Nigerians lead an oppressed life in ghetto-like hidden pockets in the city. They have strong solidarity and are fairly resilient in the face of adversity
Nigerians in Delhi. There are many thousands of them, yet there is no way to arrive at a definitive figure as many of them by their own admission are ‘illegal immigrants’. “India is not the only country where illegal immigrants are residing, they are prevalent in all the countries of the world, even in the US and Europe,” says Joshua, a 32-year-old singer who looks much younger than his age; lean and tall, receptive and sensitive, and has been living in Delhi for more than three years.
Life for a Nigerian is tough in the city, and that’s not only because some of them are ‘illegal immigrants’ but primarily because “Indians are racists”, as any African would aver. While white skin attracts adulation in India, dark-skinned people are despised and demonised. Black monkey, Kaalia, Negro, Habshi, Danav, Chandaal are some of the common words used to describe them. The sad fact of the matter is that many Nigerians who have stayed in India for long know what these epithets mean.
“India is one of the most racist countries. Even the children, when they see us walking by, run away. Of course, their parents have told them to stay away from us for reasons that are not difficult to imagine,” says Joshua. It breaks his heart to be treated with contempt in the land of Gandhi because of the colour of his skin. “There are many Indians living in Nigeria, some of them illegal immigrants, but no one treats them the way Nigerians are treated here in India. Indians outside India are one of the politest people. I don’t know what happens to them when they are back in their country,” Joshua thinks aloud while walking along in the dusty lanes of Rajpur Khurd, an urban village close to Chhattarpur.
A few hundred Nigerians live here in this locality where double-storey houses stand shoulder to shoulder on either side of unpaved roads. A dog takes special pleasure in barking at Joshua, “Even the dogs are racist here,” he grins.
Joshua lives with Kentro C Lala, a muscular man sporting a trimmed mustache on his circular glowing face. Gold rings, earrings and a gold locket, sculpted as the face of Jesus Christ with diamonds studded on it, gleam on his dark skin. He’s an adorable man, the leader of the music band Click Gospo.
Lala lives in a two-bedroom house with his wife Kate and hyperactive three-year-old son Blassed. Apart from his small family, Joshua and 24-year-old keyboard player Baris Bahrita also live with them. Baris met with an accident a few years ago which left him with leg and arms joined by metal plates tightened on bolts. He walks with a limp and hopes to get a surgery done to get the bolts removed.
There are many visitors to the house, which is buzzing with activity. Kentro, now 35, has had trouble with the landlords in the past, now he’s moved into a house that belongs to a police officer. “If I’m late in paying my rent by a day or two, power and water supply is cut,” he says.
A distinguished visitor is Ola Jason, a 40-year-old model, actor, businessman — and most importantly, peacemaker. Dressed immaculately in a suit and tie, Jason has been living in India for nearly a decade, married to a Russian woman, with an adorable daughter. He is the friend, philosopher and guide to fellow Nigerians. “Give him a call in the middle of the night, he will be there to help,” Kentro says admiringly.
“I talk to people, reason with them, have defused bad situations so many times,” says Jason. The whole community is stressed and oppressed by blatant racism, harassed by the authorities. “It’s not easy,” says Jason, explaining their precarious existence. ‘You have to constantly remind yourself there’s a way out, hold your nerves, people are generally nice.” Jason often meets up with police officers to present them with the true story and politely remind them of their duty. No wonder, he remains an inspiration to many fellow Nigerians.
Despite the hardships, many of the Nigerian folks are not bitter, but have, over the years, become reclusive.
Some have made friends with Indians. A 10-minutes amble away from Kentro’s house is a field where Indians and Nigerians play football together. This is also the venue where Indian agents mingle with the Nigerians to get them a house on rent, help them with documentation, in the process overcharging them. For instance, a Nigerian on an average pays twice as much rent as a local. Kentro pays Rs 11,000 per month for an apartment for which a local will be required to pay Rs 6,000.
Nigerians speak even amongst themselves in heavily accented English. All have stories to tell of how the local cops raid their houses and extort money. Women are not spared. Many of them would want to go back, but have established businesses by now and going back to a terror-stricken homeland is not an option available to many.
Many of them drive big old cars, sport a big metal watch on their wrists. They are stylish, celebrate life even under testing conditions. A few small restaurants serve Nigerian cuisines, opening only after sundown. Black soup is a delicacy which is a spicy soup served with big pieces of fish.
“Don’t worry we don’t eat dogs and are not cannibals,” says Kentro, he laughs with a sense of irony that he has to make this clarification. Beer is served like chai, and the fact that one is non-vegetarian makes it easier for them to play host. Kentro and his wife Kate are warm and hospitable, serve dishes that are generally less oily but more watery, spiced with lots of herbs, not bitter yet hot. The distinct flavours linger on long after.
They don’t have a fixed time for meals and eat when hungry, “sometimes at 4 in the morning,” adds Kentro, who speaks English with certain flourish. They eat together from one plate. “We are all a family,” says Kentro. They are, for sure, a close-knit community; adversity has made them come closer. They are working hard for a better future in Delhi.