A city comes alive at dusk, but it also retreats. It seeps slowly through crawling traffic, watering holes, and eases out towards suburbia, where home is for many. But for those living away from home, the closure from a day’s work may not necessarily be the same. The next best thing, of course, is to replicate these rituals.
Oladayo O Adegeye, or ‘Otunba’ to his friends and neighbours, has been in Malaysia for 4 years. He has recreated a Nigerian version of the closing-time minum session in the Klang Valley, frequented by African students. Come sunset, the cool interior of Home in Abroad and the drum beats bouncing off its walls signals a welcome end to the day for many.
This cozy little dive is tucked in a corner of some upscale shop lots in USJ One. It is unassuming, there are no flashy signboards nor does the music blare out into the street. The same goes for another African restaurant a few doors down. You are liable to miss both at first glance, as your eyes would likely be drawn to the mamak and bak kut teh joints with flashier signs and larger crowds. The Nigerian transplant doesn’t look out of place, to be honest. It looks perfectly at home in Subang Jaya.
Home in Abroad is more than just a simple example of how a community is recreating its palate and customs in a foreign land. Like the yam plant (native to Nigeria and widely used as a base in its cuisine) that thrives despite being transplanted into different soil, this community is planting its roots into our local alimentary landscape.
According to education consultant Adekola Adediran, the African community started growing in Malaysia after 1994. Their destination: the International Islamic University of Malaysia, in Gombak, Selangor. Private educational institutions followed as they set their sights on overseas students. The close ties fostered by the Mahathir administration between Malaysia and African countries during that period helped such initiatives.
Nigerians make up more than 75 percent of the 20,000 Africans migrants in Malaysia. Most of Africa’s 53 nationalities are represented, from Moroccans and Sudanese in the North, to Botswanans and South Africans in the South, Kenyans in the East, to Nigerians on the continent’s west coast.
Africans are in almost every state capital and large town that has a private college, from Alor Setar to Nilai and from Batu Pahat to Kuching, since students make 85 percent of the African population, according to Adekola.
Their presence is mostly transitory, although they wish it otherwise. More frustratingly, they are unable to find internships or jobs, even after graduating with good qualifications. For most of the African experience in Malaysia, racism is still a daily and shocking reality.Every African encountered in the writing of this piece had a tale of having met with irrational derision by Malaysians of all races.
Couples tell of Malaysians who screw up their faces and pinch their noses when they sit down in a train or get into a lift. Business owners get asked unpleasant questions about how and why they managed to open a business in the first place. Men can’t get directions on the street because every non-black face they approach won’t speak to them.
The deepest scorn is reserved for Malaysians who date Africans. As a Malaysian woman who is dating an African remarked: “I am made to feel like garbage (by other Malaysians).”
Most of the interviewees were initially suspicious of my enquiries. Not having any contacts in the community, I went up to every African-looking person in Sunway Pyramid and requested, in so many words, “Take me to your leader”. When initial contact was made, it took some time convincing them that I meant well before I was directed to Bandar Puteri Puchong, where these four African-owned restaurants are to be found.
In their experience, Africans always get a bad rep in the local press. Communities such as the Nigerian Muslims are extremely sensitive to how locals perceive them, and take pains to assure authorities that there is nothing nefarious about their activities.
“We are very careful because when Malaysians see 10 or more Africans together, they automatically think we are up to no good,” says Lawal Abdul Raheem, an uztaz in the Nigerian community.
It is almost a cultural shock for Nigerians, as they see in Malaysia a reflection of the multi-cultural, multi-religious and multi-lingual society that exist back home. Nigeria has three main and distinct cultural-linguistic groups, the Ibo, the Hausa and the Yoruba. There are about 200 other ethnicities and dialects, and members of different groups often cannot understand the other’s language.
In my view, friction often follows such diversity. Despite the denials of those I interviewed, there are occasional flare-ups between groups in Nigeria, as reported in the press.
Perhaps this is what makes the two countries seem so similar and which makes Nigerians continue to come and want to stay, despite the wanton racism. Perhaps they accept that there will always be a current of tension that runs beneath the lived reality of pluralistic consociation.
“Malaysia is good. Everything is good. Except for that one thing, racism. Everything else is fine.” is a common response to the question “Why did you come” and “What made you stay?”
For the time being, that “one thing” has been overshadowed by the “everything else”.
“It used to be bad, but things (in Malaysia) are slowly getting better and better every day,” says Lawal.
Indeed, over the past few years, the community’s roots have begun to grow into the local landscape as an informal structure of services and businesses have sprouted up to serve them.
There are about 20 eateries all over the Klang Valley that cater specifically to African taste buds. And that’s not counting the Malaysian-run joints that are appealing to African tastes with specialised dishes.
The African-run eateries also vary from the slightly up-scale to the no-trimmings, quick-meals types which are similar to our mamak joints.
There are also stores in Subang, Cheras and Puchong that sell African food. The Giant supermarket branch in Bandar Puteri Puchong rents out stands to Africans who sell imported yam, cassava, rice, semolina, beans and hot peppers.
For Nigerian Muslims, a close-knit formalised leadership structure has taken shape in the Klang Valley. For the past two years, a committee of uztaz and elders have found a place to worship, provide counselling and even settle disputes. That the group has permission from Malaysian Muslim authorities to hold their religious classes speaks of a degree of acceptance by the native populace to this network.
Like the restaurants, which are the community’s lepak points, “For-African, By-African” hair salons are also servicing a new market in Malaysia. Collectively, they make up an informal matrix of hubs that provide services and communal identity in a country that is as alluring as it is unfriendly.
This article was originally published as part of a four part series at Serambi, a Poskod project. Read more stories and listen to interviews at serambi.poskod.my.