“We have been shooed away from homes, we are stereotyped as drug addicts. Though I have met a lot of amazing people during the past three years of my stay in Hyderabad, we want people to look beyond our skin, beyond our colour,” says 21-year-old Akodu Olamide, a student and the winner of the Miss Africa India pageant, a competition held for African students studying in India.
The Miss Africa India pageant was held on November 8 in Hyderabad where around 15 African women participated in the final round, shortlisted from amongst 200 participants who had applied for the contest. Organised by the brand Miss Africa 2018, Lyrisca, one of the organisers and a BSc Computer Science student studying in Hyderabad, says that the primary objective of organising the pageant was to change how Africans were viewed in India.
“One of our major themes in the pageant was the beauty of peace and love, to establish camaraderie between the Africans and Indians living in the country. Our organisation also focuses on women's empowerment, to reach out to the young African women who stay in India. We want the many African students who come to India every year to feel welcomed, to be a home away from home,” Lyrisca says.
Why a beauty pageant?
“Beauty pageants attract a lot of people. I am myself into modelling and after coming to India, I was always looking for a similar opportunity. So, when we came together as a group, which also consists of 4-5 Indians, I thought why not a beauty pageant?” Lyrisca explains.
“There are lots of African women who have their own notions of beauty and are awaiting for an opportunity to bring out the best in them. So, the pageant was never about ‘beauty’ in its literal sense. We were not on a hunt for a woman with the best body, a beautiful face or a stunning smile. Most of our contestants were ordinary women with no experience in the fashion industry. We had a judge who stayed with the participants and evaluated them for the people they were. Over a series of elimination rounds, they competed through performances of dance and songs, and debated over a lot of current social issues. The pageant was more about a woman’s inner beauty and strength and also it was a beckoning call for the fellow Indians and the Indian media, who constitute a major part of our audience, to look beyond the beauty of our skin colour,” Lyrsica adds.
“I think it is the confidence that I exuded which gave me an edge over other contestants,” says Akodu.
“I was comfortable, mostly because the women reminded me of my people back in my country. I met women from different parts of Africa, it made me shed my fears and show people that African women are also intelligent and smart,” Akodu opines.
‘We are harmless, we aren’t drug addicts’
Both Lyrisca and Akodu agree on the fact that the pageant brought out many aspects of Africa that were new to the Indian audience, unraveling the skewed aspects of culture and beauty that exist in our minds.
But, for the African students who live in India, racial stereotyping is still a worrisome issue that they face on a daily basis. From being denied homes to being shouted at and humiliated on roads, Akodu says that educational spaces are no better as most of them follow discriminatory practices, mostly for their way of life.
“We are looked down upon for the kind of dresses we wear. Men ogle us just because they think it is okay for them to behave rudely with African women. They ride bikes really close to us just to scare us. Our teachers refuse to speak in English in classes and often ask us to take help from our friends if we complain of not being able to follow Telugu. Is that why we pay huge fees and enroll in colleges in India?” Akodu asks.
Lyrisca says that while women in India face gender discrimination on a regular basis, being an African woman makes things worse. “There have been times when cab drivers cancel rides the moment they realise that it’s an African woman who has made the booking. Women pull their kids away from us and tell them that we are ‘dangerous’. We have been chased away from homes, from restaurants, like they chase dogs because house-owners think Africans are all ‘drug-addicts’, a badge that has now stuck to us forever. ”
“Do you smoke? Do you do drugs? Why are you drinking something that is so soft? People do not force us into something, but they except us to do certain things because they think all Africans do so. People need to open their minds and see beyond the harm that maybe a few Africans have done,” Akodu says.
But despite all fears, both Akodu and Lyrisca say that they would invite their friends to India because of the exemplary standards of education and some amazing friends they have made during their stay in the past three years.
Akodu who has completed her graduation aspires to do her post-graduation, but is not sure if she would continue being in India or not.
“There have been both good times and bad times. But the good outweighs the bad. I haven’t won the crown for myself and feel good about it. I have my own responsibilities and would definitely bring initiatives to bring a change in the way my people from my country are treated around the world, especially my women.”