With the resilience of 20,000 yam roots, Sheridan Mahavera goes about digging and unearthing stories of the Nigerian migrant community in Malaysia. This is the first of his four part series.


Dusk at the suburbs

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).”

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