This past winter I was lucky enough to be invited by a very wealthy friend to South Africa. Flight paid and a huge villa with a pool for me to write and concentrate while he was at work all day. Virtually every writer’s dream. Breaking my days with short walks around the neighborhood would have been even better, but in South Africa it’s dangerous to walk.
South Africa is an unstable, violent country with a 360 degrees spectrum of racism. Whites against blacks, blacks against whites, blacks against blacks of other ethnic groups or nations. A real disaster. It’s not safe to walk, people drive their cars from home to the next safe place; usually the mall, casinos or natural reserves where bad-ass security constantly monitor who gets in and out of those oasis of safety. Driving means facing risks of hijacking but that usually only happens on the highways.
When Mandela named it the “Rainbow Nation” he did not imagine the waves of xenophobia that would strike his country after his death, nor the new form of “apartheid” established by the government of President Zuma towards the whites.
During my stay in the land of Tolkien, a misleading translation of the Zulu King’s speech about immigration from English to the local language watered the germ of xenophobia that soon bloomed into a carnage.
Violence spread fast across the country from the area of Kwazulu Natal to Johannesburg. Zulus raided and burnt activities of black immigrants from neighbouring nations and killed seven (of which three were actually South Africans). The word on everyone’s lips those days was Xenophobia. Xenophobia. Xenophobia. The irrational and uncontrollable fear of the stranger.
A few days later I needed to buy contact lenses, and as I usually did when I had to leave the idyllic villa with electric fences, I borrowed my friend’s car to go to the mall, about a kilometre away.
In the shop I was asked to fill out a form indicating some basic information about me and my prescription. Sarah, the Zulu ophthalmologist, went through the handwritten information on paper and suddenly yelled : “ohhh you are from Italy, you have Xenophobia like us”
I stared at her blankly, after such a raw and spontaneous statement, for a handful of seconds.
The ophthalmologist was completely naive and simply reported what she over heard on the radio. She had no intention to offend me nor my country in any way. She referred to Xenophobia as if it was an incurable virus, not a dangerous mixture of ignorance and free will. Through gritted teeth I finally admitted, “Yes, in Italy, unfortunately we are affected too”
Pandering her idea racism was just a deadly disease.
By being Italian, I was use to to being identified with the country of “bunga bunga” but I was new to xenophobic and somehow I preferred being teased for the sexual preferences of my Prime Minister rather than the perverse vice to hate foreigners typical of our population.
Intrigued by the event, I went home and did a little research about the subject and found out that according to data from “Pew”- an American research centre not linked to any political party- Italy is by far the most racist country in Europe.
Although I prefer to ride, often the lack of cycling paths forces me to load my bicycle on trains. Most Italian stations do not have any facilities to transport wheeled vehicles from one track to another, including of course wheel chairs (and I wonder how feasible it is for a disabled person to travel by train in Italy).
99% of the time I need help to get my bike on and off the train fast enough and 99% of the time, it’s immigrants helping me. Italians think I’m foreigner too, so they rarely help.
Among the things I enjoy about traveling by train, is the air conditioning and chance encounters. I love the taste of that wide slice of random reality I get to eat by sitting next to strangers.
The other day some kids from Campania were curious about my bike and asked me about my trip. While I drew an enthusiastic summary of my aimless wandering around the world they quietly listened open-mouthed. As I kept talking about my experiences in Asia, one looked at me and screamed with disgust: “Ohhh but Asia is full of Moroccans !!!”
I couldn’t help laughing at his poor geographical conclusion and patiently explained that the Moroccans are from Morocco and that in Asia there are Chinese, Mongolians, Indians etc.
“But you’re not a racist?” He asks, as if where he comes from racism poses them by default.
Automatically I start wondering in what kind of context the poor boy lived. Probably friends, parents and institutions around him helped to shape his thinking. After all, if I had had a right to vote when I was nine years old, growing up on Lake Maggiore, I would have voted “the northern league”.
The kid continued his rant about some Moroccans who raped children. I then pointed out to him how some priests also raped children. That doesn’t make all priest bad.
We are all foreigners and immigrants in other countries. To move is as crucial to the world as it is for those who ride a bike. If you stand still you fall.
At the next station they get off happy and slightly confused, here Peter jumps on with his bicycle. Peter is from Ghana. I greet him with a smile as you do among cyclists. We start chatting. He says he was surprised that I acknowledge him. He says that in Africa the whites are protected so the blacks come here with the hope that at least here they would be protected too. But he realised as soon as he got off the ship that that’s not the case. Immigrants in Italy are completely marginalised. Peter speaks English, French, Italian, and his native language, has a degree in engineering and yet is forced to be a hairdresser in a shop specialised in Afro hairstyles because Italians don’t really want a black man doing their hair.
In Catania I met Nish, from Mauritius, he works as a receptionist with a close friend of mine. He also speaks 4 languages, has work experience abroad and a will to work. The intelligence of Nish bounces from one pupil to another while telling me that when he was living in Australia he would leave his CV anywhere and get a phone call right after, here he must return in person a number of times to insist he has the skills required. He was hired in the same hotel as my friend where the are both underpaid, but Nish only works at night so that his skin colour is less noticeable and gets 100 Euros less even though working nights.
In the hotel where I stayed in Bari there were bedbugs in the mattress. They bit me everywhere leaving me furious and itchy. They even got me on the eyelid that swole up like a melon. As I woke up running to the pharmacy I pointed out the issue to the Italian receptionist. The woman responded promptly “Eh what do you expect, this is a sea port, many foreigners pass by”.
We’re not far from blaming Africans for the heat waves that come from their continent. “No, ma’am, take responsibility for not cleaning the rooms instead of pointing the finger at foreigners” I finally burst out.
Most of the people, and not only in Italy but in the world, thinks that the African continent is backward.
In Pretoria, since I could not get out of the house freely I often I chatted with the Zulu guards of my friend’s house. They dressed in suits to come to work walking through the city in the heat. Although dangerous, they have no choice and despite the grace of his bearing, King, with whom I forged a good friendship with, was not comfortable wearing a suit.
We imposed European customs and traditions in Africa as in all the continents we conquered and now that they have forgotten theirs they can only ape ours with little success.
This explains the reason that leads to the conception that Africa is behind us. Other continents are not underdeveloped, their could have been parallel development models to learn from if we had left the original population alone. The Aboriginal people of Australia, one of the oldest population on earth, lived in complete harmony with their surroundings before we got there to destroy their relationship with the land, impose our gods, rape their territories (and people) and introduced them to alcohol, flour and sugar. We didn’t learn from them just imposed our bad habits. I would have preferred to live in a world in which the traveler could have truly explored the cultural differences rather than calculate the cost of living by the price of a Big Mac.
I’ve heard too many times people talking about South East Asia saying that they are stuck in the past. They live as we were 400 years ago implying how much more advanced and better we are. Of course. The European enslaved, killed and forced our vision of development on all continents. We see ourselves as advanced, civil and modern because all potential different paradigm are gone and we have no terms of comparison left. If you kill all the competitors only the winners remains.
What is truly uncivilised is our society who lets African immigrants die picking tomatoes under the sun in our fields for three Euros per day.
We have to be accountable for our mistakes. Immigrants don’t steal our jobs or take our money, data shows how they actually help the Italian economy (something around 12 million euro spent by the government for them but 16 earned according to http: //www.dossierimmigrazione.it authoritative source of data on the phenomenon of migration in Italy).
Anal bleaching , candy crush, plastic tits, smart phones that replace brains of stupid people, always knowing what time it is in New York, eat like pigs or starve to look like the girls on the catwalks are not developing symptoms. As the Western contamination in most continents is irreversible, let us at least act as good caring brothers and give good examples. One of the best would be simply to consume just what we truly need.
I don’t like coming from a Xenophobic country. I don’t want to be an exception who smile at Peter cause he’s black. I don’t want to find myself advising Nish to leave Italy to go somewhere where opportunities are based on skills and not on skin colour. I wish solidarity was the rule and racism the exception. I wish it was taught at school and consolidated through chance encounters on the train. But the situation is not hopeless, simple complaining is sterile. There is a way to change things. It’s up to us. If we start living today as if we already live in the world we dream of it might as well adjust. Diffidence can be defeated with its opposite. Confidence. I trust, and you?
With this article I started a campaign to spread trust. If you agree with my words please consider taking a selfie of yourself with a sign saying #ITRUST and post it back on my facebook page https://www.facebook.com/walkaboutitalia?ref=hl and your profile with a link to this article. I want to make huge mosaic of solidarity and spread the message! Thank you! I TRUST