GUANGZHOU — After flocking to the megalopolis by the tens of thousands, Africans seem to be going sour on Guangzhou, or "Chocolate City," as it's been nicknamed by the Chinese.
Home to the largest African community in Asia, Guangzhou, an important global trade platform located opposite Hong Kong, attracted scores of migrants starting in the mid-2000s, when China's economy was booming. The number of permanent residents from Africa is said to be between 10,000 and 15,000. But the total African population — taking into account undocumented residents and so-called "fake tourists," who go for short stays — could be as high as 50,000.
Now, though, China's economic slowdown and a strict migration policy are hitting Africans hard, and they're leaving in growing numbers. In the Xiaobei neighborhood, popularly known as "Little Africa," the change is apparent. Africans, some wearing boubous, others in modern clothing, still have a presence here. But it's not what it once was.
Authorities — off-put by the exotic music so often heard in this part of the city, and by the bloody sheep heads sometimes left in back alleys — spent the past two years "cleaning up" the area. They specifically targeted the activities of the Muslim Uighur population. Police officers also shuttered numerous illegal shops, and now keep permanent guard from sentry boxes at both ends of the main street, which they closed with barriers.
Since then, some of the Africans retreated inside a multi-story shopping mall a few hundred meters from there, home to import-export companies, restaurants and hairdressers. Some are clearly resentful. "The Chinese are everywhere in Africa, but they don't want to let us work, even when we're here legally," says Fatou, a 28-year-old Senegalese woman who works at a hairdresser's to finance her Chinese classes. "We're forced to hide when they come to control us, several times a week. And if they catch you, they humiliate you in front of everybody," she adds.
Robert Castillo, a researcher at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, says police actions against Africans began as early as 2010. "The police became aware of the high numbers of Africans in certain parts of the city and started bothering many of them with document or passport checks," he explains. Africans also have to deal with racism from regular citizens. Several people have confirmed that Chinese often change seats in the metro or hold their noses in the presence of Africans.
Mouhamadou Moustapha Dieng, one of the first to come to Guangzhou, has experienced both excitement and disillusion since his arrival in late 2003. A former air force engineer turned businessman, the 54-year-old became the unofficial representative of the Senegalese community, whose numbers have decreased by half in eight years, he says.
The drop-off began around 2010, as the economy slowed and authorities made it more difficult to obtain a visa. A price hike also made things more complicated. Dieng started off exporting sneakers and clothes to his country, earning a comfortable profit. He now focuses on ship transport and admits that in the past few years, his margins fell by between 30% and 40%
Young Senegalese who still want to try their luck in Guangzhou often end up in Dieng's Xiaobei-area office. He's careful not to give them any false hopes. Finding a job in China has become difficult, he tells them. "Small jobs are for Chinese only, so the only option is to go into business, but for that you need the contacts, the clients," Dieng explains. "Many only stay two or three weeks, sometimes two or three months, before going back."
If they catch you, they humiliate you in front of everybody.
Regarding his own business ventures, Dieng says he's been able to "hang on" thanks to a stable customer base. But he'd also like to spend more time in Africa, where his family returned. Another challenge for Africans is the increasingly aggressive competition with the locals. Dieng's Chinese collaborator, for example, left with his list of clients to create her own company.
"The Chinese own the factories and they go and sell their products in Africa themselves, at a lower price," says clothing exporter David Sanfo, from Ghana. "My only advantage over them is my relations with the customers." Still, Sanfo says he doesn't regret moving here.
Roberto Castillo doesn't have reliable data but believes that some communities are shrinking while others are growing more slowly than before. Things have certainly become more difficult for Africans in Guangzhou. And yet established businessmen "can still find their niche," he says. Indeed, China is still seen as a land of opportunity for some Africans. Adebayo, a 28-year-old from Nigeria, is one of them. Right now he's learning Chinese. After that, he can't wait "to do business with China."
The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.
Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.
Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."
Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.
Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.
Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.
Oppressive home situations
As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.
Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.
Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.
Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.
"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."
Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."
Lack of spaces
Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.
"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.
The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out
Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.
Lockdowns force coming out
According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.
"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.
Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.
"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.
The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling
In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.
"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."
Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.
Medical care is dismal
Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.
Isolation triggered my depression
"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.
What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.
During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.
As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."
Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.
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