Laurisca Kalongo’s first brush with racism in India occurred last year, in a busy part of Hyderabad. “I’d booked a cab to go home and when it finally arrived, the driver took one look at me and cancelled the ride,” recalled the 21-year-old Zambian, who is studying computer science at Osmania University.” I instinctively muttered an apology, which she brushed aside. “That was my only bad experience in India,” she said, preferring not to dwell on the incident.

But clearly, she wasn’t totally unaffected by it.

A few things have been bothering her in her two years in India: the astonishing level of ignorance about Africa among those she interact with, and the notorious reputation people from Africa seem to have. “All Africans are perceived as violent beings or drug addicts,” she said exasperatedly. “When I tell people that I am from Zambia, they’re surprised to learn about its existence. Most of them have heard about more popular countries like Nigeria. Others don’t even know Africa has different countries, with its own set of cultures.” It also disappoints Kalongo, a professional model, that she isn’t given enough modelling opportunities in India.

All these grouses, together with the desire to spread awareness, has spurred her to action, and this week, she is organising a beauty pageant for African women living in India. The national-level contest, Miss Africa India, is touted to be the first-of-its kind, and will be held on November 8 at HITEC city in Hyderabad. The contest, said Kalongo, aims to celebrate the diversity of African culture and foster love, peace and better understanding between peoples.

“Since we stay in India, we’ve had the opportunity to experience its cultural diversity,” said Kalongo, who is currently working on her Hindi. “I feel it’s time we showcased the richness of our culture.”

Women empowerment

In February, Kalongo discussed the idea with her close friends Chigozirim Obike and Timothy Umukoro. They set the plan in motion in May by launching a website which announced the contest as well as auditions in Delhi, Bengaluru, Mumbai, Chandigarh, Hyderabad, Pune and Kakinada. “Based on the response, we conducted online auditions for candidates from Mumbai, Pune, Kakinada and, eventually, additional cities like Warangal, Rourkela, Baroda and Bhubaneswar,” said Kalongo. By this time, the organising committee had expanded to 12 members – all mutual friends and church acquaintances eager to lend a hand.

Around 230 women, mostly students, turned up for the auditions, which were held from June to August. One of them was Viola Jovenale, a beauty pageant veteran from South Sudan. “Apart from contests back home, I’ve participated in Miss Africa Bangalore as well, and one of the contest’s organisers informed me about MAI,” said Jovenale.

A contestant at the audition in Hyderabad. Photo credit: www.missafricaindia.com.
A contestant at the audition in Hyderabad. Photo credit: www.missafricaindia.com.

The 24-year-old came to Bengaluru in 2016 to study law. “I have great friends here but I have had unpleasant experiences as well,” she said. “Once while walking down the street, two guys on a bike stared at me in an obscene manner and laughed loudly at me. I was so furious. Sometimes, people look at you differently because you are an African.”

Racism towards African nationals is not uncommon in India. In 2014, a few Ugandan women had their houses in South Delhi’s Khirki Extension raided. A Tanzanian woman was stripped and beaten in Bengaluru in 2016, and later that year, three Nigerians were racially abused and attacked in Hyderabad. Last year, in Greater Noida, several Nigerian students were attacked and severely injured by a mob of Indians.

Jovenale decided to take part in Miss Africa India to “inspire girls around the world”. “So many women silently bear discrimination and harassment at the workplace and home,” she said. “When women are empowered, the whole society benefits…in South Sudan, women are now being given few opportunities to participate in politics. I think that’s still not enough and we need more than that.”

Viola Jovenale.
Viola Jovenale.

Changing perceptions

Kalongo was desperate to keep her identity as the pageant’s organiser a secret – a decision that later backfired. “As students, it was tough for us to convince contestants to come onboard because they suspected that we were out to scam them,” she said. “But since we didn’t reveal the organiser details, a few models got suspicious and backed out anyway.”

Mounting bills forced the team to dig into their own pockets. “We paid around Rs 1 lakh from our pocket money and stipend for flight tickets to make it to these cities for the auditions, rent spaces and print the logo,” said Kalungo. “We faced severe financial crunches – we still do occasionally, and are in the middle of negotiating deals with new sponsors.”

 Laurisca Kalongo.
Laurisca Kalongo.

Thirty contestants were eventually shortlisted for public voting. People could visit the contest’s official website and vote to select the 15 finalists. The voting process began around mid-August and ended two weeks later.

The final round, scheduled for Thursday, will be preceded by a boot camp starting on Monday. Just as Kalongo had envisioned, both events will highlight the best of what Africa has to offer – there are cooking sessions and a costume round, during which contestants will wear the traditional attire that best represents their country. “We have booked the finalists’ tickets to Hyderabad,” she said. “But they have to make their own arrangements to head back home.”

Yollandh-Aiwill Koffi, a 24-year-old finalist from Delhi, can barely contain her excitement. She describes Miss Africa India as the perfect platform to talk to young women about body confidence. “Today, everyone wants to have a body like Kim or Kendall Kardashian,” she said. “But you have to learn to love yourself and your body. Only then will your confidence shine through and set you apart from the rest.”

Yollandh-Aiwill Koffi.
Yollandh-Aiwill Koffi.

Koffi, who hails from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, came to India as a student in 2013 and graduated from Amity University in 2016. Most recently, she has worked for a telecommunications company. “I have some great friends but I am not going to lie, I have had horrible experiences too,” said Koffi. “In 2015, I was attacked by a man in Govindpuri. He lunged at me from behind out of nowhere, and I couldn’t see his face. There were several people nearby, but no one came forward to help. Luckily my mother was there with me and she beat him up.” Three years on, Koffi suffers from residual symptoms of trauma. “I still have a fear of crowded spaces,” she said.

When Kalongo moved to India she had to field mildly amusing questions about her hair. “When you look at us, you only see our black skin,” she said. “But there is so much more to us than that.” Miss Africa India, she hopes, is a small step towards changing that perception.

Contestants and judges at the audition in Hyderabad. Photo credit: www.missafricaindia.com.
Contestants and judges at the audition in Hyderabad. Photo credit: www.missafricaindia.com.