In his two years in India, Bertin Victoire has often fended questions about Africa from friends here. No, he would tell them patiently, Africa is not a nation but a continent. It’s not just poverty all around; some places also have skyscrapers and roadways on a par with the best in the West.
The information gap was glaring but Victoire, who is from Congo, knew why. “It was the same problem I had encountered before I came to India,” he says over a Zoom call. “I had known about India only through news and movies. I would think Indians were a religious people, always dressed in traditional attire (dhoti-kurta, ghoonghat and long earrings).” It was only after he came to India in 2018, to study biomedical engineering at the M S University of Baroda, that he realized it wasn’t all true. So when it came to correcting misconceptions about Africa, Victoire, now 21, felt he must extend the same courtesy to his Indian friends.
On 26 June, Victoire uploaded a video on his YouTube channel: “10 Things Indians Should Know About Africa”. It’s a 10-minute myth-buster on the questions he would be asked most often: Is the hair of Africans “normal”? Are they all black? Does everyone there have a strong physique? Victoire answers gently, in simple, slightly broken English, a smile playing on his lips at all times.
“Africans are not drug dealers,” he says at one point. “I understand why people would think so. I meet a lot of people who ask me if I smoke, drink. Not everyone does (drink or smoke). You can’t compare the behaviour of young people and think that’s what all (Africans) do.” For example, he adds, he has met many youngsters in India who used to play the recently banned video game PUBG. But that doesn’t mean all Indians played PUBG, does it?
“A lot of what I do comes from what I had learnt from studying history in my teens,” Victoire says. His home country has a history of armed conflict with neighbouring states like Rwanda, Sudan and Uganda. “When I was growing up, I had grown up thinking of them as our enemies. It changed when I joined an anti-war activist group. I met a historian who taught me about those countries. I understood that while countries might have political issues, one shouldn’t confuse them with the citizens.”
What brought him to India? “I applied to a bunch of universities in some countries and took admission in the first one that replied to me,” he laughs. The first week was the most difficult, he recalls. At the time, he couldn’t speak English too well, and found it difficult to connect with most. “Three days into my stay, an Indian guy came to my (hostel) room, talked to me, showed me around, and explained how things work around here.” Soon, he made friends and eased into a routine.
In April, shortly after the nationwide lockdown was imposed owing to the covid-19 pandemic, Victoire uploaded a video, “A Day Of Foreigners In India | During Lock-down”. It offers a glimpse of his life in Vadodara: his current home, the city streets, and the way he negotiates public spaces. “My Congolese friends saw it and were curious. They would tell me that they wanted to know about India and how I live there.”
The next month, he made a video titled “Expectations Vs Reality India | African Foreigner”. It was designed as a “dummies’ guide to India”, and he addressed several concerns a foreign national might have about India: India is not dangerous (just be careful); a lot of Indians speak English (but most are comfortable with local languages); people are friendly (but be careful before buying from strangers); travel is safe (but best book online and look up reviews).
The video seemed to touch a chord: It received over 434,000 views and thousands of comments, most of them from Indians, appreciating his initiative. In the months that followed, Victoire made many more videos on what he had experienced and observed. In one, “The Problem Of Indian Universities With Foreign Students”, he talks about the difficulties foreigners face in adapting to Indian classrooms. In “5 Mistakes Of A Foreign Student In India”, he talks about how foreigners can make the most of their stay in the country—by picking up a few words of the local language, for instance.
What makes Victoire unique is his narration of the African experience in India. For long, the stories of black expats in India have dwelt on a few familiar themes: racism, discrimination, their involvement in crime. There have been many news reports and audiovisual documentaries on these themes—most of them showing Africans as victims—framed and narrated by Indians. Victoire positions himself as a curious foreigner in a new culture, and dwells on how that’s worked out for him. He’s warm, friendly and generally has positive things to say about India.
But would he say that’s representative of the larger realities of a black man’s experience in the country?
“It’s something many have condemned me for—for being too positive about India,” he says.
He, too, has come in for his share of discrimination of course. When looking for an apartment to rent last year, he noticed many landlords were wary because of the colour of his skin. At times, when he’s hanging out with white friends, his white friends are often asked if they are tourists. Victoire is asked if he’s a student.
But, he adds: “When you are coming to India with a plan for school or work or business, you already have more privilege than many Indians in India. I have seen myself getting privileges, like some of my friends insisting on picking up the tab, or teachers allowing me to enter the classroom late, but not my Indian classmates. If one compares the hard times with the good ones,” he says, “it’s 10:90.”
It is possible that his life as a young student in a university town shelters him from uncomfortable encounters. If he does have those experiences, says Victoire, he will not hesitate to talk about them. “But for now I want to be a platform of teaching any culture around the world that’s misunderstood. Both India and Africa suffer from the same problem: lack of complete knowledge of each other in the media. And I want to change that narrative.”