When he arrived in Italy from Cameroon to study at the Polytechnic University of Milan he was 20 years old and had just one cousin in Turin. He wanted to get his degree and go back to his country to work in the petrochemical sector. It was 1988, a time when there were not many students with an African background, and they were regarded with curiosity rather than dislike. Now he has been a chemical engineer for 20 years at Solvay and since last year he’s been the first African president at the top of the COE association, which is organizing the 30th Festival of African, Asian and Latin American Cinema in Milan.
André Siani is a 52 year old engineer, he’s been a fan of the Juventus FC since he was a child, he has an 18 year old son who’s a fan of A.C. Milan, but his wife is a fan of Inter Milan. This is the only cultural difference he can’t overcome. Otherwise he’s an emblem of integration.
Today André Siani looks back on the time when he had just arrived in Italy and going down into the underground and seeing people running up and down the stairs he got frightened because he thought something awful had happened. “I started to run too because I thought a bomb had gone off”, he says, laughing. “I didn’t know yet that in Milan people don’t walk, they run. I come from a small town Mbalmayo, 50 km from the capital, where if anyone started running it was only because some tragedy had happened.”
Now that he’s an Italian citizen, he too has learnt to rush around. The ex foreign student who was welcomed by the COE (Centre for Educational Orientation) – founded by don Francesco Pedretti, a diocesan priest, in 1959, to encourage the development of a culture of dialogue and solidarity – has come a long way. After getting his degree in chemical engineering at the Polytechnic University of Milan and a PhD from Zurich specialising in polymer research, he joined the multinational Solvay, where he worked first in research and then in the technical and commercial sectors. “Thanks to COE, which helped me to integrate, I fell in love with voluntary work and social commitment,” he explains.
The COE runs projects in three continents: it promotes development cooperation projects on education for world citizenship, focusing particularly on culture. From Cameroon to Chile, via Benin and even China.
When he became an engineer and started looking after Solvay clients, everyone thought he was American because it seemed impossible that an African could have a curriculum like his.
“Once I went into the office of a CEO”, he says, laughing. “Because of my name and surname they were expecting an Italian-French engineer. When he saw me, he got frightened and said to his secretary, ‘What’s this African doing in my office?’ Then I explained who I was, what I had studied and published on polymer research and the misunderstanding was cleared up. I was a good African engineer working for a multinational company.” Now it doesn’t happen anymore. In Milan there is an international atmosphere both inside Solvay and in COE. “Although Italy has changed and looks on foreigners as a scapegoat for their problems.”
For André Siani, the first African president of a humanitarian organisation present in three continents, it is important that an African is speaking out. And passing on the message that development cooperation isn’t only for white people.
“And my presence is a stimulus to encourage others like me to pursue and achieve their ambitions. Our association was set up 60 years ago in Valsassina, and worked mostly in the educational field. When we talk about education we are referring to training and animation projects aimed at the overall development of the human being. We work to contribute to a society of fellowship, friendship and exchange.” In Italy, COE does most of its work in schools. “We have projects of education for world community which we run in schools but also by inviting the children into our premises,” says Siani. “We use cinema a lot, watching a film made in a far-away country is a great way to get to know different people and cultures.” The seventh art is one of the flagships of the association. “The Festival is an important occasion. In one week we manage to reach 15,000-20,000 people. But that is not all. As well as our own Festival, we show films in other events, in parishes and schools, giving us a precious opportunity to explain better the reasons for the phenomenon of immigration which is at the centre of our attention at the moment.”
Before we end the interview, André wants to explain that Siani is a Cameroon surname. “Even my great grandparents were called Siani, we are of Bantu ethnicity. And now I’m an Italian who was born in Africa helping his country of origin and I can live anywhere. Simple, right?”
Translated by Anne Parry