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Nigerian Wahala – Xenophobia: Desi and South African Flavours

Updated: Nov 4, 2023

I’m Nigerian.

Yes. I may look East African, sound like a Yank who has perfected some variant of the transatlantic accent merged with an Australian accent; and am a naturalized South African. But I remain Nigerian. It is an inescapable reality with which I have a very complicated relationship and find myself constantly reminded.

I’m Nigerian. And South African. And I’ve heard all the stereotypes of us here in South Africa. From our sexual prowess, to us being big and buff, 419ers with their Prince Scams, G-boys and Yahoo-boys us being drug dealers, to this false idea that Ghanian jollof is better than Nigerian jollof (mad love to my Ghanian brothers and sisters, but the jollof wars must remain… even if Ghanian jollof could have an upper hand in some situations), to how every Nigerian is engaged in criminal activity, having trees which grow money, is in the country illegally or bribed to get into the country... to my personal favorite, Nigerians are a genocidal bunch that steal the women from South African men and exterminate South Africans altogether.

And look, a bunch of Nigerians are engaged in a ton of dodgy activities. Those people should face the full wrath of the law. That said, in the popular imagination, Nigerians are synonymous with crooks, sex, violence, muscle, drugs, witchcraft (curse you Nollywood) and criminality. Even though most Nigerians are just ordinary folks doing life who are aspiring to a middle-class existence and the benefits it confers. Because a middle-class existence removes one from some of the more vicious forms of xenophobic attacks. Because you’re not in proximity to such situations (unless you use public transportation), while also increasing envy from some who see your existence as having stolen what is rightfully theirs.

In 2009, we had the first of many xenophobic attacks in South Africa. When my sister and I were in high school, we usually walked or took the minibus taxi or bus, whichever was more convenient. People were being attacked left and right (if you looked foreign, it’s enough). But there was particular venom for Nigerians and Zimbabweans. The two groups were considered by some to be making the country worse, stealing women from local men and stealing the jobs of South Africans.

There have been a number of xenophobic attacks since. The last having been for a short period in 2019 which had me petrified to go campus, since I took public transport.

This year, my Nigerianness intersected with my experience of being a Black man with close relationships with the South African Desi community.

The first time was Valentine’s Day. Namaste Wahala. Yes, sure, the movie was cheesy as heck and I could critique it a lot on the pacing, the storylines, and its attempts at doing everything at once… but for me, this movie sits on a pedestal, ever so slightly above reproach, because it was the first time that the world got to see the representation of what I’ve always said – Indians and South Asians and Nigerians have a lot of similarities, but struggle across a lot of misunderstanding.

I celebrated and shoved the movie down the throats of all those around me and listened to the criticism which I largely agreed on. But I stood by the film for the work of representation it is and the meaning of such for me. I pondered, and sat thinking of how to make a better, more realistic movie that would tell such a story within my context, based on an amalgamation of my experiences.

The most recent time my Nigerianness intersected with being Black and close to the South African Desi community, was after the death of a Nigerian man in India, allegedly at the hands of the Indian police.

At this point, I am still riding high on the fumes of Namaste Wahala being revolutionary, trying to figure out how to make biryani-jollof, and chatting with my bestie about her planning my wedding on the off chance I ended up getting married. And then that happened. Members of the Blindian Project were harassed for raising awareness and I fell to earth faster than Icarus when his waxen wings melted.

On top of this, there were videos of attacks on Nigerians in India by Indians, and the Indian police stood watching and sometimes joined in. It made me think of a time when I was at my Desi friends’ house during Eid and someone came to visit and I greeted him, extending my hand. He looked at my hand with disdain and disgust, then commented about not shaking my hand because I did not have wuduh (ritual purification that Muslims perform before praying). In my mind, I wondered if he was concerned if my Black skin would end up darkening his if he happened to touch me.

All of this highlights another element to this story of what happened in India beyond Nigerian folks and their bad reputation. That’s India’s anti-blackness.

There’s a major issue of anti-blackness within the brown community. Fair and lovely… “Beta she is too dark for you.” … and the issues faced by Black and Brown couples… among others. There is a significant hostility to “Die Swart Gevaar”, “The Black Danger”, the menace of the Black man who would potentially taint the daughters or the evil Black woman trying to lead men astray. Inherently dangerous, inherently sneaky and sly.

Oddly, over the last decade, India has been attempting to increase its trade relations and dynamics with countries on the African continent. Deals are being done between India and Nigeria: two countries that are home to major megacities facing common challenges in the future, with somewhat similar environmental climates. Many Nigerians have moved to India, and Indians have moved to Nigeria, both groups bringing with them the best and the worst of their peoples. On top of this, 25,000 African students were studying in India as of 2019, and is a destination for medical tourism for Nigerians, due to its affordability.

I want to believe in a future, where despite the difference and problematic folks within both of our communities (Nigerian and Indian), there is the potential for solidarity resulting from representation of the two groups together and engaging with each other, dispelling the myths and self-fulfilling narratives of violence and anger we have.

@vinceza_ is a third culture kid 🇳🇬🇺🇲🇿🇦 and honourary member of the Brown community in SA.

An evolving political economist, avid reader, occasionally dabbling in the dark arts of writing and poetry. He's passionate about reproductive health education within his communities, interreligious and intercultural dialogue, raising awareness of neurodivergence and history.

Artwork by: k.mrudula

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