Open the Khirki and see angst

When they are tired of cooking at home, 24-year-old Newton and his girlfriend Nadia C, 23, walk down to one of the several restaurants in the two big malls right across Khirki Extension. When they are short of money, the Angolan couple prefers the shop in their south Delhi  neighbourhood that sells chicken and fish curry. “We like the Indian fish. It is tasty and very cheap,” says Newton. 

The shop owner Kamal Kumar nods approvingly. It has been over six months since the couple began visiting this tiny restaurant. Kamal does not speak English, but they understand each other.

Newton tries eating at the place with his hands, much to amuse of the Indians. “They laugh when I do that. They have fun,” he says.

“Much of the divide is also due to the language barrier. I have seen educated people speaking to them and yet there is misunderstanding due to the language,” says Kamal. But he is more than happy nodding to whatever they say as they “eat well and pay well”.

But they do understand the Hindi abuses. “The locals call us names such as Kaalu, kaala and kalua when we walk by. We know they refer to us. But I ignore them and plug in my earphones,” says Newton. What bothers him is that even the little children in the area have started calling them names. 

“The abuses and discrimination will not end with one generation. Children should be kept out of this. I know a friend from my country whose son studies in a private school here. He says his classmates also call him names in Hindi. This is getting ugly,” he adds.

The good money that the African community living in Khirki shells out for a lot of commodities is what still makes them welcome in Khirki despite the recent row over Delhi Law Minister Somnath Bharti’s attempted ‘raid’, targeted at an alleged  prostitution and drug racket run by members of the community .The village has unmarked lanes, houses without numbers, open drains and open landfills with cows and goats grazing on the garbage. This also means that house rents are considerably lower than in  other parts of south Delhi. “The Metro is close, malls are nearby. Makes life easy for us,” says Nadia.

Money talks

But the rent structure is not uniform. “The foreigners do not ask many questions even when they know that they are charged almost one-and-a-half times what the locals pay. They do not negotiate. Why else would landowners rent out the flats to them? Whatever trouble they cause, it is made up by the money they pay,” says property dealer Sanjay Shukla who has been in the business in Khirki for last four years.

While some property owners in the area put their flats out on rent and moved to better localities, some have stayed back either with the entire family or make regular visits to the village to ensure the their flat does not become a “dharamshala”, strewn with chicken bones and alcohol bottles.

“I was out of town with my family for nearly 15 days. Two Nigerians stay on the first floor of my building. When I returned, I found chicken bones, alcohol bottles and barbeque items all across my terrace. I locked the terrace, but found the lock broken a few days later. I threw them out the next day,” says Reema Singh.

Damian Ukin, a Nigerian student living in the locality for one year now, says all Africans are painted in the same colour any time something like this is reported. “Such talk about Africans spreads like wildfire here. I have Indian friends also who do all that. They play loud music and argue aggressively and loudly. That does not draw much attention,” says Ukin.

After the Bharti episode, Ukin moved to his friend’s home in Arjun Nagar, another area in south Delhi where quite a few African students stay. He has returned only recently. He says he and his friends do not move in big groups now to avoid unnecessary attention.A few of his friends have already shifted from Khirki to other areas of Delhi such as Deoli village and Khanpur. But that is neither a temporary solution nor a permanent one, he says.

“Some have established businesses in the city. They cannot pack up and leave at once. We wait with hope that things with change,” he adds. Ukin trains in animation and multimedia and cannot afford to leave the country before the completion of the course.Locals say ever since the ‘raid’ there are more policemen seen in the area. But a constable, who does not wish to be identified, says the particular police control room van was stationed in the area even before the incident. He knows a few Africans who live there, but only by face. 

“We have never spoken. When they see me, they wave and I wave back. We exchange smiles. These are such good people,” the constable says, adding that the Aam Aadmi Party government needs to know that policemen looked after the area before Bharti came in – and will do so after his government falls.

Crime figures

Police say Africans arrested by them have normally been found dealing in drugs, lottery scams and internet cheating cases. K P S Malhotra, who heads the Crime Branch’s special investigation team, says his unit has nabbed around 10-12 Africans across the city over the last one year. As for Indians, on an average 20-25 are caught every month.“They do not deal in cheap drugs like marijuana. They are mostly into cocaine and heroin as selling even one gram gives good profit,” says Malhotra. This is quite in contradiction to locals’ claim that their children procure drugs from Africans for Rs 50-100.

While breakdown of citizenship of foreign nationals lodged in Tihar jail was not immediately available, official figures showed that a total of 366 such prisoners were lodged till 31 December, 2013. Only 92 of them were convicted. Overall, the jail is home to 13,552 prisoners.

Some Africans in Khirki do want to be recognised by their nationality. “There are people from Guinea, Congo, Ghana and other African countries as well. Everyone thinks only Nigerians and Ugandans live here. Be it for good or bad reasons, we want our identity to be protected and recognised,” says Ibrahim Sory, a Guinean national who works with an NGO.

Like many Africans who complained of stones being pelted at them as they walk the streets, Sory too has been a victim. He says, “Children hit me from their balconies saying I am a Nigerian. Hit me, but identify me from the country I belong.”

Most locals Deccan Herald interacted with, openly spoke against the community, unlike the Africans who were less forthcoming even to defend themselves. Naksha Meena, a salon owner, says she was embarrassed when her relatives came to visit her a few weeks ago. 

“Around a dozen Africans, including skimpily clad girls, began singing and dancing right outside my flat. They appeared to be intoxicated. They are so big and black. It was scary,” she says, not caring to keep her racist feelings a secret.

But Africans object to the perception that their size and colour scares the locals. “Should I reduce my size? Should I change my colour? They watch Hindi movies and get scared of us,” says Sory, adding that their community is too small a minority to be feared.The common feeling among residents is that it will be long before they get over the recent episode. “Till now racist behaviour and hatred were limited to the individual level. Now they are manifesting in the open. This scares me,” says Amit Soni, an artist based in Khirki.

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