MILAN - Have you ever been stopped by a police patrol in an empty alley at two in the morning under your front door in the center of Milan? It happened to me yesterday. “Boss! Where are you going?”
, two policemen in the car asked me after accelerating to reach me. “At home,” I replied after a few seconds of hesitation. But for the officers it wasn't enough. “Show us your papers,” they requested. I saw some parts of my life passing by between me and the police. I felt that anything could happen.
I am 42 years old, twenty of which as a freelance journalist based in Africa, and I have two children aged 6 and 4 and a half. For a week I have been wandering the streets of Milan on foot or by public transport to promote my latest book which, funny enough, is entitled "I Won't Die Today". Over the course of my profession I have gathered friendships, sources and contacts. Newspaper editors and large companies’ CEOs, diplomats, politicians and intellectuals. Before landing in Milan I moderated a conference on microfinance for 1,300 people held in Lomé, the Togolese capital, where I live.
Yet when I return to Milan I also return to being a "non-EU citizen". Precisely for this reason I walk with my eyes down, I wear a hat to hide in plainsight, and my psyche pushes me to always maintain a certain distance from anyone, especially the elderly and women. I don't want them to feel threatened by my presence. The day before yesterday I left the book at the leftist Radio Popolare and I was pleased to notice the writing on the entrance: "No one here is a foreigner". The kind secretary to whom I gave the manuscript, after telling her that I live in Africa, reciprocated with a large envelope full of pens: "So you give them to the African children." I couldn't help but thanking her.
However, when I left the building I had a lady in front of me, perhaps a journalist from the same radio station. She kept looking over her shoulder to see what my intentions were. As usual I looked down, pretending to check my phone (which was turned off). A little awkwardly the lady started to go to the left, although I suspected that we both were supposed to go to the right. Under the hat and out of the corner of my eye I saw her waiting for me to overtake her. She then started walking behind me again, probably relieved.
A similar thing is happening with the neighbor of the person hosting me. For the first time in almost two years this lady took advantage of a disagreement about where to put the rubbish in the street to write a hostile message to my friend and making her understand that, through the cracks of her terrace, she noticed her “new” guest. It's a daily struggle that I always struggle to explain. In recent days I’ve also promised Avvenire (the paper I mostly write for) a series of "undercover" articles to reveal a circle of lawyers in Bologna who exploit immigrants to earn money through legal procedures. I also wanted to pretend to be drunk to demonstrate how some employees of the Milanese Red Cross insult foreigners while helping them. I have already done this type of things, in Africa as in Italy.
But after an evening with friends on the other side of town, I arrived at two in the morning, tired. I also helped a group of guys whose car got stuck on the tram tracks. We lifted it and moved it. I finally got home. The alley in the Sarpi road area was empty and a few meters away I saw a police car. I didn't want to believe it. And so the police agents stopped me.
Paradoxically in Togo they always call me "Boss" jokingly and for very different reasons. However, I got used to always carry my passport in my pocket, a photocopy in my case would not be enough. The two agents converse briefly with each other. I know I am at their mercy and whatever happens to me I have no witnesses. I took my ID out but they changed their mind and told me: "Nevermind, see you next time", and they left.
I went home and I couldn't understand why I kept crying the next morning. I have been stopped many times and it has never affected me so deeply. I reflect on it with tears in my eyes, I was feeling fire inside. I understand that I needed to be stopped: I'm black and I walk around Milan at night. I understand that they had to ask for my papers, same reason. Perhaps I don't deserve from the police a: "Good evening, sir, would you please show us your documents".
So what has changed? I kept thinking and a phrase from the mother of my children came to mind in response to a video I sent her two years ago. I was in Northern Senegal one night, the bus I was traveling on had broken down in the middle of a dirt road and the only solution to get to my final destination was to remain attached to the external bars of another bus for 60 km. In the video I was smiling. Her answer, simple and wise, finally hit me yesterday morning: “Remember that you have two children now.”
Matteo Fraschini Koffi for AVVENIRE – October 29th, 2023 © All rights reserved