The African churches of South Delhi

Nigerian migrant in Khirkee Village, South Delhi. Image credit Malini Kochupillai.

On any given Sunday in one of South Delhi’s dozens of Pentecostal African church services occurring in various, stuffy rented halls, you might see the following: a Nigerian lady dressed in a bright pink sari; an Indian lady cuddling a curly-haired baby fathered by her Nigerian husband; a small cluster of Indians trying to sing a hymn in Igbo or a tall Nigerian man dressed in a spotless white agbada speaking Hindi. At climactic moments in the pastor’s sermon, the entire congregation shouts in unison, “Amen my faddah, amen my faddah, amen my faddah.”

Every Sunday and even on weekdays, when there are pastors visiting from Nigeria, thousands of Africans living in India’s National Capital Region (NCR) head to these “charismatic” church services lasting three to four hours. The majority of the congregants hail from Nigeria, but in attendance are also Congolese, Ugandans, Tanzanians and various other African nationals, along with Indians, especially from the Northeastern region.

These churches are part of a wider transnational phenomenon. They were born in the USA but are increasingly popular in many African countries and other developing nations afflicted by the brutal inequities produced by global capitalism. In India, however, they also provide Africans with a refuge.

Africans, especially Nigerians, have a bad reputation in India as criminals and drug dealers. In recent years, they have become victims of numerous violent, sometimes deadly, xenophobic attacks. 

“Nigerian Tied To Post, Thrashed By Mob In Delhi, Nobody Helped” reads one typical headline.

Despite the hostile environment or because of it, many African migrants seek comfort in church communities. One Nigerian student I interviewed told me he did not attend church when he lived in Nigeria but does in India because he sees it as “a nation of idol worshippers.” He is also lonely and finds it difficult to integrate into the lower-middle class neighborhood he lives in because of negative stereotypes about Africans.

Of course, the majority of Africans in India are not criminals. They arrive in India on business and student visas and often end up staying years, settling down, marrying, having children, exporting Indian products to their home countries and importing their home foodstuffs, fabrics, and of course, cultural practices such as going to church.

One congregant of the Shiloh Global Worship Centre (AKA Chapel of Possibilities) in Delhi’s southern suburb of Saket has found success as a fashion designer with showrooms in Lagos and Delhi.

Once settled, African migrants bring other family members over for medical treatment because India offers sophisticated care at relatively cheap cost. One Nigerian student who was charmed into coming to India by Bollywood films brought her elderly mother over for a course of treatment that lasted months. This dignified woman always wears traditional Nigerian dress with an elegant head wrap. One day, when she was walking through Khirkee Village’s narrow, winding alleys, someone threw food scraps at her. This experience radicalized her daughter, who laments the fact that Indians are treated so well in Nigeria while Africans suffer such indignities in India.

India is a complex environment. The African experience is over-determined by the country’s general obsession with lighter skin.  As usual, white foreigners enjoy extraordinary privilege. The reverse is true for darker skinned people, those who are associated with being “low caste.” Indians, especially those with less exposure and education, look down on Africans. Many middle-class Africans find themselves living amongst Indians who are less cosmopolitan than those who live in South Delhi’s more upper-class “colonies.”

Dark-skinned Africans and single-lidded Northeastern Indians whom locals describe as looking “Nepali” or “Chinese” are both marginalized groups in the NCR. Both Africans and Northeasterners often experience difficulty finding housing because of xenophobic prejudice and hence, both end up living together in Delhi’s lower middle-class, less regulated, “urban villages” like Munirka, Khirkee, Chattarpur, and Safdarjung Enclave’s Arjuna Nagar.

Hence, a large network of churches has grown up in and around these areas. Ironically, these “born again”-style churches can end up causing even more anti-African antagonism in an environment where Hindu nationalism is on the rise and producing greater intolerance towards India’s large Muslim population and much smaller Christian population.

Like Africans in India, Africans on the continent are turning more and more to these churches. Ironically they may be doing so for the same reasons as African migrants in Delhi: to seek solace from the hostile environment engendered by the endemic failures of African governments to provide adequate opportunity and decent quality of life for their citizens. Which is the reason so many move to India in the first place.

Melissa Tandiwe Myambo

Melissa Tandiwe Myambo is a Research Associate of the Centre for Indian Studies in Africa at Wits University in South Africa and was a 2016 Fulbright-Nehru Scholar. Links to her other writings can be found on her website, www.homosumhumani.com.

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