Jessy Thetkoech, 21, a student of computer application, has lived in Bengaluru for three years now, a time during which the city has become her “home away from home”. But she finds that Africans are often victims of racial stereotyping. They are either cast as violent people, she said – or in some cases, reportedly as drug dealers or criminals.
“I think we should try telling people in a confident way that Africans are harmless people and a nice people,” she said.
In a way, the Miss Africa Bangalore, in which Thetkoech is a contestant, is doing that. The pageant, which is being held for the first time this year, is an attempt to turn the spotlight away from this hate and onto the intellect, culture and camaraderie of African women in the city, according to organiser Rossy Mayunda.
Miss Africa Bangalore began with 19 women from colleges across Bengaluru who heard about the competition through word-of-mouth or social media. Over a series of elimination rounds, the participants competed through cultural performances of song and dance, debated gay marriage and economic issues, and modelled in a fashion show.
Now, only 12 women remain for the finale on December 25 in Banaswadi, a suburb in the northeast of Bengaluru.
Almost two years ago, a 21-year-old Tanzanian student was assaulted and stripped by a mob in Bengaluru. Before that, a Congolese man was struck, apparently for playing music too loudly. Multiple attacks on African students have attracted global attention and highlighted harmful racial attitudes in India.
India has been known to draw foreign students for higher education, because of factors such as affordability and ease of admission in its favour. The 2015-’16 school year saw 45,424 foreign students in the country, according to the most recent data for the All India Survey on Higher Education. The most foreign students in India come from the neighbouring countries of Nepal, Afghanistan and Bhutan, followed by Nigeria and Sudan. Data also shows that Karnataka has the highest number of foreign students per state.
Mayunda, 22, a Congolese student, has lived in Bengaluru for almost two years. Though thousands of African students come to India to study, he found that most of his friends in Bengaluru were from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Through the pageant, he hoped to create an event “where Africans can come together,” he said. The countries represented in the competition include Nigeria, Mali, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, South Sudan, Kenya and Namibia.
Fears back home
After the attack on the Tanzanian girl in 2016, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj called on Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah to “ensure safety and security of all foreign students and stringent punishment for the guilty”. Protests and vigils were held across the country to denounce violence against African students.
Laurenne Ano, 22, who studies at BMS College for Women, said that though there’s a large African community in areas like Kamanahalli, there are only four other African women in her college. She has often had to field anxious phone calls from parents and friends in her home country. “When our parents see that kind of news, they keep calling us,” she said. “[They ask] ‘are you safe?’” Friends are also fearful of following Ano’s path and travelling to India for their education. “They feel it’s a racist country.”
But despite the attacks, Ano encourages her friends to come here – “You cannot say all people are bad because of one person’s actions. I always tell them to come.”
Ano was initially unenthusiastic about taking part in Miss Africa Bangalore. But once she learned that no other woman would be representing the Ivory Coast, she decided to try out. “It’ll be an experience,” she recalled thinking.
For the cultural performance, wearing a traditional outfit and dancing was no problem for Ano. But when it was time to speak in front of the audience, she grew more and more nervous. “I was so stressed. I forgot all my words,” she said. Fortunately, she didn’t get eliminated and will be heading to the final on Christmas Day.
For her part, Thetkoech has loved the experience of meeting women from various parts of Africa, including some from French-speaking nations. During the finale, the women will take part in a swimsuit competition as well as model in different dresses and gowns. Participants will be eliminated until only three remain. Those finalists will each be asked a question, which will only be revealed at the competition, Mayunda said. Aside from the judging panel, there is also an online poll that accounts for 20% of the vote.
Though none of the pageant participants interviewed by Scroll.in said they had personally faced a racist attack in Bengaluru or felt unsafe, all expressed sadness and frustration over the instances of Africans being targeted in India. Both Ano and Thetkoech often see female friends receive unwanted attention from men, mostly through social media. Ano said African women are sometimes stereotyped as prostitutes. She sees the pageant as a way to highlight the value of the African woman.
“They will show that the African woman is intellectual, smart,” she added. “It’s a challenging experience. It makes you face your fears.”
After college, some foreign students hope to stay in India for internships, while others look to continue their education or head back to their home countries. Ano, for example, hopes to attend graduate school in Australia, Canada or the United States for a master’s programme, while Thetkoech wants to do an internship and then go back home to Kenya.
Dorian Selma Magano, 22, a Namibian pageant finalist who is studying journalism, believes that being in India is good for a lot of African students. She is keen on staying for an internship, but worries that the job market is particularly challenging for foreign students. The experiences of foreigners in India have motivated her to interview these students about their life in the country and how they have been treated in India.
“Until today, I still don’t understand how some people can be racist,” she said. “Only the outer colour that is covering our skin is different. But we’re all human beings.”