Dancing in the Street with a Homeless Nigerian

I ended up dancing in the street with a Nigerian tramp yesterday. (Tramp means “homeless person”, in case you’re American.)

How does a Sicilian Housewife end up acting so weird?

Well, it started with some Christmas shopping. I find this activity traumatic, for three reasons.
1. Almost all toys in Sicily are made in China and you have to visit seven shops before finding anything which can be taken out of its packet without disintegrating into 345 micro-components, in a toxic polymer banned in all countries of the EU except Sicily.
2. In the festive period, Sicilians give up their usual triple-parking habits and, instead, box you in at the centre of a solid mass of anything up to 20 cars in what looks like some kind of vehicular orgy.
3. Shopping’s boring.

Well, I eventually came out of a shop flushed with pride and delight, weighed down with five carrier bags of junk which I was sure would make my son and four other little Italians blissfully happy. And they would never thank me, as they would live forevermore convinced it was all from a fat old man with rosacea, a beard in ringlets and deplorable dress sense.

I was accosted by an African man who signed silently that he was very hungry, and held out his hands to ask for money. He had fuzzy beard growth and the dishevelled look of a rough sleeper and I didn’t doubt he really was hungry. Nobody can mime that well unless it’s for real.

As my hands were fully occupied with Yuletide trinkets, I told him to follow me to my car, which was by now at the centre of a solid mass of not less than 40 other cars, completely blocked in on all sides. I have sometimes resorted to driving up the pavement to get away, but even that was impossible thanks to a critically positioned tree.

Once I had plonked everything in the boot I gave him five euros, and he thanked me in signs and then in excellent English. I asked where he was from, and he said Nigeria.

He was a teacher and had paid all his savings to a “job agency” which had falsely promised him they would find him a job in Italy and sort out all his immigration papers. As soon as he got here, they had ditched him. We have thousands and thousands of Africans in Sicily who have been tricked into coming to Sicily in this way, robbed of all their savings and then dumped with nothing. The women are often coerced into prostitution and the men end up….  what happens to them in the end?

I told him I thought he had very little chance of ever getting legitimate immigration status in Italy and that Sicilians have such a desperate time trying to find work that illegal immigrants don’t really have any hope at all.

I almost wished I had led him to some kind of deceptive false hope, as the look on his sweet face was heart breaking. The worst thing was that he was obviously used to getting utterly awful news, over and over again.

It is what happens to Africans the moment they are born.
“Welcome to the world little baby! You’re not American and you’re not European either. God chose to make you be born in AFRICA!”

And the bad news often goes on from there. They grow up hoping not to die of cholera, ebola or AIDS. If their parents are not well off they cannot go to school. In many African countries there is only one university, in the whole country. Life is a never ending struggle and the number of people who can get good jobs is tiny.

Well, the usual procedure in Sicily when your car is blocked in is to hoot the horn periodically until shoppers drift casually out of nearby retail establishments, shuffle their cars around, and release you. I hooted a few times and continued chatting to Mr Agawusi (Say that out loud. There’s music in that name.)

When I started my car engine, which is another way of encouraging bad Sicilian parkers to hurry up, the stereo automatically resumed playing one of my favourite tracks. I happen to be an African music maniac. This is what made Mr Agawusi’s face light up like a ray of sunshine:

The cars were taking ages to clear, so I played him some of my other favourite songs, and I turned up the stereo as loud as it would go, and we just danced beside the car, because, you know, ’tis the season to be jolly, no matter what.

Eventually, when we were in the middle of going completely nuts to this one, the cars finally cleared and I was a little sad to shake his hand and say goodbye.

I hope I’ll bump into him again some time before Christmas. I should have given him more than five measly euros for bringing so much fun into my life.


27 Comments Add yours

  1. Pecora Nera says:

    Cool cool post, I love the videos and I am now off to try and learn the hip wiggle dance.

    On a more serious note. There is no welfare net in Italy, it is not like the UK where money and housing is made available. In the north a lot of Africans try to earn a living selling belts, lighters, tissues in fact just about anything, that or organising parking in the car parks.


    1. In Sicily, these “jobs” are all done by local born and bred Sicilians, many of whom are fathers with families to support, and they defend their livelihood fiercely aginst competition.
      The North Africans have a monopoly on washing windscreens at traffic lights. I think they stick together and help each other out, and many of them come here independently – they come here thinking Sicily will be more modern and richer than north Africa and it is actually less so, so they get a real shock, but at least they are “free” in some sense.
      The sub saharan Africans most often end up getting sucked into doing the most dangerous and nasty “jobs” for the Mafia, which considers them dispensable lives. It is the Mafia, in cahoots with African criminal gangs, which brings them over here in the first place, but intends them to die on the way, making sure to pack three times the safe number of people into old boats which are no longer seaworthy and usually setting sail in unsafe weather conditions. Thousands have drowned in the sea between here and Africa.


      1. Pecora Nera says:

        We have been following the news of the boat loads of immigrants that have sunk or landed in Lampadusa 😦


  2. Lena Sbeglia says:

    That was so amusing it lightened my day – where are you in Sicily – what city?



    1. Hi!
      I am in Bagheria, near Palermo.


  3. Dianne Patrizzi says:

    You are a wonderful storyteller. I’m so glad I found you. You live in the place where my nonna was born. She ended up in North Beach, San Francisco with many other Sicilian immigrants.

    What you describe as trafficing North Africans is a fate similar to the Mexican immigrants here in the USA. And yes, shopping is boring and everything is from China. For someone living so far away from me, it’s interesting how familiar you are.

    Excuse me, I can’t help myself I have to dance!


    1. I think I wouldn’t mind leaving Bagheria and ending up in San Francisco!!!
      And I do hope you have a nice crazy dance to that music. I am hoping this post will start an epidemic of mad dancing! 🙂


      1. Mom Gormley says:

        I’d check California’s bankruptcy status before you moved. It’s tottering right now on collapse. But on a lighter note – loved the story and the dancing. Will be praying for Mr. Agawusi. In America our poverty is of a different sort – more spiritual poverty than material. If only we knew how good we have it here.


      2. Oh dear, I didn’t realise California was in such a bad state financially!
        But like England, where I’m fro originally, America has a different definition of poverty from Africa.


  4. Anonymous says:

    We find your Sicilian experiences so similar to ours.We came to live near Selinunte in January this year and it came as a bit of a culture shock to say the least!!. A huge change from Birmingham , England!! We follow your Blog with interest and amusement and hope to meet you one day , Wishing you and your family a Happy Xmas and continued success with your page, Thankyou for making us laugh and know we are not the only English people in this part of Sicily !!!
    Regards Karen and Al Jones .


    1. It’s great to hear from you, and please do stay in touch.
      I am always excited to meet fellow expats in Sicily and I have met a couple of blogoland friends in real life so far… hope to meet more!
      Happy Xmas to you as well.


  5. T. Franke says:

    From a German perspective the story goes on like this: The Italian authorities put 500,- EUR in the hands of Mr. Agawusi and tell him: “Go to Germany, there you will find help.” (No, this is not a joke, this really happened and goes on to happen.) So, Mr. Agawusi buys a ticket of Trenitalia and arrives at Munich on a sunny Monday morning, goes straightforwardly to the “Sozialamt”, and there he gets … an unlimited monthly social money of – let’s say – 1080,- EUR for simply nothing, until the German justice system found out who he is, where he came from, and which laws allow to send him back … this takes let’s say 5 years … meanwhile Mr. Agawusi is established, married, has 2 children, and is respected Imam of a Mosque which prays Holy War on every 4th friday in a month … so the authorities are merciful and just do not execute the command to send him back (again not a joke, this is Germany today, laws are not executed). Lucky for Mr. Agawusi. Very lucky. – But only at the first glance. The unlucky thing is: (a) Mr. Agawusi will never be loved by many Germans, he will be hated like our politicians who enable such a crazy system, although he is not guilty. (b) One day, let’s say in 10 years (it will be tomorrow, if any rating agency get’s the allowance by Mr. Obama to realize that Greece is bankrupt and will never recover and that Italy missed its chance to avoid bankruptcy), – then Germany will not be able to pay any more. Not for Mr. Agawusi. Not for the thousands and thousands of cousins, nephews, brothers of Mr. Agawusi who followed him. And not for us Germans. What will happen then … to Mr. Agawusi when the Furor Teutonicus rises? Uiuiuiuiui … this is not a happy end for Mr. Agawusi. My personal advice for Mr. Agawusi: Go to the US and start as dish-washer. Then you will have a small but real chance for a happy end!


    1. Yes, there are similar stories in England.
      I think you and I both come from countries which feel we have to make up for very bad episodes in our histories by proving we like foreigners and treat them well – and I do believe we have some duty to do this – but it seems our politicians do not understand economics or sociology well enough to realise you have to take them in at a pace you can really handle, and that you should not give them more help than you give to your own needy citizens.
      My point of view has been modified since living in Sicily, though, by seeing what they are running away from at home, and how they suffer without any help at all.
      Before moving to SIcily I spent some time teaching English to refugees in London, and they all told me the system was TOO generous to them, all they wanted was the opportunity to work and they did not expect any help from the government. They said they would like to clean steets, clear up rubbish, do anything that would help Britan becuse they were so grateful for having been given a safe place to live. All they wanted was that safety, nothing more.
      I remember them telling me they got £1,200 a month and that they knew how to live on far less than that. Some of Sri Lankan ones used to put all their spare money in charity collection boxes and and often asked me why the governemnt gave them so much money when they could see old people born in England who ought to get more.
      This was a real eye-opener to me. When you see a system in which the recipients of the state’s generosity with taxpayers’ money say it is too much, then you know the system needs changing.
      Yet I do still blame the government’s badly designed welfare system, not the recipients of it.


      1. T. Franke says:

        And there is just another thought: Imagine, what you can do with 1000,- EUR in Germany … and with the same 1000,- EUR in Africa!!! It would be far better to spend the same money for developing African countries instead of rewarding immigration and leaving Africa without any help. This is, for me, the striking idea: The system is not only wrong, not only not fair – it is bad!


      2. Yes, I definitely agree with that.


  6. I think you must have made his day – he must be ignored by so many people in a day. It’s magic to see that you have both experienced something unique; fear of feeling bad about our luck pushes us away from those who are in his situation.


    1. Yes, that’s very true.
      I used to be like that, then when I worked in the city I ended up making friends with a lady who slept rough in the doorway of one of the banks at night. I don’t remember how it got started really, but I sometimes used to buy lunch for us both and we’d sit on a park bench eating it together, and she said she loved being treated like a normal human being – it mattered more to her than having food in her stomach.
      Since knowing her I’ve learned to treat homeless and generally unfortunate people like anyone else.


      1. You’re right being treated like an outsider must hurt more than being homeless 😦


      2. Dianne Patrizzi says:

        Being treated like a normal human being. Equal respect.


  7. Chiavicina says:

    Hello Veronica! I also enjoy your blog, it is interesting to get the inside perspective of an expat living in Sicily. I was in Palermo for several weeks, almost 10 years ago, (wow time flies) and did happen to notice the tight knit communities that the African immigrants create to survive. Do you have any information on a non-profit organization or community center one could give to help them? I will be returning in April 2014 and would like to be able to contribute something on my trip. Thank you!


    1. The only non-profit organisations I know that help the immigrants are ones organised by the church – or perhaps, not the church as an institution, but certain individual priests.
      I shall ask around and post some info here when I find out, OK?


      1. Chiavicina says:

        Thank you! That would be much appreciated!


  8. Enjoyed this story. People are people. Nice story. You are a good and kind person. Cheers! -dp


  9. This made me cry, and think, and cry again. Sending you big XOs.


  10. obii anaradoh says:

    I think it is wonderful that you were so kind to the Nigerian man living as a tramp that you met.However you really do need to inform yourself a bit more about Africa before you make generalised statements about life in them.
    I am Nigerian and I live in Nigeria which is in West Africa.Nigeria is divided into 36 states and currently has more than 150 universities.
    Whilst we do not social welfare as such through the government and have to be enterprising and run our own businesses or have an extra job on the side to supplement a salaried main job most of us lead a fullfilled existence and are proud to be African and Nigerian in particular.
    There will always be those that are swindled after being promised a different life abroad and find themselves stuck in a foreign country with all their savings gone.
    I can only speak for Nigeria as it is what I know and I am sure that there do exist countries with only one university in the whole country and all the other things you describe but on reading your blog for the first time as recommended by someone to me,I have found it rather offensive.
    I can only hope that you did not mean it to offend africans although I cannot see how that could be really.
    Good luck to you. Freedom of speech and all of that.I can only exercise my right to not read such ill informed opinions.


    1. Thank you very much for taking the time to comment. I am very sorry that you found the blog post offensive, as that was not my intention at all.

      The comment about there being only one university in some African countries was not specifically referring to Nigeria. I was made aware of the university shortage in some African countries by a very close fried from The Ivory Coast who attended the only university in that country back in the nineties. They have one university each in Rwanda, Gabon, Congo, Equatoria Guinea, Gabon, Djibouti (OK I know it’s a tiny country), Eritrea has none, The Central African Republic and Chad have two each, and so on. I am very happy to see online that the Ivory Coast now has a long list of Universities, and I am confident that the other countries will establish more as time goes on.

      As for comments on the standard of living in African in general – I suppose I probably do have a distorted view of things under the influence of all the stories I have been told by Africans who gave up everything to get here. People don’t suddenly decide to emigrate if their life is going great at home. So all the Africans I meet here have left behind an Africa which just didn’t work out for them and they are not going to paint a rosy picture of it. Yet this is the only picture of modern Africa that we Europeans can get. When we look at the news it is even worse – all they ever show us is famine, wars, occasional genocide and epidemics of terrifying diseases.
      We probably need more Africans to start blogging, to give us their own balanced picture of life in Africa.

      People who have followed my blog for a while know that I say it like it is – if something is good, I say so, if it is bad, I say that too. I wrote a post a while back – which has turned out to be very popular – about some of the many wonderful aspects of Sicilians culture which were brought here by the Africans when they ruled Sicily. I do hope you’ll read it to get a more complete idea of the way I view, and represent, Africa.


  11. Good comments again. @0bii. I read this story several times and I didn’t think the intent was to offend. I always think of what we do here as sharing, creative, and informal. I thought the story was told in an warm, caring, and interesting way. Every writer can add another detail. We aren’t working with editors, we are expressing our point of view, sharing our experiences, and progressing a step at a time. In fact, YOUR comments pushed this story forward. We are better for the conflicting ideas, the differences in our point of views. Cheers! -dp


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