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Mumbai Dreams, an African Indian’s escape story

 Bob Omulo |  2015-05-24 02:30:35.0  |  New Delhi

Mumbai Dreams, an African Indian’s escape story

On a sultry morning in 1998, a 6 foot, <g data-gr-id="39">25 year old</g>, African looking, athletic bodied gentleman alighted from a train in Mumbai, the city of his dreams. With just a small bag, a change of clothes and an employment letter, he was on a mission to change his small village in Karnataka.

With all odds stacked against him, his first day at work a few hours later, was his baptism of fire.  He was met with the sight of a charged political crowd agitating against “outsiders” taking up government jobs at the locals’ expense in the state.  But <g data-gr-id="52">Juje</g> was not just an “outsider”, he actually looks like a foreigner. An African in India, hailing from the Siddi community, inhabitants of Karwar District in North Karnataka.

He was born in an environment that engendered no hope and nurtured no ambitions. Marginalised by society, he grew up with no dreams, until the late 80s when the government started a program encouraging African-Indians to take up sports as a way out of poverty. They were shown <g data-gr-id="59">video tapes</g> of black athletic champions of the era, Carl Lewis, Ben Johnson, Edwin Moses and Paul <g data-gr-id="58">Ereng</g> among others. This single program, although not a long term success, provided the key that opened doors for <g data-gr-id="60">Juje</g>. He became an avid sprinter and won many local races and medals. Eventually, his athleticism earned him a posting in the Karnataka Police. However, his experience in the force soon shattered his dreams. A myriad of personal reasons including racism, harassment by colleagues and suspects alike and the callous nature of the job led him to resign after three years, broken and dejected. It was then that he applied for a government job in Mumbai and luckily got in. His new job wasn’t free of his previous troubles, but it was much better as he made friends in the office who helped him with advice.

Four years after setting in Mumbai, his <g data-gr-id="51">23 year old</g>, beautiful, slim bride to be joined him. Juliana, a diploma holder in civil engineering also soon encountered the harsh realities of colour prejudice in the job market when she was turned away from interviews she had qualified for. A <g data-gr-id="47">friend however</g> told them that he constantly got <g data-gr-id="43">bollywood</g> inquiries for black actors as junior artists and he thought they should pursue it.

Although reluctant at first, <g data-gr-id="55">Juje</g> and Juliana started an agency for black actors. They created a network of African nationals and Siddi actors in the city and soon built a reputation as efficient and reliable. Back in the village, they started informally training young Siddi children to be confident in front of the camera. Today, the kids feature in numerous ad films airing in several African countries where the viewers can’t even tell them apart from the locals.

<g data-gr-id="56">Juje</g> also partnered with NGOs working for the welfare of Siddis to promote English as the medium of education because he felt that vernacular (Kannada) only made them fit for menial jobs while he had higher ambitions for the next generation. The push succeeded, and today, he proudly says many of the kids speak fluent English. He <g data-gr-id="53">is however</g> quick to point out that his contribution is just a drop in the ocean. There are many others toiling daily, providing education and medical services to Siddis, but every kind of assistance is still welcome and makes a difference.

Currently, he plans to set up a cooperative society to assist the villagers get into <g data-gr-id="41">business</g>. He has already made some unsuccessful but enlightening forays in commerce and undeterred, he sees better times ahead buoyed by the successes over past hurdles.

Bob Omulo

Bob Omulo

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