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Lives and businesses of Africans in Delhi

A growing number of Africans are looking for business opportunities in the national capital

Shivam Saini  |  New Delhi 

An African kitchen in Khirki Extension in Delhi

On a chilly evening in December 2011, William, a 22-year-old Congolese student, sat in his apartment in southwest Delhi’s Dwarka, holding an invitation to a wedding. He was in a quandary: should he go or shouldn’t he? He had already bought a gift for the bride, though — a big white clock.

William had met the bride, Priya, an 18-year-old born into a Punjabi family, a little more than a year ago at an English language class in South Extension, a south Delhi neighbourhood. The two met again several times. Their clandestine meetings continued for some time, until Priya’s parents found her a groom. Priya had hoped for a future with William instead. Given his skin colour, however, the two didn’t stand a chance. After her wedding, Priya found, among the wedding gifts, a big white clock. William did go to her wedding after all: it gave him a sense of closure. And it gave Richie Ronsard, William’s roommate at the time, an idea for a movie.


The movie is the first project of CineAfrica, a pan-African film-making venture launched in July this year by the of India. The Community is a non-official arm of the embassy of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a Francophone country in Central Africa. A bunch of freshly printed sheets contain the script: everything is written in French, except the title of the movie, “Top Secret”.

This movie, inspired by an interracial love story, is just an attempt to clear the air between the locals and the fast-growing community of who visit India for education, business, medical treatment and asylum. Most of them are Nigerians, while others hail from Congo, Uganda, Kenya, Somalia, et cetera. According to official estimates, nearly 40,000 Nigerians obtained Indian visas during 2012; in fact as many as 4,000 Nigerians live in Delhi alone. “In India, if you come from anywhere in Africa, people think you must be from Nigeria. But there are also at least 5,000 Congolese in India,” says Ronsard.

At Krishna Nagar, an eatery in the basement of a residential complex serves Nigerian food

Dressed in a natty dark suit, and with his carefully pruned sideburns, pencil moustache and wispy beard, Ronsard, the movie’s scriptwriter and founding president of the of India, has the demeanour of someone who wants to make it big in politics. And India is his stepping stone towards that ambition. The 23-year-old from Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in politics, philosophy and economics at Amity University, Noida.

Various degree courses and job-oriented diploma programmes in networking and hardware are hugely popular among African students. “A degree in IT from India is preferred to an equivalent degree from our country. So when we go back, it’s easier for us to find a job,” says David Elisha, a 34-year-old from Nigeria who is doing BSc in hardware, networking and digital communication at Aptech Hardware and Networking Academy.

Ronsard and Elisha belong to a small section of urbane whose occupation requires them to spend much of their time inside their multicultural campuses. It’s when they leave their classrooms and walk down Indian streets that they are met with curious – sometimes inimical – stares because of their colour. But the two men have found ways to fend off questioning eyes: Ronsard bought a car to avoid travelling in the Delhi Metro and Elisha managed to find a place in a plush residential area in south Delhi after much struggle.

They think nothing of such small adjustments; their stay in India, after all, is tied to their educational courses. And one day they’ll go back. But quite a few have come prepared to stay for long. They are here to earn a living.

It’s an oppressively humid Sunday afternoon in late July. On one side of a busy thoroughfare in south Delhi stands Select Citywalk mall, a bustling shopping arcade that overlooks an expansive landscaped courtyard. As you walk away from the mall, across the main road and onto the other side, a muddy lane runs through overgrown weeds and heaps of garbage. Narrower streets lead off from the lane as you pass numerous closely packed houses. This is Khirki Extension, an unauthorised neighbourhood where low- and middle-income Indians share space with African migrants.

At the far end of a narrow street, under a roadside tent, Vimla, an affable middle-aged woman who earns her living by ironing clothes, carefully places a heavy coal iron on a protruding concrete slab. She then whips out her no-frills phone to make a call. The screen flashes a name: “Habsi 1”. “Bhaiyya aap turant aa jao. Koi milne aaya hai [Come immediately. Someone wants to meet you],” she orders the person on the other end. A few moments later, a tall, unassuming man in a black- and blue-striped T-shirt and denims appears. When the two exchange greetings, there is nothing to suggest that Vimla knows what “Habsi” means (the term “Habshi” is derived from the Arabic word “Habashi”, which was used to refer to African and Abyssinian slaves in pre-British India).

An African hair salon in Arjun Nagar is also popular among Indian women

Chuks Aghede, 34, is in no mood to talk about It’s Sunday. He has just returned from a nearby church, which is run by the Lagos-based religious organisation Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries. Today, he will just relax, and he certainly won’t wash clothes. But he cannot afford such leisure during the rest of the week. Aghede is, after all, the CEO – and the only employee – of a firm that goes by the name African Laundry and Dry-cleaning Services, and the tag line: “Try once and you will convinced [sic]”. He is quick to offer his card – white text on plain black background – and requests: “Don’t lose it. It’s important.”

Aghede used to work as a salesman for a Lagos-based food and beverages company, which paid him 26,000 naira (approximately Rs 10,000, or $161) a month. In August 2009, he was one among the many who were laid off by their unprofitable company, which had lost much of its after its senior management was tainted with fraud. For a little more than two years Aghede looked desperately for a job, and found none that would pay enough to keep his two daughters in school. Consumer prices, including rent, in Lagos are 180 per cent higher than those in Delhi, according to Numbeo.com, an online database that compares cost of living in cities around the world with the help of user-contributed information. Finally, in January 2012, Aghede left Lagos for New Delhi, hoping to find work.

“At the airport, I hailed a cab that dropped me at Select Citywalk mall. A friend [another Nigerian national], who is like my brother, was waiting for me at KFC [in the adjacent DLF Place mall]. I stuffed myself with a Zinger burger and downed a 7UP. I had no idea what I would do in India. I just wanted a job that could give me some money,” Aghede says. For several jobless days, Aghede lived off his friend. Until his friend noticed a skill that Aghede could live by: he was good at washing clothes. Aghede lost no time in selling off his mobile phone to print some business cards, even before he could buy a washing machine. Four months later, he got himself a washing machine. He was in business.

On the top floor of a part brick, part concrete tenement, Aghede’s workplace is a one-bedroom apartment, for which he pays Rs 8,000 a month. It’s with much pride that he opens the door to a room full of clothes — across the floor, on the couch, on the chair, and stuffed inside the shelves. Buried under a pile of clothes on the floor lies a brown suitcase. “When I arrived in India, all I had was $150 and this suitcase,” Aghede says, with a gap-toothed smile. He now plans to grow his laundry business and exchanges ideas with Vimla. Clearly, he will not go back soon. His only quibble: “The locals sometimes mispronounce my first name, especially the last two letters. It’s not a difficult name; I wish they called me Chuks.”

Not everyone in the neighbourhood is welcoming towards the “The Africans overstay their visas and some of them engage in illegal activities. The women don’t dress properly. It’s a conservative area. There are kids around.” says a real estate broker. But practical and economic considerations have trumped concerns over cultural differences. With the arrival of African migrants in Khirki Extension, rents have gone up by as much as 30 per cent. An apartment with one bedroom, hall and a kitchen (BHK) costs upwards of Rs 8,000 a month, while a 2-BHK ranges between Rs 15,000 and Rs 18,000. “The locals often complain against the Africans. Concerns are raised at the meetings of the Residents’ Welfare Association. But then, why do landlords even rent their property in the first place?” argues a long-time resident who stocks plumbing fixtures and wall paint at a local shop, which faces three buildings in which at least one apartment each has been rented to Nigerians.

The migrants from Africa are not without complaints, either. At the right-hand corner of a busy crossroads in the area, a short flight of steps leads to a modest cabin. The way to the cabin is blocked by an Indian man, who stands, arms akimbo, at the bottom step, staring intently at this Indian visitor heading to a room full of Nigerians; he has to be nudged to make way. It’s a barbershop that serves Africans. Inside, a stocky Nigerian man in an overlong red T-shirt, with fading tattoos up his arms, runs a hair clipper with great care through his customer’s hair.

Hillary John Uche's Diamond Ark boutique in Arjun Nagar

“Everything in this shop, including the haircut, costs Rs 100,” he informs, pointing to a shelf that showcases used plastic bottles full of chin chin, a Nigerian deep-fried snack made from flour, sugar, butter and eggs. On a settee, two men are waiting their turn for a haircut. “So, is staring part of your culture? Why does everyone stare at us wherever we go?” asks the younger of the two men. But others have greater things to worry about. “The other day, somebody in the neighbourhood dropped an egg on my friend’s head,” complains the other, a strapping man who goes by the name of CJ. The barber now takes a moment off to point to a full-length poster showing African hairstyles that has been crudely taped on the shopfront. “This shop was vandalised one night by a group of locals. The police did come but they couldn’t find out who the culprit was,” he says.

It’s easier for those working at the barbershop to openly voice their concerns; this little-known temporary utilitarian structure will run as long as its owner doesn’t draw the attention of immigration authorities. But those who have spent a fair amount of money on their businesses are careful not to spill out their troubles. It is, after all, not easy for a Nigerian to set up shop in India. Recently, Nigeria’s high commissioner to India, Ndubuisi Vitus Amaku, complained that Nigerian nationals were not being allowed to set up small businesses in India. “Nigerians living here are even unable to open an account, so how can they start a business,” he was reported as saying.

Much of this has to do with the alleged involvement of Nigerians in organised crime across the country. According to the Nigerian High Commission, more than 500 Nigerians are lodged in various jails across India, including in Delhi. “There are at least 125 Nigerian nationals in Tihar jail, of which 10-12 are women [the jail has 13,000 inmates]. Most of them came to India on tourist visas. Ninety per cent of the cases involving Nigerians are related to drug trafficking and the rest include cyber scams, credit card fraud et cetera,” says Sunil Kumar Gupta, the jail’s law officer. According to jail authorities, a considerable number of Nigerians end up in jail for overstaying their visas.

Gupta discloses that exporting clothes and other items from India may sometimes be used as a front for drug trafficking; other times, it’s purely business. Clothes bought for Rs 300-500 apiece from apparel- manufacturing units in Tirupur and Coimbatore sell for as much as Rs 1,800-2,000 across Nigeria. But some have gone a step further and put their entrepreneurial skills to good use. This is evident in the many African hair salons that have sprung up in several parts of Delhi.

“India is not a bad country. You must know how to conduct yourself,” says Destiny Achonam, a 26-year-old Nigerian national who works at Nija Barber’s Shop. The salon is owned by Antony Nweke, a Nigerian national who set up shop in January 2013 at Arjun Nagar, a teeming Punjabi neighbourhood of narrow lanes in posh Safdarjung Enclave. The glass-fronted salon, painted black, white and red, is small but chic. Its clients are fashion-conscious Africans who have a hard time maintaining their hair in India.

Unfamiliarity with Afro-textured, coil-prone hair makes it difficult for Indian salons to style their hair. The five hairdressers at the shop, which mostly caters to men, do their clients’ hair in a number of ways, the two most popular of which are the Gallas cut (which is a variant of the Mohawk hairstyle worn by French footballer William Gallas) and Bob Marley dreadlocks. Apart from African clients, who number 25-30 on weekends, the salon is frequented by Indian women, who pay Rs 500 to have their hair braided.

If the desire to stay stylish has spawned a small but growing number of African hair salons, the lack of home-grown food and a longing to savour every mouthful of it, away from the intrusive gaze of the multitude, have also created opportunities for business — on the sly, of course.

Down an uninviting backstreet in south Delhi’s Krishna Nagar, the basement of a residential building is guarded by a black barred gate. The gate opens to a large, dim-lit, squeaky-clean room that has lounge-like character, with chestnut walls, huge black couches, an LCD television, and strobe lights. This is an “African kitchen”, one of the many such informal eateries that nestle quietly in small apartments, bear no shop signs, and are frequented by Africans who want to eat, drink and make merry. This one is run by Jack Ogbonna, a brawny 30-year-old Nigerian. The place opened just two weeks ago, after Ogbonna rented a fixer-upper for Rs 17,000 a month and renovated it. The kitchen serves, among other things, Nigerian goat meat pepper soap, smoked crayfish, and plantain cooked in palm oil. Most of the ingredients have been sourced from Delhi’s INA market, a food mart that increasingly stocks Nigerian foodstuffs and cosmetics.

“We want a place we can call our own. This is where any African can walk in and feel at home,” Ogbonna says. On the music player, a track by a South Indian artist is playing to reggae beats. “I got this song from my Indian neighbours, and remixed it. It’s a good mashup,” Ogbonna says, even as he points out that the only Indians to visit this kitchen are from northeast India. It is not uncommon for African men in India to strike up a friendship with women from the northeast. A shared sense of exclusion and similarities of religion help bring the two communities closer.

Like George Christopher and his Mizo wife. A few chat sessions on Yahoo messenger across two different continents brought the two closer. The cyber friends finally got married in 2009, when Christopher came down to Mizoram. His marriage to an Indian woman also made it possible for Christopher to gain an X (entry) visa, which is available to a foreign national married to an Indian citizen and can be extended on a year-to-year basis for a period of five years. They have two children, a daughter and a son. “In 2015, I’ll take my family to Nigeria for the first time,” he says. Not far from Nija Barber’s Shop in Arjun Nagar is Manny’s Square. This humble diner, owned by Christopher’s wife and run by him, has been serving Nigerian food since 2010. Inside, the rules are taped on the wall: “No fighting or settling any issues here.”

Most African businesses in India have come up primarily to serve their compatriots. But Diamond Ark is not one of them. “I want to be recognised as a Nigerian-born Indian designer,” says Hillary John Uche, who runs the boutique in Arjun Nagar. The 32-year-old from Nigeria’s Anambra state grew fond of India’s diverse textile tradition while on holiday in 2007. In 2010, Uche, whose mother is a well-known seamstress, returned to India, studied fashion design at JD Institute of Fashion Technology in Delhi, won the Best International Student award, and launched Diamond Ark in September 2012.

It is an unpretentious store packed wall to wall, rack to rack, with evening gowns, dinner jackets, shirts, neck ties and bow ties with polka dots and stripes. Uche insists that his clothes are for everybody, not just Nigerians. But he does like to throw in a dash of Nigerian style once in a while. That is when he designs a salwar kameez, a ruffled evening dress, or even a three-piece suit entirely on Ankara, a cotton fabric with vibrant motifs once regarded as the clothing of the less-privileged in Africa. “I plan to spend at least the next 50 years in India,” says Uche. “I look at my colour as an advantage. It announces my presence, and helps me get noticed.”

[Some names have been changed on request]

First Published: Thu, August 22 2013. 18:23 IST
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