Africans In India, Indians in Africa

Text: Jasbir Chatterjee; Photography: Jasbir Chatterjee

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In 1977, my father, a Sainik School Maths teacher, got a job offer he had always dreamed about.  It was a contractual foreign assignment to work as a Senior Education Officer in a secondary school in Nigeria. Like him, hundreds of other Indians also got the chance around that time to work in a foreign country for a better tomorrow for themselves and their families.

This project came into existence after an agreement was reached between the Federal Government of Nigeria and the Central Government of India.  Nigeria, at that time, was an oil-rich nation and was earning very well, since oil commanded a good price in the international market in those days. But it did not have enough skilled manpower. India, on the other hand, needed both oil and foreign exchange to fuel its growing economy. Through this arrangement, Nigeria and India entered into a symbiotic relationship by providing each other the resources they needed the most at a reasonable price. Nigeria got skilled labor while India got fuel and the precious foreign exchange. Mrs. Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister at that time. My father says that in spite of all those horrible things she did later as a dictatorial leader, he will always be grateful to her for indirectly providing him an opportunity to lead a better life. . .

Our stay from 1977 – 1984 in Orlu, Imo State, Nigeria, was, I would say a good experience in an overall sense, in spite of many problems such as no running water, rampant corruption, long power cuts, often for months, etc, etc. The people among whom we lived, were always very nice and warm. Some of them I still remember; Perpetua, Sister Emmanuela (my English teacher in the Girls’ secondary school I studied in), Brother Bernard, Brother Superior of the nearby Marist Brothers’ Novitiate, Mr. Duru and his family, etc, etc. Thoughts of them fill me with joy and happiness and I hope they are well and getting on nicely. They often suggested that we settle down in Nigeria forever.

During our stay in Nigeria, my Mom got the chance to start working again as a Nurse after having taken a break of 10 years while my sister and I were growing up. We had a huge garden at the back of our house where we grew lots of Indian vegetables such as mint, cauliflower, zucchini, pumpkin, lady finger, etc, etc. There were lots of useful trees too, like mango, guava, lemon, drumstick.

But, unfortunately, nothing lasts forever. As soon as the 80s began, Nigeria’s oil income started declining as there was oil glut in the market. With hardly any indigenous industries to fall back upon, a dictatorial and corrupt regime, and oil the only commodity that could be exported, the country seemed to be headed on a suicidal mission. The government often didn’t have money to pay salaries. People started getting restless and rioting began. It was no longer safe and there was no point in staying on.

But prior to 1982, we had visited Delhi in 1980 also. My parents were shocked to find that  the hard-earned money that they had remitted to India in the care of my cousin brother for purchase of a DDA flat was all embezzled away into his family business and for building his own house! In those days, direct funds transfer facilities like Paytm were not available and there was a lot of red-tapism in government departments. That’s why my parents were compelled to trust a family member and ask him to complete the basic paperwork. A house of our own in Delhi was a long cherised dream of my parents and at that stage of their lives, to their great disappointment, it appeared that it would never be fulfilled during their lifetime. After a lot of threats by my Dad and tears shed by my Mom, arrangements were finally made for him to deposit a fixed amount into a savings account specially set up for this purpose. Last 2 installments were never paid.

It was a terrible blow and turned both my parents into complete nervous wrecks. They had to take psychiatric treatment including electric shocks from Ganga Ram Hospital, Delhi. With great difficulty, they managed to admit me into S.S. Mota Singh School, Janakpuri, Delhi. Since the school had no hostel facility, I had to stay with my relatives. My Mom, Dad, and sister returned to Nigeria and I carried on with my studies.

The period 1982-1984 that I spent away from my parents was the blackest period of my life. A letter of mine used to take 2 months to reach them and their reply took another  2 months to reach me. No other means of communication was available. Every time I try to write about this phase of my life, my hands shake and I give up in despair.

But, as I mentioned earlier, nothing lasts forever. In 1984, by God’s grace, I passed my 12th class exam with flying colors and I got admission very easily into Delhi University. About 4 months later, my parents and sister picked up their things in Nigeria and returned to Delhi for good.

And then, finally, about one week prior to November 1984 Sikhs’ massacre, we sat in our own house in Delhi for the first time. While we talked to each other excitedly, our voices echoed inside the house  with bare walls, no furniture, and very few utensils. But it was a great moment. It felt really wonderful to be together again like before. My father had taken us to Nigeria with only $20 in his wallet, for that was the maximum allowed by the government. But this time, we had enough to be able to live on our own without any help. We followed a very frugal lifestyle and we felt financially secure for the next 2 years. My college education and my sister’s school expenses were also taken care of easily.

At the end of those 2 years, however, my father realized that we needed additional sources of income.  So he began conducting Math tuitions and my Mom took up a job in a local charitable hospital. A few years later, my father became the most sought-after Maths tutor in West Delhi. Soon everything became smooth and we were reasonably prosperous, as prosperous as a middle-class family which has gone through the 1947 partition trauma can be.

What I mean to say is that we as a family will always be grateful to Nigeria and all those wonderful people we interacted with during our stay there for the kind of life we lead in Delhi at present. Things would have been certainly quite different, had that posting not come when it did.

Now let’s come back to 2016. This time, my family and I are on the other side of the fence. We are no longer foreigners and we come across many Africans including Nigerians walking around on the streets of Delhi and inside Metro trains, chatting and laughing. I will be honest and say that a sight of them fills me with fear, distrust, suspicion, and apprehension. It’s not because I am a racist. I have nothing against black skin. There are so many Indians with black skin anyway and India is a heterogeneous country with so many languages, colors, cultures, and tradition. We Indians are used to living with differences.

I feel scared because these people, excluding students and embassy persons, are not employed in any legitimate jobs, yet they move around in a carefree manner, eating, drinking, and shopping.  I wonder where they get their money from. Often stories of drug hauls and prostitution rackets are reported on TV and in the newspapers and the culprits are generally African nationals. So it’s not a matter of racism; it’s actually all about safety and security.

About 2 years ago, while walking in a shopping center,  I came across a little child, about 8 or 10, writhing in pain on the floor outside a liquor shop with a bottle in his hand while a young African guy stood by watching with an expressionless face. It was obvious that the child had been turned into a drug addict and was in pain because he was unable to get the dose he took daily…

We read a lot of allegations these days in the newspapers about racist behavior by locals towards Africans. But no one looks for the root cause. Let me make it clear that I am absolutely against all forms of violence. But our safety lies in our own hands. Instead of quietly letting drugs business survive and demanding routine haftas from them, our law enforcement agencies must ensure that foreigners engaged in illegitimate businesses be repatriated to their respective nations.

But I guess, things will change for the better as time goes by. Look at this video of a young boy dancing to the Hindi song ‘Chittiyan Kalaiyan.’ This is my favorite and I love to see it again and again. Africans have music and song mixed right inside their blood. It comes so naturally to them. They have that chutzpah which you won’t find in any other race when it comes to dance and music…

 

And here is one more video that I discovered recently. It’s absolutely delightful.

Now here are some pics from our days in Nigeria. They are a bit hazy since they have been clicked from old photos preserved inside photo albums. They make up some of our best memories as foreigners. My pet name is Rosy and the card below is addressed to me…

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My younger sister is dressed here in Igbo attire. She had become quite fluent in that language…

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This is my sister Daljeet (Dimpy)’s 9th birthday…

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This photo was originally clicked on 4th March 1981 (my 15th birthday). I am standing here right in the front in a striped T-shirt and jeans…

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Here we are with my Dad’s school (Bishop Shanahan Sec. School) principal Mr. Duru and his family…

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Here my sister and I are with Perpetua (part of Mr. Duru’s extended family; she was their family cook also).

 

 

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With our missionary neighbors, Brother Bernard and his colleagues, Marist Brothers’ Novitiate..

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With a friend…

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With neighbors…

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My sister with Mr. Duru’s youngest daughter Ogechi..

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Mr. Duru’s children…they were our next door neighbors. I clicked this pic on the stairs of their porch…(starting from top, left, Maureen, Emeka, Kelechi, can’t remember the next one’s name, Ogechi…)

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My Mom as Nurse in Nkwerre Health Center, holding a child who had come in for vaccination…

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My Mom with her colleagues…

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My Mom on her way to work…My Dad used to drive this car, Peugeot 304, IM417D

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My sister Daljeet standing on the stairs of Bishop Shanahan school in the evening…

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My parents sitting at the back of our house, about to leave for an outing…

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My parents and sister in the front of our house. The Marigold plants that you see in this pic were planted by me…

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My parents…

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My Dad with his Indian friends at a get-together in Owerri, Nigeria…

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Mom and sister in the Bishop Shanahan School Campus, just outside our house…

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My sister (in red frock) and I (green skirt and top) are here with a few Indian children whom we met at a get-together in Owerri…

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With Dr. Torralbas (Filipino doctor) in Dr. Emezie’s Hospital, Orlu…

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Our house inside  Bishop Shanahan School campus…

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On 15 May 2016, we celebrated my parents’ 52nd marriage anniversary and I got the opportunity to dance a little bit like a Nigerian. https://youtu.be/27k_JD0f_rs

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Africans In India, Indians in Africa”

  1. It’s sad, that my people are usually suspected for crimes in other nations. I feel if you have apprehensions you could try to befriend them. You never can tell what you will find.

    Like

    1. Thanks for stopping by and commenting. We Indians tend to be reserved by nature. Since Africans are generally here as either students or tourists, their interaction with the locals is not much. They generally keep to themselves and move around either singly or in pairs or in small groups of 3 or 4. Only recently have some colonies started coming up where you will find a concentration of Africans. Because of huge cultural differences, befriending them is not common.

      Liked by 1 person

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