Tag: African immigrants

‘How can you be a vegetarian and an African?’

(Pic: Flickr / itsokaystay_calm)

I have observed that many Africans, specifically West Africans, share this idea that there is a checklist of things one must do in order to be a “real African”. Some things on that list may include eating jollof, azonto-ing and reading Things Fall Apart. I most recently found out that eating meat is also on that list. Being a vegetarian, my African pass, as I jokingly say, was called into question when I revealed I don’t eat meat to many of my African associates.

“You are a vegetarian and you are African?” I often hear. “How can you be a vegetarian and an African? That is unnatural.”

My decision to become a vegetarian is a part of my African identity and not separate although many have argued that, “I am not a real African because real Africans eat meat.”  My decision had nothing to do with animals or the environment. It really had nothing to do with health either, as I’ve always been conscious of the food I eat even when they included meat. I became a vegetarian because of my views on immigration reform, the meatpacking industry and how it directly relates to Africans. About 3% of all undocumented immigrants in the United States are from Africa. Almost a quarter of the workers who butcher and process meat, poultry and fish are undocumented. We always hear the stories of those Africans who immigrated to the United States and worked their way to the “American dream”, but what about the others whose voices we never hear?

I became a vegetarian because I disagree with the exploitation of immigrant workers in the meatpacking industry. I disagree with the cruel work environments. According to a report by the US Bureau of Labour Statistics, the meatpacking industry has a rate of 7.5 cases per 100 full-time workers when it comes to injuries. This may not seem high, but in fact, it is about 21% higher than the food manufacturing industry as a whole and 50% higher than the manufacturing industry as a whole. Furthermore, almost none of these immigrant workers have health insurance to treat their injuries due to the cost. Besides a poor work environment, they are paid wages that anyone would find ludicrous. Wages are based on the judgment of those in charge and can range from $2 an hour to $9 an hour. Undocumented workers are unable to assert their rights and have no protection of labour laws. They are faced with abuse and discrimination.

Being a vegetarian is a personal choice I made due to my views on this social and human rights issue. Just as I do not wear diamonds due to the conflict, I do not eat meat. These are not decisions that I would force on anyone, but I find it disheartening when my African identity is put into question because my eating habit is considered “unnatural” for an African.

My question to this thinking is simply, why? Why is it unnatural for an African to not eat meat? Africa is a continent compromised of 54 countries. Fifty four countries bursting with tribes, traditions, languages and eating habits. Of those 54 countries, are you telling me that all of its citizens have the same diet? From the North to the South to the East to the West, are we really all meat eaters?

For those who believe it is unnatural because “it is a part of our culture”, who creates culture? Is it not the people? Furthermore, seeing that Africans are dispersed all around the world due to voluntary migration and the trading of enslaved people, can we really box what African culture is? Who determines what culture is for an African on the continent and an African in South America?

 I am an African woman. I am a vegetarian. There is no “and” because those two identities aren’t independent of each other. My Africanness led to my decision to become a vegetarian.

*Immigration statistics sourced from migrationpolicy.org.

Bilphena Yahwon is a Liberian artist, writer, womanist, social justice activist and student currently pursuing a BS in Information Systems/Business Administration. She is editor of Rise Africa, a blog written by a group of individuals who seek to create an atmosphere that encourages conversation between Africans on the continent and in the diaspora. Connect with them on Twitter: @riseafrica

Italy: African immigrants use films and books to fight racism

Seven years ago, Dagmawi Yimer was “between life and death” when Italian navy officers rescued him and 30 others from a skiff in heavy seas between Libya and the island of Lampedusa.

Today, Yimer directs documentary films about immigrants like himself from the home he shares with his Italian partner and their two-year-old daughter in the northern city of Verona.

He is part of the fast-growing immigrant population that is changing the face of Italy, just as it has transformed the populations of more northern European countries such as Britain, France or Germany.

He is also one of many foreigners who are trying – through cultural initiatives such as films and books – to change the racist views of many Italians of the immigrants in their midst.

Contrary to popular perceptions, immigrants are making their mark across the Italian economy, politics and society. African-born author Kossi Komla-Ebri, a 59-year-old medical doctor, has published six books, all in Italian.

“Many immigrants think our emancipation is only economic and political, but we are convinced it’s cultural and that we can have a more profound influence through culture,” he said.

It isn’t easy. Italy’s immigration wave is swelling just as the country is struggling to emerge from its deepest economic downturn in the post-war era.

Nearly eight percent of the population here is foreign born, and in 50 years the number will triple to 23%, according to a projection by Catholic charity Caritas.

To help pay the pensions of an ageing population and to ensure long-term growth, Italy needs to integrate its immigrant population into the workforce, economists say.

Anti-immigrant sentiment
But high unemployment, especially among non-student young people, has fuelled anti-immigrant sentiment among the Italian mostly-white population.

Italy’s one-million strong Afro-Italian community, a fifth all legal immigrants, got a high-profile representative last April when African-born Cecile Kyenge became the country’s first black minister.

It did not take long before she was likened to an orangutan by a well-known politician and had bananas thrown at her at a public meeting.

Cécile Kyenge. (Pic: AFP)
Italy’s Integration Minister Cecile Kyenge. (Pic: AFP)

Many white Italians view the Afro-Italian community and other immigrants as cheap labour or petty criminals – partly because many work as domestic help and farm labourers or sell counterfeit goods in the streets of big cities.

Moreover, children born to immigrants do not automatically receive citizenship even if they are born on Italian soil, attend Italian schools and spend their whole lives in Italy. They must wait until they turn 18 to apply.

Though Italy was a colonial power in Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries and migrants have come to Italy for decades, the country has mainly served as a transit route for the rest of Europe and so remains an overwhelmingly white country.

Over the past two decades, another factor has thwarted attempts to develop a comprehensive and inclusive immigration policy: the anti-immigration Northern League, once a key ally of Silvio Berlusconi’s former coalition governments.

Backed up by TV images of overcrowded boats being rescued off Italian shores, Northern League politicians portray migrants as invaders coming to steal jobs – rhetoric that neglects Italy’s history as a country of immigrants to North and South America in the 19th and 20th centuries.

It was high-ranking Northern League member Roberto Calderoli who likened to Kyenge to an orangutan last year.

Members of the neo-fascist Forza Nuova, or New Force, party were suspected by police of throwing bananas at her during a public round table on immigration. It denied responsibility.

The party also left mannequins covered in fake blood outside a Rome administrative office, urging her to resign because “immigration is the genocide of peoples”.

Kyenge seems to have taken it all in her stride, never losing her calm in public and sticking with her goal of making it easier for immigrants’ children to gain citizenship.

Only last month did the 49-year-old she reveal that she too had been a “badante”, or house servant, for six years to pay her way through university, saying it had been one of the most difficult times in her life.

Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo to a tribal chief with 38 children and four wives, she ended up an eye surgeon until she became a lawmaker and minister earlier this year.

“I’m not coloured, I’m black,” she told Reuters in an interview in her office in central Rome, rejecting the phrase “di colore” or “coloured”, which many think is the politically correct Italian term for blacks.

“It’s the proper term because it forces everyone to face the reality of a multi-ethnic Italy.”

‘Boiled elephant knees’
Italy’s immigration policies are ill-equipped to deal with the thousands of immigrants who show up – with scant identification and on rickety boats – on its southern shores.

Rules dating to 2009 and Berlusconi’s then conservative government make entering without proper documentation a crime, requiring officials to report clandestine migrants.

As a result, those who survive often treacherous journeys – at least 366 Ethiopian migrants drowned while crossing to Italy in October – often linger for months in makeshift immigration centres and then disappear withinItaly or eleswhere in Europe.

During the first 11 months of this year, 40,244 illegal migrants reached Italy by boat, almost four times as many as a year earlier, according to Save the Children.

The number living in Italy is not known with any precision, but the OECD has estimated that, alongside the 5-million legal immigrants, there could be as many as 750 000 illegal ones.

One of the community’s oldest cultural initiatives is the “African October” festival inaugurated 11 years ago in the northern city of Parma and now celebrated in Rome and Milan, showcasing African artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers.

“The meeting between Africa and Italy is very important,” says festival founder Cleophas Adrien Dioma, who was born in Burkina Faso. “Culture is born out of such encounters.”

Komla-Ebri, who came to Italy in 1974, is a doctor in a hospital north of Milan and writes in his free time. This year his book Imbarazzismi – an Italian neologism merging the words “embarrassed” and “racism” – was printed by Edizioni SUI, a publisher owned by an Eritrean-born Italian.

In the book, Komla-Ebri writes about when his white Italian wife took a walk in the park and a stranger complimented her for adopting two “African orphans”, or the time her friends ask her what he eats, “no doubt with the chilling thought of a menu of smoked snake or boiled elephant knees”.

“My irony is a defence mechanism,” he said.

The anecdotes capture the often naive quality of racism in Italy, infamously exemplified by Berlusconi’s 2008 remark – made in jest, he said – that the newly elected Barack Obama, was “young, handsome and suntanned”.

Yimer (36) harvested grapes in the south and later handed out fliers to university students in Rome until he took a video production class offered to immigrants by a non-profit group.

His fifth documentary film – released this month – is about three Senagalese men recovering from racist attacks.

Entitled Va Pensiero, after the chorus of an opera by Giuseppe Verdi about an immigrant’s nostalgia for home, the film follows the men as they try to come to terms with the hate and violence they endured.

The first man was stabbed and left for dead by a skinhead at a bus stop in Milan. Passersby ignored him for more than an hour. The other two were randomly shot by a radical right-wing thug who hunted down and murdered two other Senagalese men on the streets of Florence in 2011, and then committed suicide.

At an early screening of the film for possible distributors, the reaction was that of having been “punched in the gut”, according to one representative of the state-owned TV network, who suggested softening the tone.

Yimer and his Italian partners on the film, who have founded an association to collect the testimony of immigrants called the “Archive of Migrant Memories”, stood their ground.

“I’ve experienced a lot of prejudice,” he said, “and I see a worrying trend in Italy where racism is becoming more ideological.”

Steve Scherer for Reuters