions ad herein lies the problem. Citing her own experiences in Britain recently, she overheard a small child point at her and say, “There goes the vampire!” as she was passing by their house.

It is therefore surprising that most of the Indians who look down on ‘blacks’ also look up to ‘whites’. This could be taken to mean that they categorise the world into three segments – whites, browns and blacks. It is a fact that Indians face racist attitudes abroad but they do not want to fight back or relate such incidences when they return back home. Their reasons?

They do not want to be looked down upon as victims. On their part, the students have made attempts to be closer to their hosts. Charles Kagiri, a student of University Law College, and the current Chairman of the Kenya African Student Associations in Bangalore feels that the prejudices and misconceptions between the students and their hosts can be bridged if one understands the local language. As of now, he finds the Indian society ‘an exclusive club’ where anything not Indian is considered retrograde.

Meanwhile, efforts aimed at making living pleasurable for the foreign students (Africans included) by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) in Bangalore, and a host of Indian families need to be lauded.

However, the approach has to shift from helping the African students cope with animosity and racial provocations to sensitizing the general public towards other races. After all, racism is not only about specific incidences but an evil deeply entrenched in our social institutions.

#End#

John Patrick Ojwando, Research Scholar,

Dept. of Studies in Communication & Journalism,

University of Mysore,

Manasagangothri Campus,

Mysore -570 006

Mobile: 98454 00477

12/4/06

Walking through the narrow by lanes of Kengeri Satellite Town, one of Bangalore’s burgeoning extensions recently, I came to the realization that certain things have changed. Obviously for the better I must emphasis. And the source of the glowing tribute? I could go on a walk with remarkable ease and not a single person in sight to accost me. This was not the case earlier when I moved to the sleepy locality off the Bangalore-Mysore highway. Even then, as an alien in one of India’s cosmopolitan cities, I had become constant source of fascination or indignation for the locals depending on which side of the fence they reveled in. Their reasons? I could not comprehend no matter how hard I tried. Or was it my descent, being of the Afro race? Banking on my previous experiences in the south Asian sub continent, I resolved that the safest way out was to be on the move and never to look back no matter the ‘provocation’. Indeed this tactic seemed to work as a deterrent but not for long. The locals soon came up with novel ways to get around the self imposed barrier. The young and old alike would come tagging along, some with loads of questions stemming from genuine interest or curiosity. Yet for others, it was an open and shut case of ignorance or sheer hostility. For the former, they had a friendly smile and would quickly engage in banter. Sometimes it went along these lines. “Hello…West Indies?” “Do you like cricket? Olonga your brother?”….”Do you like my India?” And at times bordering on the absurd: “Where are you from?” “Oh! Africa? Is Mandela your president?” or “Don’t feel bad…tell me, you don’t get education in your country?” The intensity and the pace of questioning did not leave one with many options. Which of these would you answer or ignore? Lack of response would elicit rude taunts. ‘Kaalu’ (Black man) or ‘Negro’ became a far too familiar call or ‘Kothi’ (Monkey) when they took it to the extremes some times at the behest of elderly people. With passage of time, slowly the taunts began to recede. Some of them had come to the sad reality that I could not be touched their intense prodding notwithstanding. Intriguingly, it was not so different with Rade Moshi, a management student from distant Tanzania. But hers was a struggle with a different dimension. Perhaps the first African to reside in Kengeri Satellite Town, she had met with an instant boycott when she decided to trade her city residence for the outskirts. “Forget it, we will not come to visit you,” her friends had protested so terrified of the distance from the city. Bangalore then had not seen much of its latest expansions and Kengeri Satellite Town was just another ‘halli’ as the locals would say. To Rade’s friends, Bull Temple Road and Chamarjpet were the furthest they could think of traversing. Beyond that, you were heading out of town. What if she fell sick? A joke in the students’ circles had it that if you were to make a call to a resident of Kengeri Satellite Town, you had to prefix an STD code, the implications not so hard to grasp. Though they had their own misgivings, Rade was unfazed. The serene and tranquil outskirts of Bangalore were too inspiring to ignore. And surely, nothing untoward took place. Come Sunday, I wanted to unwind after a tiring week and what better way than to take a walk reveling in the cool evening breeze? It proved an eye opener. The place has since opened its doors to embrace African students in their hordes, some of them with their families. Kenyans, Ugandans, Ethiopians, Tanzanians, Sudanese, and many more from the Middle East, now share the locality with the locals and ‘guests’ from other cities of the south Asian sub continent. The transformation is not hard to see as locals continue to warm up to their ‘guests’. Cyber cafes telephone booths, multi-cuisine eats outs, amongst other utility services have sprung up. Surprisingly, even the barbers and stylist have mastered the art of trimming kinky afro hair. Previously, an elderly man, seeing me struggle with my bits and pieces of the local language at a grocery store rebuked me. “Learn the local language,” was his unsolicited advice. Perhaps he was right. Unfortunately, what he and others of his ilk fail to grasp is the dilemma of those living in a multi cultural society. Which of the Indian languages would you opt for? To make a purchase of bread or related items, a mastery of Malyalam at the bakery would be called for. The general stores abound with Merwaris while the numerous youth in the vicinity are students from the north who revel in Hindi. For transaction at utility service offices, Kannada gave you a head start. Amazing, is it not? So on this day as I engaged in my evening walk, one thing was outrightly clear, the relative calm and acceptance. For those wary of Kengeri, it’s now a safe place to tread without fear of intimidation by casual callers or mischief makers. The best part of it now is that as Africans, we are well understood and the fear of being mistaken or clubbed together as natives of Dakshina Africa is all in the past. Just as Mandela a.k.a. Madiba ceased to be the president of Africa. It has been a long walk to ‘freedom’ though.

John Patrick Ojwando,

Research Scholar,

Dept. of Studies

in Communication & Journalism,

University of Mysore,

Manasagangothri Campus,

Mysore -570 006