In Rajpur Khurd in the Capital where attacks on Africans happened, prompting the MEA to step in, there are few meeting points between the villagers and their new neighbours. As Africans recede into anger and silence, Ankita Dwivedi Johri walks the faultlines for 24 hours. Photographs: Tashi Tobgyal
Baljit Singh has contemplated leaving Rajpur Khurd at least on two occasions. Zu Zan Hmos Osycal has considered the idea multiple times in the past one month. But this wasn’t the plan the two men started out with. Rajpur Khurd is a crammed urban village in South Delhi’s Chhatarpur district, an address better known for its opulent farmhouses and grand weddings. In the past five years, close to a thousand men and women from African nations have made it their home. In the events of the past fortnight, the faultlines between them and the ‘Rathi’ Jats in the village lie in the open.
A week after Congolese national Masonda Ketada Olivier was beaten to death in neighbouring Vasant Kunj, four cases of attacks on African nationals were reported from the twin villages of Rajpur Khurd and Maidan Garhi. Following the attacks, over 15 African nations raised concerns over safety of their citizens in India. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and MEA officials had to step in to promise better security.
Flanked by high walls, Rajpur Khurd faces power-cuts, water shortage and bumpy roads. The chasm between its old residents and new neighbours is the biggest hurdle of them all. There are few meeting points, and open racism and distrust.
“Woh das baje se pehle nahin uthte, raat bhar ghoomte rehte hain (They don’t wake up before 10 am, they roam the streets all night),” complains a girl collecting garbage, knocking loudly on the main door of a three-storey building, using a derogatory term for Africans. After 10 minutes, a slightly groggy African woman steps out and hands her a big black bag full of trash. Relieved, the garbage collector dumps the bag onto her cart and moves to the next apartment.
The term the girl uses is Arabic for Abyssinian, a nationality known as Ethiopian today. The term was used to describe the Africans who came to live in India in the pre-British era, arriving as merchants, fishermen and slaves. After Independence, it simply became a derogatory word, to describe anyone with a dark complexion and a thick mane of braided hair. In Rajpur Khurd, which houses a growing number of Africans, mostly Nigerian men looking for business opportunities, it is a term thrown about often.
As the sun grows strong, the narrow lanes of the village, lined with general stores, repair shops and food stalls, leisurely come to life. At this early hour, there are few signs of the new residents among Rajpur Khurd’s 5,000-odd Jats. “It’s too early, wait for a few more hours,” says a shopkeeper near a branch of Syndicate Bank in the village.
Some time passes before Mike Enumah, a 36-year-old Nigerian ‘garment businessman’, appears. “I buy clothes from markets in India and sell them in my country,” says Enumah, who came to India in 2010, to do his Bachelors in Business Administration at the University of Mumbai. He moved to Rajpur Khurd in 2013 to live with his cousin.
Today, as he visits the local store to get supplies for the day, Mike seems angry. “Why do we suddenly have all these cameras in our faces? These images will be broadcast in my country, what will my family think?” he says. “I heard the news of the attacks on Africans, but I did not see them. It doesn’t affect me, man,” he shrugs.
But the anger is hard to hide. “Indians own all the big companies in my country, they are treated with respect. But here… ,” he stops mid-sentence. His landlord Ashok Rathi jumps in to finish the line. “The ruckus is created by Africans who visit from Malviya Nagar and Dwarka areas. My tenants don’t even drink and smoke. Here no panga, no tension,” he quips.
Ashok Rathi, who owns four buildings in the area, has reasons to be happy with tenants such as Mike. Rajpur Khurd is believed to have been set up by Raj Singh Rathi, a Jat farmer who came to Chhatarpur over 900 years ago. All residents of the village are considered his descendants, hence the surname ‘Rathi’ on a majority of the nameplates outside houses. “We were all farmers, but around 2008, the government started acquiring our land. So many of us built multi-storey houses on our plots to save our land. But no one was willing to rent and the flats remained unoccupied for over two years. That is when we opened our doors to the Africans. They paid more rent, Rs 12,000 to Rs 14,000 a month,” says Ashok Rathi.
Mike again insists things are fine. “I came to India, leaving behind my wife and children, to make a living. I was told 60-70 per cent people speak in English in India. I haven’t picked up any Hindi, but haven’t had a problem. Go find those who have had a problem.” Then, he objects, “No pictures. Keep the camera away!”
“Africans are not evil, man, they are simple, just like the Americans,” Michael Chema proclaims to the room, which right now has his “business partner” Louzi and a few “hungry men”, flipping through English entertainment channels on television.
Chema, a Nigerian, arrived in India in September 2014, after brief visits to Vietnam and Thailand. “I am an international businessman… Louzi cooks the best food in Rajpur. We began this kitchen service,” says Chema, sitting in the living room of his three-room apartment. The house has the basics: an old couch, a few cushions, a mattress on the floor in the bedroom and an air-conditioner. “All my friends come to my home because of the air-conditioner,” he smiles.
It’s 10 minutes past noon, and the two have just woken up. Louzi heads straight to the small, cluttered kitchen, with a microwave and several large bowls. She hurriedly empties a packet of rice flour into a huge aluminium bowl, adds a little water, and then begins stirring the batter over high flame till it gets the consistency of dough. She then pulls out two large plastic boxes from the freezer. “This is chicken curry and the kidney bean soup she made in the night,” says Chema. But just as Louzi tries to explain the recipe, Chema interjects, “You ask me the questions.”
The food prepared and re-heated, Chema settles down on the couch with the rice dough and chicken curry. Louzi heads back to the kitchen, to prepare food for the 20 customers who will come in the next hour. “Life is very simple for me here. Language is a problem but I try to begin my sentence with bhaiyyaji (brother)… That works most of the time,” he laughs, dunking the dough into the curry and taking large bites. “If Africans are involved in a fight, we try to go for peace always. But the ones who fight… The hardships in India make African men very sad, angry — rents are high, food is expensive… Maybe that is why they get into fights. But I want to live long, get married…” he says, talking about the recent attacks.
As he works his way through the chicken curry, the other “tensions” begin pouring out. “People stare at me all the time, but I guess that is because I have a great fashion sense. Indian men… they are heartless, jealous, and the girls are shy… That leads to some tension,” he says, spitting out bones into a bowl.
“But here in Rajpur Khurd, it is all good. The Rathis protect us. They have lawyers and policemen in the family… Once some men followed me from Malviya Nagar, but this old Rathi woman threatened to attack them with sticks. They fled immediately,” he says, handing over the dishes to Louzi.
As his friends begin trickling in for lunch, sold at Rs 200 a plate, the mood in the house gets “lighter”. A group of men head straight to the room with the air-conditioner, beer cans in hand. The others join their friends in the TV room. Louzi is hard at work in the kitchen. A few men light up, and a waft of sticky rubber-like smell fills the house. “I am very popular,” continues Chema. “These are my friends, this is my iPhone, I have made a lot of money… worked hard. We don’t create any trouble… the ones who do are the Africans from Malviya Nagar.”
There is a knock on the door, it’s his landlord. Louzi peers through the wooden door, not opening the iron gate just yet. “Where is the money? You need to give Rs 6,000 for the AC,” he demands.
A distant relative of Baljit Singh belongs to the Rathi family. In 2000, on the advice of the relative, he left Sonepat with his wife and came to Rajpur Khurd. He runs a tuition centre on the ground floor of his house and has two children — a daughter, 7, and a 10-year-old son. In the past one-and-a-half years, he has made two changes to his house: put up CCTV cameras outside his balcony and a thick wooden stick at the entrance.
“In Africans ko chot lagne se bohot darr lagta hai (These Africans are scared of injuries). They feel if they bleed, their wounds won’t heal in the Indian weather. So everytime they create a ruckus, I just threaten them with my stick and they flee,” he says.
The CCTV, now outside many homes in the village, is for “proof”, Baljit adds. “They get drunk at night and relieve themselves outside my house. They have these gang wars and hurl abuses. But everytime I went to police with complaints, they asked for proof. That is why I have installed the CCTVs.”
Baljit also worries about the “influence” on his children. “I am scared to even let them out in the balcony. The African women move around with alcohol. Sometimes at night we see men thrashing their wives or, I don’t know, live-in partners, on the street. Even police are intimidated. They say embassy ka issue ho jayega. I have lost 20 per cent of my students because of this ruckus,” he complains.
Dariya Singh, a retired BSF officer, links the growing numbers of Africans in Rajpur Khurd to the other flashpoint involving the community in Delhi, the Khirki Extension episode of January 2014. “It is our fault we let them invade this area. There is no unity in us. When we tell landlords to not keep them as tenants, they say ‘You give Rs 10,000 a month’,” he says, adding that the Africans get drunk and drive around without helmets. “All their cars have dark glasses, but police say nothing.”
“They drive around in fancy cars, buy clothes from malls, where do they get the money from?” adds Baljit. “One day they beg shopkeepers to give them some food, the next day they turn up with bundles of cash. We all know the work they do… Why else does this place become a taxi stand at night? They all head to farmhouses and we know what happens there.”
For Zu Zan Hmos Osycal, it is such “stereotyping” that is responsible for the recent attacks. Pursuing his MA in Clinical Research from Punjab Technical University, Osycal claims his house was raided four days back “for drugs”. “I understand this is not Vasant Kunj, this is a village, people are conservative… but they can at least respect us. I want to have intellectual conversations with them, but no one wants that in Rajpur,” he says, sitting in the small shoe and clothes shop which he runs with his wife.
The 32-year-old from Liberia came to India five years back to study. He stayed in many parts of the capital before moving to Rajpur Khurd two years ago. But he is a minority in the village: an African student who lives with his wife.
“We hardly step out, just to Sarojini Nagar and Uttam Nagar to get clothes and shoes, and sometimes to INA market to buy some food. We don’t interfere in anyone’s life. But then why does police come unannounced to my house? Why do villagers break into my shop and steal? I just want to finish my studies and go back,” he says.
His wife Mahrovia refuses to talk. “I am not comfortable speaking about these issues,” she says, arranging a few dresses. “And don’t take my picture!” Samuel Joseph, a 64-year-old Nigerian and a pastor at a local African church, explains the community’s reluctance to getting “noticed”.
“Rajpur Khurd is the heart of African settlements in India, but the villagers here are very hostile to them… After the recent attacks, cameras scare them, they feel any kind of pictures can be used against them,” says Joseph, who sells dried fish to the local African kitchens in the village.
“Indians here feel the Africans have no homes… Some of them hold their noses when they pass by an African… These things have created a big rift, and the issues can’t be resolved overnight. It is true that a majority of the Africans in Rajpur Khurd have no jobs, they get into risky, illegal jobs for money, but that is true for Indians in this village too,” he argues. “It is the 21st century, Indians need to have good relations with foreigners.”
Though there is little fraternising between the Jats and Africans, there are a few exceptions. Like the 30-year-old Jamia Hamdard University student, who is helping a dhobi iron clothes. Like many in the village, she does not wish to be identified or photographed, but the dhobi’s assistants vouch for her. “Thoda darawane dikhte hain, par baat karne par theek hain. Masti zyaada karte hain (They look intimidating, but once you talk to them, they are fine. They just fool around a lot),” says one of the helpers.
“I often come here to help them out. We have good relations with Indians on a one-to-one basis… But please don’t ask me about the attacks, no one understands what we go through here,” says the girl.
As the harsh afternoon sun wanes, more Africans faces are seen outside shops, in markets, at salons, but the boundaries are clearly marked. Chika Mariamo, 32, has stepped out to visit the salon. “Only an African can style our hair, Indians don’t know what to do with it,” smiles Mariamo. There are few salons in the area run by African women. A Cameroon national, Mariamo has been in India for eight months. “I came here to earn a living, I had heard about Delhi from my friends. I am still looking for a job,” she says.
Talking about “the lack of English-speaking people in the village”, Mariamo points to her pink tights and a fitted tank top, and adds, “People here are extremely racist. Look how I am dressed now, is there a problem? I don’t understand what the men say about me, but I am not a fool, their expression says it all.”
Mariamo is among the few African women who speaks about issues faced by the community, the others are happy to let the men do the talking. “How will they talk? People here think the worst of them. We go out in the evening to meet friends, but we all know the rumours. Look at how they treat their own women. I have rarely heard any of the Indian women in the village complain about us, it is always the men,” she says.
Baljit Singh and Ashok Rathi are also out for a stroll, but Baljit has instructed his children to stay indoors. “They (Africans) have a few places where they gather in the evening. The landlords say they are students, but I have never seen a book in anyone’s hand. They are just middle-aged men with nothing to do,” says Baljit. Ashok Rathi again tries to put up a defence. “Their day begins in the evening. What is wrong with that?”
Mentioning the “good” things, he says, “Once I had viral fever. One of my tenants gave me this tonic made out of whiskey and neem leaves. I was cured overnight. Most of my tenants make their own medicine. It is just like our Ayurveda.”
Around 6 pm, Mike Enumah and his brother, a few other African residents and some landlords, including Ashok Rathi, head to the sensitisation conference organised by the Delhi Police at a nearby resort since the attacks of May 28. The two groups get into different vehicles and sit in separate rows at the conference.
While Mike claims to be “assured” after the meeting, his brother feels “more needs to be done”. “Why take steps only after a tragedy? They need to do more in the village,” he says, adding he does not wish to be named. He adds a request: “Ignore the man from the afternoon who said he will break your camera. People here are just scared… they are angry.”
“My friends are all out already, I will shut my salon by 10 and see if I want to join them,” says Frank Okezie, a 34-year-old from Nigeria. Surrounded by posters of Will Smith in a small hair salon, Okezie is trimming the hair of one of his friends.
Okezie came to Rajpur Khurd two years back and while he too claims to be a ‘garment businessman’, styling people’s hair helps him “make some extra money”. His wife and two children are back home. “I want to grow my business. I have pitched several ideas to the Indians in the village but you guys don’t like foreigners. Indians need exposure; there is no cultural exchange in the village,” he complains.
Okezie’s decision to come to India went beyond work though. “I grew up watching Bollywood films in Nigeria; I was fascinated about the country.”
On his way to Rajpur Khurd from the airport, he says, he was amused to see so many cows on the streets. Now applying some gel on his client’s hair, he points out, “But we accept all that. We are big, we look different, speak a little aggressively, but we mean no harm.” Maybe a few pictures before he downs the shutters? “No,” he says firmly.
There is no power, darkness descends on the village. A string of autorickshaws begin ferrying groups of Africans to the main road outside. Baljit and a few of the neighbours gather on one terrace, a vantage point that helps them keep an eye on them. PCR vans and policemen on bikes begin nightly rounds. It’s quite hot but the men don’t “allow” the women and children onto the terrace.
“Hamare gaon ko auto, taxi stand bana diya hai (They have made our village an auto, cab station),” says one of Baljit’s friends. A group of African men, including Mike and his brother, meet up near the bank branch. There are some visitors from outside too, including just one non-African. As the group talks, their voices sometimes rising, Baljit’s friend says, “After the attacks, they are careful, you should have seen earlier.” He shows a video of what seems like a fight between two African women.
On the street, the group seems aware of being watched. Some of them begin speaking in hushed tones, the others disperse everytime they see a police vehicle. There are three other “spots”, the villagers say, where the Africans gather every night. But the “spots” are vacant tonight. “If only the policemen were this vigilant on other days,” says Baljit.
As the night progresses, more cabs arrive. The autorickshaws too continue their trips. There is a minor fight between two Africans, which the villagers watch intently. “Ye drugs ke paise ke liye hoga (It must be for drug money),” says one of them. But soon, it’s all calm. Some African men continue to roam the streets till 3 am, some play music on their phones. The ones visiting from outside begin dispersing.
It seems like a regular night, but the villagers are not convinced. “Agle hafte aana, zyaada din shaant nahin rahenge (Come next week. They won’t remain quiet for long),” says Baljit, as he and the others leave.