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by Achal Prabhala

I prayed for laughter, a life without hunger. I was answered with paradoxes.

It remains an enigma how it came to be that I was born smiling.

— Ben Okri, The Famished Road

In August 2005, Special Assignment ran a story on how corrupt police officers in Johannesburg were making the daily life of African immigrants pure hell. Newspapers gave the story breathless coverage, top police officials exploded under the ensuing media scrutiny and the city let out a collective gasp of disbelief – African immigrants! Police brutality! Here? My…God.

Concerned journalists quickly informed us that Nigerians were human beings too, some savvy Congolese gents informed the South African Parliament that foreigners wanted nothing more than to proselytise entrepreneurship. And then, almost as quickly as it had emerged, the cottage industry of righteous indignation was displaced to make way for that man of the masses Mr. Zuma and his black, bullet-proof Humvee.

Possessing a somewhat better memory than the South African Broadcasting Corporation, I remember another Special Assignment show from last year: the “degradation” of Port Elizabeth. It was a typically ambitious story, covering everything from decaying buildings to loud nightclubs to congregations of people in public places, and crowned by urbanology’s favourite symptom – “drugs.” Without so much as a blush, it confirmed that when good cities go bad, there’s usually a simple explanation: Nigerians.

As a subcontinental Indian once resident in South Africa, now back home, I can confirm that gushingly reproducing this thesis is not the favoured pastime of South African media alone. New Delhi’s leading organ, the Times of India (once a respectable newspaper, now one long advertorial) is filled with stories of drug busts – involving the invariable gang of Nigerians and an occasional Kenyan. Its not that I doubt Nigerian involvement in the drugs trade, yet I’m left indignant by headlines such as “Nigerian, 2 others held for drug peddling” – especially when the “2 others” happen to be Indian, and their approximately one thousand unnamed customers happen to be rich Indian kids.

But Delhi is not generally known for its sensitivity. Bangalore, the city I call home, is a lot more laid-back. It counts a population of about seven million, and hogs considerable column space as India’s Silicon Valley. Lately it’s become a pretty common noun. From Nebraska to New York, “Bangalored!” is the manner in which unemployed Americans describe the predicament of outsourcing. India’s middle-class English press loves to play this up. Hacks and hackers alike thrive on the colony-gives-it-back sentiment, and local politicians adore Kerry for saying, “If Bangalore can be completely wired, then so should all of America.”

I suppose billionaires make better role models than beggars, never mind that something like a third of Bangalore’s population lives in slums. Faced with abject poverty, the only thing that gets street children wired is a furtive sniff of glue. With all that campaign money, one would think that Kerry could have bought better information.

Thankfully, there are other stories here – like the foreign student, a longstanding fixture on Bangalore’s social scene. With its evidently temperate climate, its apparently temperate people, and an abundance of college seats, the young and the restless come from Palestine, Iran, Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania and Nigeria. In the early 1980s, in the thick of an import-substitution economy, when “foreign” meant making the impossibly expensive one-hour journey to Sri Lanka, African and Arab students were gaped at with admiration for their Western ways and blue jeans. African modernity hit its highest note in Bangalore when Osibisa rolled into town, drums, afros, and world peace in tow, sending the city into a delirium that would last several years.

That was then. Now, Bangalore is the nerve centre of the world’s economy and boarding the plane to Sunnyvale, California is about as exotic as driving a Toyota Corolla. But in its eagerness to accommodate the sudden influx of high-income foreigners, Bangalore’s middle-class seems to have misplaced a somewhat lowlier cosmopolitanism that always existed. Last December, I noticed an article on hair braiding in The Hindu, the staid newspaper beloved by South India’s old left. It harked back to an era of blasé worldliness, before we started treating the 15 Swedish families resident in Bangalore as a media event. The article – “Curious Curls” – explained the process and suggested options for young African women on the lookout for a compliant hair salon. It was written by John Patrick Ojwando – from Kenya, I would learn, and a PhD student in neighbouring Mysore – whose byline continued to appear regularly, on articles that had nothing to do with African students or braided hair.

The foreign student isn’t the story anymore. He is writing them. My friends told me that the city’s most sought-after yoga instructor was an Iranian Muslim. This was very civilised, and my ensuing happiness, somewhat rational. What was not quite explainable was my secret delight at seeing African names and faces pop up in society columns, or the mesmerised stare I levelled at a bevy of female African models who descended on a quiet bar that I went to last week, or the fascination I have with Hanes underwear, which (inexplicably) uses middle-aged African models in their Indian advertisements.

However, the truth is that African students still face plenty of hostility wherever they study in India, and the fact that the average South Indian complexion is not unlike its African counterpart means not very much – this is, after all, the largest regional market for Unilever’s “Fair and Lovely” skin cream.

And up there in the geopolitical trapeze, the Indian government is swinging about hoping to catch a Euro-American rope. Once, Nehru and Nyerere were ideological allies for an alternative planet, but the days of the Non-Aligned movement are over. Frontline magazine sums up the current state of Indo-African relations: “In recent years, African sensitivities have been repeatedly ignored by India as it single-mindedly seeks a power profile. No senior minister from the government turned up to sign the condolence book at the Sudanese Embassy after the death of John Garang. The previous National Democratic Alliance government was no better. Nobody bothered to turn up at the Tanzanian High Commission after the passing away of Julius Nyerere.”

Which basically means that we now treat other third-worlders with the contempt that they deserve. “Immigrant communities have always been open to unashamed pigeonholing and haranguing from the media, the state and its citizens,” writes Sonia Faleiro in Tehelka, a weekly newspaper that looks and reads like South Africa’s Mail & Guardian. In one of the few articles that actually asks Nigerians, Iranians and Nepalis to tell us how they’re treated here, Faleiro also finds out what we think of them: “Nigerians are drug peddlers, Nepalis will rob you in your sleep, Russians will sell their bodies for the right price and Bangladeshis are slum dwellers.”

An Indian surgeon who travelled to Durban for a conference wrote an article in The Hindu, lamenting that Gandhi’s former home in Phoenix is “neglected and unvisited,” finding its state of disrepair a huge disappointment. South Africa thinks that India owes it one for putting Gandhi through revolution school; India thinks South Africa owes it for sending him over to show the natives how it’s done. Now, as an admirer of Gandhi who feels no need to be apologetic about it, I’m wondering if the local reluctance to claim Gandhi as a struggle icon has anything to do with a complaint he made in 1896 – that Europeans in South Africa were equating Indians with the “raw kaffir, whose occupation is hunting and whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with, and then pass his life in indolence and nakedness.”

“We are all in the gutter,” Oscar Wilde said, “But some of us are looking at the stars.”

And doing it indolently and nakedly to boot. Bangalore wants to be Singapore when it grows up. Johannesburg wants to be San Francisco, London and Tokyo, all at once (this is not my imagination; it’s the city’s Vision 2030).  Both yearn to become hubs on the international conference circuit, though liberation has them confused about the profile of their ideal visitor: fat wallets a must, dark skin a plus. One thing I know for sure. Neither Bangalore nor Johannesburg wants to become like the other. Both cities are transfixed by the idea of being “world-class.”

And when citizens and city-planners from Johannesburg and Bangalore hop around the world for inspiration, the very last place they will think of visiting is Lagos. But this will be their loss. As Johannesburg frets about how to keep the slums where they are, faraway from the glittering malls, and Bangalore worries about how to move its slums so that it can build glittering malls, I imagine that master-planners in both cities are tossing in their sleep with a shared nightmare: the prospect of Lagosification. 

Of course, one wonders what it is exactly about Lagos that makes Johannesburg sweat. Safer streets? Less gun crime? Abundant services? Cheap food? Public transport? A thriving informal economy? A vibrant film industry? Bangalore’s fears are entirely different, since, strictly speaking, Lagos is a familiar city. What we don’t quite have is precisely what Lagos oozes from every pore: attitude. It’s why we say the word empowerment very softly – shhh, or people might actually realise what they can do.

For the record, I don’t live in a slum, and like most slum-dwellers, I wouldn’t want to if I could afford not to. I don’t like traffic jams, whether in Bangalore or Lagos, and when I’m away from Johannesburg, I frequently dream of its smooth highways. And occasionally, I like to shop in a controlled environment. But that’s it. Otherwise, I’m grateful I grew up in a city where I couldn’t escape the very poor, even if the authorities are doing their best to change that now. And I think it’s healthier to live with an acknowledgement that the world isn’t all middle-class, clean and aesthetically pleasing and never will be; that roads reek of urine because some people have no choice; that streets crowded with cyclists and buses are a good thing, for it means that people who can’t afford air-conditioned SUVs have the power to move.

The world-class city is a daunting prospect: it sounds like a club that won’t let me in without the right shoes. I prefer third-class cities, the kind you can feel stirring in Ajegunle, Yeoville and Shivajinagar. They’re shabby, comfortable places, equally welcoming of the poor, the rich and the alien; they shrug off the idea that they’re necessary evils with an easy grin. They lack that inflated sense of place that deludes the world-class city into taking itself seriously.

I can’t imagine that Bangalore will ever become as spatially segregated as Johannesburg is today, and I can’t see the Johannesburg status quo lasting forever. As one city wills itself into becoming London, and the other trips over itself to catch up with Singapore, I like to think that both cities might end up looking a lot more like each other, malls, stalls and all.

And partly responsible for this discomfiting democracy will be the Lagos germ – travelling undetected in conversations, slipping into cities through the imagination of its people, manifesting itself as a constant itch under the skin of a well-scrubbed world, inducing a condition that is as unpleasant, uplifting, disturbing, enjoyable and inevitable as necessary.

This article first appeared in print in Chimurenga Magazine 8 – We’re All Nigerian (December 2005).
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