They have different origins and as many different world views, but they know how to use them to describe their identity and uniqueness. This is how a small association of students of African origin in Padova have learnt how to make a difference.
They met in Via del Santo, in the Political Science faculty rooms at the university of Padova. It all started in 2016 when Ada Ugo Abara and Emmanuel M’bayo Mertens were still university students. Via del Santo was the crossroads where these Italian students, children of African immigrants, met. Some of them had grown up in small towns in the Veneto, without any other black peers to relate to: “I felt very alone, isolated” says Ada Ugo Abara, president of Arising Africans. “The feeling of solitude stayed with me until I got to university, where I was surrounded by students with an African background”. Others had moved to Italy for university, like Emmanuel M’bayo Mertens: “I have travelled and lived in several different countries in Africa and Europe” he says. “I know the story of apartheid in South Africa, I have lived with people who fought against it and have vivid memories of what it was. When I arrived in the Political Science faculty I realised that in the canteen the students were behaving just like under apartheid: whites with whites and blacks with blacks. I had never come across this division before, not in Brussels nor anywhere else”.
What did growing up as the only black people in a society of white people mean for some of these young people? It meant growing up in a social context where you are “different from the others”, where the way people talk about foreigners hurts, but more than that, being treated as a foreigner in a place that you consider home. The insecurity and the sense of being lost become stronger when it is impossible to confide in someone without being met with misunderstanding, and at times, resistance. For these young people, now men and women, Padova was their first experience of engagement with other Afro-Italians, a revelation for many of them who didn’t realise how important it was to make connections like these: an awakening or arising, as we said.
The need to introduce themselves
In 2015-2016 the discontent over the way the national media were describing migration started to intensify, so Ada and Emmanuel with other Afro-Italian students decided to act and start publishing online posts to introduce themselves, to find a place in the public discussion and contrast the uninformed and stereotypical narrative on immigration. The informal group chose the name Arising Africans, opened a Facebook page and started posting Afro-cliché (Afro-clichés) and Notizie dall’Africa (News from Africa), and they went on to organize an Afro-Italian festival after a year’s work. At that point they decided to become a legal association. It wasn’t always easy, says Emmanuel:
We were often exploited. When associations or organisations asked us to speak at their events, they expected us to deliver their version of the narrative, to tell us what we could say. No-one wanted to find out who we were, what our association was doing
The association became politically active
Since then a lot has changed, but the Arising Africans association has never lost the role it chose: to be a megaphone for new generations of Italians, from Padova and beyond, to develop the dialogue between the African diaspora and Afro-Italians. So Arising Africans started various activities aimed at raising awareness in a number of areas, from ius soli to the stereotyping of foreigners, with workshops in schools, demonstrations and events.
The association has achieved two great results. The first, the highlight of all the projects we have set up, was the short film Io sono Rosa Parks, winner of the prize for the Best G2 message in the MigrArti section at the Cinema Festival in Venice in 2018, a result of the meeting between Arising Africans and the film director Alessandro Garilli during the demonstrations of the #ItalianiSenzaCittadinanza (Italians without Citizenship) movement. “The short film was more successful than we had imagined: we were invited all over Italy to talk about our experience as Afro-Italians, to meet school children, students and teachers. Io sono Rosa Parks was also selected for a film festival in California last June”.
The second objective we achieved was getting the idea of Afro-Italian identity over to associations in the Padova area: “We succeeded in getting the term Afro-Italian into the vocabulary of our territory. At the beginning when we introduced ourselves like this, no-one understood us, but then it became normal and this was a really great result for us”. And in the future? Juggling with projects and communication on our social networks is still a challenge, but it seems as though Arising Africans are getting there:
We want to continue to grow in our area, to be present during discussions at institutional meetings and to be a bridge between Afro-Italians and the institutions.
Translated by Anne Parry