2/2013
Print this page

The Chennai connection

The Mohammed Sathak College of Arts and Science near Chennai claims to have the largest number of African students in India. Many of them come from Somalia or Sudan.

There is absolutely nothing new about the large numbers of African students attending centres of higher learning in India, as India has always been one of the preferred destinations besides China and Malaysia. Notable among the large African student fraternity who have earned degrees from the various Indian institutions, are two highly accomplished and distinguished Somalis – the current President of Somalia, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud holds an MBA from the Bhopal University and one of the finest intellectual-writers of the world and thrice-nominated for a Nobel, Nuruddin Farah, has a B.A. degree in English Literature and Philosophy from the Punjab University.

Students from East Africa with the Principal, Dean, and the Academic Director.

A considerable number of East African students have been pursuing undergraduate and postgraduate courses in Computer Science, Business Administration and Information Systems Management in the several self-financed institutions in Chennai city and its suburbs for a decade and a half. Among the privately-governed colleges, the Mohammed Sathak College of Arts and Science, claims to have the largest number of African students, the majority from the troubled regions of Somalia and Sudan.

Having had the opportunity in early November 2013 to talk to the boys, as there were hardly any girls – which is yet another interesting narrative by itself – I learnt more about these students’ dreams and aspirations regarding their careers, future course of action, levels of adaptability in a foreign land, what brought them to this particular institution in large numbers, and what were their parameters for choosing India as their study-destination and more…

East African students of Mohammed Sathak College

Popularly known as Bangladeshi College, with a huge student population from Bangladesh, since its inception in 1991 the Mohammed Sathak Arts and Science College in Sholinganallur, near Chennai, has a pleasant ambience. An unassuming person, Alhag Dr. Major Jalani, Dean of the institution, observed that student visas, and other bureaucratic formalities for the foreign students are made less cumbersome by the college administrative staff and this may perhaps be the reason this institution appeals to the overseas students.

The fee structure is low, comparatively speaking, and the mosque, situated within the campus, is important for the students from the Islamic states of Africa. Publicity has only been through word of mouth, says the Dean proudly, and also adds that public relations and the welfare of the student community from abroad are their top priorities.

A sign above a corridor at the Mohammed Sathak Arts and Science College.

Awestruck by the striking similarities in folklore, rituals, beliefs and practices between the indigenous communities of Africa and India, during the Chotro Conference on Indigeneity in Delhi in 2010, a senior Nigerian academic remarked humorously: “I wonder who copied from whom?”

Prehistoric ties and contacts between the two countries, under the aegis of Indian Ocean Studies, is also gaining wider popularity today than before among the academia and shedding much light on the dynamics of cross-country trade and cultural penetrations. In the recent times, an explicit India-Africa dialogue is visible as evidenced in the multilateral engagements through India Africa Forum Summits, and through partnerships facilitated by IBSA and BRIC, promoting and fostering stronger India-Africa ties.

Diaspora voices

When Somali-based British author of Black Mamba Boy, Nadeefa Mohammed, spoke on Somalia, based on her father’s narratives and her own personal visits, to a select Chennai audience mid-November 2013 (a part of the Granta-British Council India collaborative venture), it appeared as though Somalia had finally found a voice.

Nadeefa, and several other emerging diaspora writers have begun to tell their stories to the world outside, in the process disseminating knowledge and information and also connecting the remote and distant parts of the earth. Such stories are essential today, and that is primarily the reason, why I was keen on an interaction with the undergraduate students from the Horn of Africa, of the Mohammed Sathak college.

The highly authoritarian regime of the military leader Siyad Barre in Somalia (1969–91), was indeed a worrying factor for many Somalis, who began moving out of Somalia in the years preceding the civil war and after.

Khalid’s parents were among the huge displaced populations who left Somalia, for safety and security. Having had to support a huge family, Khalid’s father Ahmed, now an imam in Dubai, completed his Islamic education in Saudi Arabia. In the 1970s he relocated to Dubai with his family.

As is the usual practice with the Somali diaspora residing in the Gulf states, Khalid, too, was sent to study in an international school in Medhipatnam, Hyderabad. Hyderabad, especially the old city with its large Muslim population provides the necessary ambience and is home to a large Somali community, the biggest in the entire country.

Khalid, and the other Somali boys, were part of the second generation diaspora, and were not privy to the civil war and the various clan-based factions in Somalia, with lineage obsessions and genealogy. But the younger generation certainly is aware of the tragic turn of events in Somalia through their parents’ stories, and update themselves regarding the present situation of their country via the BBC Somalia and Voice of America (VOA).

Khalid was also familiar with the marginalization of the Somalis in the Ogaden, yet another historic chapter by the Ethiopians, as his mother belonged to the Ogaden. Khalid, like his other Somali counterparts are yet to make up their minds whether to prolong their stay in India for a master’s degree, as they were only in their first year, and would decide gradually, they told me. Khalid does miss home for sure, and lives in the college hostel while most of the students lived in the surrounding areas, Medavakkam, Kanathur and Perimbakkam, in rented apartments and houses, sharing space and cooking their own food.

Somali students interacting with the Dean of Mohammed Sathak College.

Abdul Rashid’s journey to Chennai was more or less similar to the other Somali boys’. Enroute Hyderabad, where he did most of his schooling for a few years, he came to Mohammed Sathak, as most of his relatives and friends had done likewise for years. His parents relocated from Bakara to Dubai in the 1990s, where his father has a car-showroom.

Almost all the students I talked with were from big families with almost six or seven siblings. Education in India was much cheaper and affordable when compared to the United States or Europe and other South East Asian countries. Paper work and bureaucratic hassles were too many, hence they opted for India.

Mischieveous and cool, Abdirauf Mohammed, a final year Computer Science student, switched from one Indian language to the other with so much ease. “Ennakku ellamae theriyum”,(I know everything), was his reply to how many Indian languages he knew. On hearing this, one of the Arabic-speaking Sudanese students told me he found it extremely difficult to articulate Indian languages, as his tongue and gutturals were trained in Arabic sounds. Abdirauf felt completely at home both in Chennai, and in Medhipatnam, Hyderabad, where his family had moved to after shifting base first from Mogadishu and later, Dubai.

Adbinasir Ugaz from Jigjiga, Ethiopia, did not have any sad or bitter experience of relocation, neither was he under any pressure to come to India, like his counterparts from war-torn zones. The decision to study in India was for wider exposure, to meet more challenges and to develop good communication skills in English, agreed to by all the students, since they were from Arabic or French-speaking regions of Africa.

In fact, the French-speaking students from Djibouti quietly disappeared to their hostel-rooms, and told their friends that they could not take part in the conversations I was having with the other students, as they hardly spoke any English. Ugaz’s father, a tribal chieftain, was also a member of Parliament. Ugaz was extremely confident about finding a good job for himself on his return home from India, with a degree in business administration, as Ethiopia had a stable economy and is in a much better position than most fragile African states.

Youth and conflict resolution

But Mohammed Hussein, a second year student, and his cousin Kamil Omar, a postgraduate student, just cannot afford the luxury of even dreaming of a lucrative career on their return to Khartoum. It is pointless to go back, they told me, and sensible to pursue a Master’s degree in Chennai, or maybe in Delhi, with its wider options and opportunities, and they seemed particularly interested in jobs in NGOs, the UN, or the African Union, what most of their peers had opted for.

Having relocated from Darfur to Khartoum during the crisis-years, these boys had witnessed infighting and large scale violence by the rebel factions, various militias, and the Janjaweed, in their home town. Having grown up in a turbulent atmosphere, the two boys longed for peace and stability in their countries.

However, their responses to the dancing and entertainment provided by the popular and charming Bollywood heroes like Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan and Hrithik Roshan, were pretty normal and more or less the same like any other teenagers’. But, at heart, they were very different from the others, saddened and burdened by the kind of exposure they seemed to have had from a very tender age. Mohammed, Kamil, Tariq, and the others from Sudan knew more about child soldiers than what I had read of Ishmael Beah and the Lost Boys of Sudan.

With the escalation of violence in South Sudan and Kurduban, the site for the next bloodbath, the Khartoum boys cherish a deep desire to rebuild and reconstruct their societies on completion of their education, and I liked their determination and sincerity.

The intelligent Kamil, however, was critical of the Indian higher educational system based on text books and learning by rote. He is disillusioned that democracy in India is only a façade and that there is no scope for dialogue or debate within the academia, like in the centres of higher learning in Africa. Indian affairs used to be discussed in the classrooms, by his teachers, whereas his Indian classmates knew very little of where he came from, and this was, in essence, Kamil’s Indian experience.

Outsider perceptions of Africa

A few students did not mind settling in Chennai, and were wondering why some of the local students, especially the girls were a bit apprehensive while talking to them. Hollywood stereotypes of Blacks as being aggressive and violent could be the reason, the students felt.

I was wondering what they would say if they saw recent Tamil films like Ayaan and Maryam, colonizing Sudanese and Nigerian landscapes and continuing to typecast Africa as a land infested with militias, diamond smugglers and warlords, since the days of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Faculty members at the institution told me about African students who ended up marrying into local communities and settling down nicely. With the passage of time, such stories would be interesting as there would be more fascinating points of cultural contact in the second or third generation African diaspora in India, and more likely stories for the future.

For the peace-loving students, part of the displaced populations who have literally come a very long way, in order to empower themselves and rebuild their communities, the future does hold a lot of promise.

Geetha Ganga

The author teaches English Language to mostly first generation learners in an Arts and Science College in Chennai. She is currently involved in writing and publishing on Somalia.
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Photos: Geetha Ganga