hink Nigeria and you might conjure up images of braided hair and flowing bubu robes, football and green and white stripes, juju percussion and royal bini masks. But over the last few years, especially in India, Nigerians have also come to be associated with drug trafficking and smuggling, scams and murders (not necessarily in that order). The recent spate in crime involving Nigerians is increasingly being viewed through a prism of distrust, almost as a deviant sub group, and the reportage surrounding these events in most media, and the reactions discernible from Twitter, suggest many in India need to examine their willingness to castigate an entire community based on the work of a few miscreants. The Nigerian community is large and has ties to the Non Aligned Movement and Nehru's post-Independence fellowship with Africa. Guardian20 went out to find out how Delhi's larger, law-abiding immigrant Nigerian community, whose existence remains well away from media reports, lives in the city.
Behind the leitmotif of crime and scams, lies a sprawling, puslating Nigerian sub-culture. With a 10,000-strong population, Nigerians are the largest African community living in the capital. About 20 per cent are students. Residing largely in unauthorised colonies, Nigerians live as if in an island. "We raise our families here, run our businesses here and return here from vacations back home. This is where we belong," says Jeffery Akuma, who runs the A & G Afro Shop and Restaurant in PVR Anupam Shopping Complex.
Akuma is among the new breed of entrepreneurs trying to hard sell the idea of Nigerian business acumen and integrity in a highly polarised environment. From restaurants to superstores, hair saloons to beauty parlours, there are a number of businesses working well within the law that cater to and are owned by Nigerians.
One of the pioneers of Nigerian businesses in Delhi is Godson Franklin, who started his African Spices outlet in INA market in 2008. "I realized that my countrymen were missing Nigerian flavours in the food here. So I decided to stock spices and condiments." Today, Franklin caters not just to the Nigerians, but also to the other Africans who throng his store for herbs, dried fish, palm oil and Nollywood (Nigerian) films and music.
Bright and Jeffrey Akuma at their restaurant in PVR Saket
Akuma's restaurant completes one year this October. "Ask any Nigerian what they miss most about home and pat comes the reply – food. So I decided to set shop," says this executive chef. The place is small and sparse but it manages to get nearly 50 visitors every day. "We serve authentic Nigerian cuisine, such as moi-moi, jollof rice, stew and a variety of soups like egusi, okro and ogbono, and also stocks Nigerian herbs, noodles and condensed milk, which are very different from what isavailable here," he says. His clientele also include some Indians.
Each of these entrepreneurs is trying of offer something new. Barrister John, who runs Africa Superstore in Bhai Paramanada Colony, Kingsway camp stocks food items, movies and clothes. But John also provides counsel to Nigerians on matters related to immigration and visas. "A lot of Nigerians face difficulties because of overstaying. I counsel them on how best to proceed about it," says John.
Nigeria remains mired in poverty, and most come looking for the proverbial greener pastures. When hairstylist Caswir Nwakaeze heard people moan about the lack of African hair salons in Delhi, he set sail for India to open the African Hair Salon and Boutique in Krishna Nagar (Safdarjung Enclave). "African hair is difficult to braid and Indian salons just can't do it right. My clientele are quite happy with my work and some come all the way from Gurgaon to get their hair done," he says. Nwakaeze also runs a boutique, selling African attire and accessories.
"First, we had to ask people who were travelling to Nigeria to get us clothes, foodstuff, films and music. Thankfully, all of this is available right here now," says Anita, a young Nigerian studying at the Delhi Institute of Pharmacy Science and Research.
There are also the handful who land jobs in India, which is not easy for all Nigerians. Cliff Tommy, who works in a call centre, says "Nigerians are a happy people. We work through the week, but weekend is fun time. Like good Christians, we attend Sunday church but come night, and we all throng nightclubs and drinking parlours. This is how we like to socialize."
Alex Chidi, who runs the Intercontinental Saloon in Kingsway Camp, is a little dismayed though. "Africans, especially Nigerians, are not given jobs in India, even menial ones. Many a time, fellow Nigerians have come to me, broke and hungry. They have nowhere to go and hence become easy prey for criminal elements," he says.
The Nigerian High Commission is caught in this tug of war between law and order and the welfare of its citizens. The All India Nigerian Students and Community Association (AINSCA), a non-official arm of the embassy helps members of the community living in India. It liaisons proactively with Delhi police to nab unscrupulous elements in the community. Prince Godwin Samson Idiong, president of AINSCA, who came to India in 1983, says, "India is my home and I want to live here in peace. People who tarnish our image are not welcome here," he says.
"Thousands of Nigerians are languishing in jail. Sadly, there is an increasing cultural distrust amongst Indians towards us," says Idiong. "You will mostly find Nigerians in unauthorised colonies like Munirka, Uttam Nagar and Mukherjee Nagar because people are suspicious of them and don't given them houses elsewhere," he adds.
But Shuaibu Adama, who is studying MA (Economics) in Jamia Milia Islamia, feels truly enriched by what he calls the "osmosis of cultures". "I came because being here offers me a greater world view. I love the culture of India, the people are friendly and the food, especially chhole bhature and lassi, are awesome. So basically, I am happy with my life here."