Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The difficult life of black emigrants

Monday, April 11
Our doorbell rings today, which is unusual, because we don’t know many people here. At the door is a young black man with a duffle bag full of miscellaneous goods to sell. Lucy says she will buy a package of clothes pins and that’s all, but he insists on taking at least half the goods out of his bag to demonstrate before he finally realizes we won’t buy anything else. He shows us a clock, a radio, a flashlight, a corkscrew, underwear, socks, a bathmat, a tablecloth, a pocketknife and a half dozen other items. His duffle bag is like a bottomless pit, and it must weigh a ton.

I invite him to sit down at the table outside our door so we can talk for a bit. We often see Africans in Italy, and we can only imagine how hard it must be to survive. Even for Italians it is hard to find work, and for Africans, most without papers, it is virtually impossible. They survive by selling umbrellas and tissues when it rains and sunglasses and purses when it is warm, as well as anything else they think people might need at the moment.

Lucy brings him water and a chocolate chip cookie, and I ask him to tell us about himself. His name is Tony, although in his home country of Nigeria he is also called Friday. He has been here for about a year. He has three sisters still in Nigeria, and two brothers who are dead. He came here over land and then took his chances on a small, crowded boat. Luckily it did not sink, for Tony can’t swim.

“Life is very difficult,” he says, and this is a phrase he repeats throughout our conversation.  “I had problems in Nigeria and I had to leave. I cannot go back.”

“Where do you live?” I ask.

“Sometimes I sleep at the train station,” he says. “Sometimes I find an empty building.”

He spends most of his time in Prato, where there are many African and Chinese immigrants, and the Italians there are more accustomed to outsiders.

“In Lucca, the Italians don’t like people with black skin,” he says. “They are not friendly. Inside the wall, the police will not let us sell things.”

He tells us that he usually comes to San Salvatore on Mondays. That way the people will get accustomed to him coming and will be more likely to buy something. He goes from door to door with his bag slung over his shoulder. He does not ask for help or money, only that people look at his goods and buy something. I can’t help but think of the museum display we have seen in Lucca, where the impoverished Italians who came to America sold cheap goods on the streets. They, at least, came during a time of growth and opportunity, when day labor jobs were abundant and one could start a new business without difficulty. The Africans we have seen in Italy are hardworking and ambitious, but their economic advancement is glacially slow.

“How much for the clothespins?” I ask. “Five euros,” Tony says. That’s a steep price, and I could bargain him down, but I had already made up my mind to give him that much no matter what he answered. We also give him some fruit, and he trudges down the road to call on our neighbors. Life is indeed very difficult for an African in Italy.




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