When 20-year-old Kenyan student Moses Gitahi talks to his mother on the phone, the occasional Okay va? slips in, much to her amusement. It has been three years since he moved to Chennai, and his Tamil mixes comfortably with Swahili.
Moses is one of many African students who have, for the four to six years it takes to complete a college education, settled in Chennai. The city is currently home to students from Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Mauritius, Kenya, Malawi, Angola and Tanzania.
At the Madras Institute of Technology, a group of these students, including Moses, gather and swap stories of their experience in the city so far. Anna University, we find, is a brand that’s well respected in African countries.
When Moses first came here, he was taken aback by the hot weather, surprising his faculty. “People assumed that because I am from Africa, I would be used to the heat. But I actually come from the highlands in Nairobi, where temperature can drop to 12 degrees, Centigrade” he says. He eventually acclimatised to the weather, but what made him feel like a local was a successful attempt at bargaining. He proudly says, “One guy tried to charge me ₹ 200 from Pallavaram to Chromepet, I got it down to ₹ 40.”
The one thing that can make any strange land familiar again is food. As the group discusses food from home, they grow boisterous, sharing stories of cooking disasters and successes alike. Recipes are exchanged, and tips shared by senior students on where to buy the best meat.
“When I smell carne seca (marinated beef), I am convinced I am home again, and living in Chennai was some dream that I woke up from,” says Augusto Eduardo. He and his roommate, Elmirando Girne, a fellow Angolan, are reminiscing, in rushed Portuguese, of the time they cooked feijoada, a dish made of black beans and ground meat, and mufete, a grilled fish dish.
Suddenly, Tafadzwa Madzanine raises his hand, visibly excited. “I found that there is one dish we have back home in Zimbabwe, that’s very similar to idli! We call it sadza. Instead of rice flour, we use maize,” he says. “Hey, that’s called ugaliin Kenya!” chimes in Moses Gitahi. Sadza, it turns out, is a staple Zimbabwean dish that is a thickened porridge made of pulverised white maize, and served with chicken stew.
Idli with chicken? Nigerian student Precious Ndubueze, from SRM University, explains, “In my country, it would be an insult to serve guests a dish without any meat.” He talks about one of his favourite dishes, called ‘vegetable’ soup, which contains waterleaf, and also beef and dried fish. “It’s difficult to replicate that taste here because you don’t get waterleaf or palm fruit oil easily,” he says. But if there’s one thing he makes sure he brings with him, it’s the African black pepper.
It was a cold (well, by Chennai’s standards) December evening when Jeff Guillaume met Daniel at the Ark of Victory church in Sembakkam, while bringing in the New Year of 2018. It had been almost a year since Jeff left his home in Rodrigues, Mauritius, to study Automobile Engineering at Madras Institute of Technology. Jeff discovered that Daniel was from Nigeria, and had plans to start the Chennai chapter of Federation of International Students Association (FISA), a group that Jeff has been part of since its foundation in May.
The group, comprising mostly African students, gets together for sports tournaments, cultural programmes and to celebrate their heritage. “Back home, I was cut off from the mainland. It was in India, in Chennai, that I learnt about Africa,” says Jeff.
Like Jeff, Moses Gondwe too has found a sense of community in the connecting threads of faith. The III-year student from Malawi, is a regular at the New Life Assembly Of God church in Little Mount and has met nearly 30 Africans there every Sunday.
“I set up the musical instruments for the choir, and Brother Gideon, from Nigeria, has become a close friend of mine. Every week, we talk about everything from music to God, to our experiences here,” he says.
Finding a home
The biggest culture shock seems to be the invisible barrier between men and women imposed in engineering college campuses across the State. “This separation is strange… There is a girl from Kenya here, but ever since we came here we haven’t really hung out that much,” observes Kenyan student Mathew Musyimi. It’s a sentiment that echoes with almost every student we have met. Dating, it follows, is hard here. “If you send more than a couple of messages on Facebook, you get blocked,” he laughs.
But if you ask Precious about his romantic life here, he shies away. “Anyway, I am not here to meet women… I have a higher priority right now,” he says. Indeed, Precious has grand plans of building an app that can provide emergency healthcare services. “Back where I grew up in Lagos, you could not reach a doctor when you needed them, unless you had a personal contact. When you walk into a hospital with an emergency and actually find a doctor, you have God’s blessing,” he says.
Precious plans on making either Chennai, or maybe Bengaluru, the base for his start-up. “I like how calm and loving the people here are.” He sounds a little envious as he recalls how surprised he was to see parents, even grandparents seeing students off at their hostels. “Nobody fussed over us like that when we were young. When I have kids, I want them to have that kind of a familial bond,” he says.
In the past three years he has been here, he says he not gone home. “There are so many Nigerians here that I don’t really miss Lagos.” Having already picked up the basic nalla irukingala and saaptiya’, Precious says he generally manages to understand a conversation in Tamil. “I don’t know why but this city has always seemed familiar to me,” he says. “It’s like a home away from home.”
This year, for Madras Week, we meet a cross section of people and communities that have found a home in Chennai.