IN THE MIGRANTS’ GHETTO: among slave labor and laborers dying in silence
Rignano (Apulia, ITALY) – A piece of Aboubacar’s index fingertip is no longer there.
The blood continues to flow down the hand of the young Nigerian as he squirms and curses against the owner of the bar. It takes three people to try and calm him down. Rose, who runs the bar and the adjacent brothel, is from Nigeria as well. She’s a very dark-skinned woman in her thirties and has a look that I've rarely seen turning into a smile. Like many of her colleagues, she doesn’t get intimidated by anyone. Not her husband, with whom she often exchanges a few slaps, much less her customers.
Tonight, in fact, Rose has bitten Aboubacar’s finger to force him to pay his friends’ bill: 5 euros. After two weeks in the "ghetto" of Rignano, a shantytown that has been growing exponentially in Foggia’s province for the past 15 years, certain attitudes don’t surprise me anymore. In fact it takes about two hours of hard work to collect 600 kg of tomatoes and earn those precious 5 euros. Both Rose and Aboubacar know that. And here is where hundreds of laborers, especially from West and Central Africa, gather to start the harvest season. Entering the ghetto pretending to be one of them wasn’t too hard. To all I repeated the same story taking advantage of my African origins: "My name is Koffi, I come from Togo, I only speak French and English, I don’t have papers, and I’m looking for work." Only a few, at least at first, were asking questions. But staying in the ghetto became gradually more and more problematic. "Being able to work this year is too difficult, Wallahi (I swear) - says Abdullah, 28, from Guinea Conakry but a resident in Italy for the last five years (the name, like that of the other characters encountered, is not the real one) -. We are always more and more to come here to work and there hasn’t been a drop of rain." The rain, in fact, forces the 'boss' to exploit more the laborers’ work instead of using the machines. But this is one of the hottest season. In two weeks, the harvest has already killed four laborers: two Africans, a Romanian and an Italian woman. "Today I was not able to work - admits Salif, twenty-five, Malian with a robust body -. Yesterday my legs became so hard that I could not move them." This type of work is not for everyone. No matter how one is strong or weak, tall or short, skinny or fat. You’re safe only if you are used to work in the country. There are those who do the harvest only once, and those who can’t go on for more than a week. The one that can work throughout the whole season it’s someone who since childhood, under the African sun, lived in the country and followed the example of the parents and grandparents. The best laborer seems to be a Ghanaian nicknamed "38 cassoni", because in a single day he can fill 38 big boxes of tomatoes. A record for the majority of the laborers that might fill ten at best. "You want to work in the country?" Charles asks me. This “Caporale” from Ghana looks at me incredulously up and down. "No, you cannot do it, I'll give you a soft job, maybe close to the machines." I feel a bit offended. Charles has been living in Italy for the past eight years and is in direct contact with the Italian owner of some tomatoes fields located around Lucera. He has a house in this small town which he uses to accommodate 20 laborers who come to the ghetto only on Saturday night before returning to Lucera early Sunday morning. Although he has not rejected my 30 euro, the cost of a mattress in the ghetto for the entire season, Charles refuses to believe that I am a good investment. I can’t blame him. The pressure is very high, both from the laborers’ side and the tomatoes company. "I'm waiting for a truck from Naples - he assures me - and once it’s here we have to fill it up in a single day. So, sleep here in the ghetto and be patient."
I often get up at 4 am to see the vans packed with these slaves of modern times who leave for the countryside. The African team-leader, sometimes accompanied by an Italian, calls the people one by one. A small torch illuminates the list of laborers written on a paper and a plastic bag containing everyone’s documents. "Koffi, don’t worry if you don’t have the documents – Charles tells me -, I'll give you one from an employee of mine, nobody will notice."
Every morning around 8am I call Sidibé. Despite his twenty-two years, this young man from Mali was able to survive the crossing of the Sahara, the beginning of the civil war in Libya, and the last four years in Italy. He has a residence permit, but no driver's license or car documents. He uses his vehicle as a taxi: 10 euros per trip from the ghetto to Foggia, about 15km. His cousin Malik, not much older than him, has all the papers, although he paid 550 euros for the driving license bought in a driving school of Salerno. His family sent him the money from Mali. Malik drives every day from 6 am until sunset. "I came to the ghetto for the first time last year - he tells me as we head towards Foggia -, but I spent every night in the car because it bothers me to sleep with other people. This year at least I have a room that I share with my girlfriend." After letting me near the train station, I dive into the city’s alleys, changing the route each time and checking if I’m being followed. The people in the ghetto that can’t work in the rural areas, work in Foggia. Some of them wash car windows, others are simply asking for money as many Romanians, Bulgarians and Italians. I spend a few hours in an apartment writing a diary and trying to regain hours of lost sleep in the ghetto, where in the room of 2meters by 6, made of cardboards, some cloths and wooden planks, we sleep in 6 or sometimes 8 people. In the afternoon I call Sidibé that, after collecting other customers, brings me back to the ghetto. Yet another fight broke out in front of the bar of an Italian. Some guys from Ivory Coast are separated by other Italians. The quarrels are usually related to prostitution or drugs. This morning I decided to wake up at 3.30. Hundreds of workers, carrying jerrycans and a sandwich, are already waiting to be called by the team-leader. For the next four hours the vans will depart one by one in a cloud of dust. For them begins another day of slave labor under the sun.
THE GHETTO: Although a serious census of the ghetto has never been carried out, it is estimated that the residents are at least 1,500 during the harvest season. While in past years there were mainly Africans originally from Burkina Faso, it is now the Malians to be the most numerous, followed by Cameroon, Ghana, Senegal, Nigeria, and other countries in West and Central Africa. The Togolese are very few. The majority of people in the ghetto are laborers, but more and more Africans who are already working elsewhere in Italy just come to live a few days in the "Africa of Apulia". Inside the ghetto there are shops, modest restaurants, a mosque and a radio. Some rooms can hold more than 40 people. Although there are showers, the fields around are continually used to urinate and defecate. The Apulia region authorities send every morning a water truck. There are also several humanitarian and political organizations that work in the ghetto mostly during the afternoon. (M.F.K.)
PREPARATION: A preliminary look was necessary. It happened thanks to a former resident of the ghetto that quickly showed me around the area. I tried to get noticed as little as possible. In the following days I have grown a beard, I bought a hat, and a backpack filled with everything I needed: sheets, soap, toothbrush and toothpaste. I used a unique combination of clothes (which I washed every day) so that it would create only one image of Koffi. I preferred to enter the ghetto at night, when there is more confusion and it’s difficult to see people’s faces. The taxi left me a kilometer away, and then I walked up to the first shacks. I asked of Mary, a Cameroonian known for being nice to newcomers. She wanted me to sleep in one of her rooms at first, but she preferred to take me "from your Togolese brothers." "Otherwise they complain that Cameroonians help Togolese," she kept telling me. So I switched to Komlà, a Togolese, married to Rose, the Nigerian girl. Along with another Togolese, Komlà took me outside the bar and started to ask me some questions about my ethnicity and spoke to me in a local Togolese language. Togo, where I was born and have lived for the last two and a half years, has a population generally very reserved and suspicious. Although I replied that I spent most of my life in France, Komlà believed me. I spent the first night in a small room in his brothel full of mice but with a good mattress. The next day Komlà, which had no more space, introduced me to Charles, a Ghanaian he spoke Ewe with, the same language of the region. Charles made me pay 30 euros for a mattress in one of his shacks. (M.F.K.)
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