Djembe Cisse has decided enough is enough as Italy’s economic crisis affects her life. She arrived from Senegal 30 years ago, but feels it’s now time to reverse that journey by closing down her business and returning to West Africa.
Djembe is one of nearly one million African migrants living in Italy, according to ISTAT – the official body that conducts census and population surveys. Africans account for approximately one in four immigrants who have made Italy their home.
Almost half of Italy’s African population has found its way to the northern region of the country, attracted by the industry and commerce there. Many of them found jobs working in factories, while others, like Djembe and her 27-year-old son, Ahmadou Fall, made a livelihood by running their own businesses: in this instance a market stall selling mock leather bags.
Djembe’s situation is a microcosm of Italy’s economic woes: austerity measures are driving down trade and she is now paying more in taxes. The mother and son duo travel with their mobile market stall to whichever town is holding its weekly market in the heavily populated area of Lombardy, between the cities of Milan and Bergamo.
On a Tuesday, this tall and imposing woman can be found at her stall in picturesque Cologno al Serio. It’s a town that feels wrapped in history and security by the medieval moat surrounding it.
But Djembe feels far from secure. She says that she has seen profit turn to loss selling bags she buys wholesale from a Chinese trader. “At the beginning we managed to make a little money, but now there’s the economic crisis and we can’t do anything.”
‘Breathe and pay’
Italy has a problem. Just over a year ago, the country was hit by a financial crisis regarding its debt repayment terms. Like other European governments, the Italians are responding with austerity measures that manifest themselves in cuts to government at all levels and a related increase in taxes.
Djembe looks out from behind the colourful array of mock leather bags she sells and says: “We work and we pay, now here [in Italy] you even breathe and you pay.”
She pays the “plateatici” – a stall holder’s rent – for a variety of market stall pitches, which vary in price from 400-700 ($520-909) euros. On top of that, the mother and son are paying off a 10,000 euro ($12,990) loan for the specialised van that market traders use. At least the van is a company asset for them.
“As the economic situation deteriorates, it seems that Italians are lowering the bar in terms of the jobs they will take.“
Timothy Osarose Ogiemwonyi has less of a cushion in these troubled times. He is an earnest-looking young man from Benin City in Nigeria, and earns his living by selling accessories door-to-door. He has been in Italy since 2005, when he arrived illegally via another European country. He has since legalised his status and acquired the necessary paperwork to work in Italy.
He outlined his expenditures, concluding that he needed to earn at least 500 euros ($650) a month, yet the process of selling scarves, stockings and cigarette lighters the previous month had left him 50 euros ($65) short. When times are hard, he says it’s the amount of food he consumes that he cuts back on first.
Timothy is one of 53,000 Nigerians who has made the southern European country his home. Senegalese migrants, like Djembe number 80,989, and according to ISTAT, the number of West African migrants in the Lombardy region is close to a quarter of a million.
Migrants traditionally find themselves at the bottom of the economic ladder. In Italy, this has resulted in them taking jobs which, until now, Italians have been reluctant to occupy. For example, Timothy had previously cleaned the toilets of service stations on Italy’s motorways.
But, as the economic situation deteriorates, it seems that Italians are lowering the bar in terms of the jobs they will take. Sergio Manenti owns a dairy farm in the lush Lombardy countryside. He has employed Egyptian farm hands to milk his cows for the last 12 years, and before that used Indian help to look after his herd.
But Manenti says the crisis has caused the previously more fussy Italians to think twice. He says that while he is not getting asked about opportunities to milk cows – a process that occupies his Egyptian staff twice a day, seven days a week – he is getting asked about other opportunities for working on the land:
“Before the crisis kicked in, it was impossible to find them. Now you find Italian guys in the fields, mainly on vehicles and machines. I now have people asking me for jobs, but before the crisis, it was impossible to find Italians who wanted to do this work.”
A number of Senegalese arrived in Italy during the 1980s when a change in the law enabled them to start working in the private sector. In 1989, the Association of Senegalese people living in Bergamo was launched with 39 members. Membership has now increased to 1,600 members, though the association claims there are more than 11,000 Senegalese living in and around Bergamo.
‘Worst economic situation’
The association aims to cater to the needs of this sizable community, including supporting members who customarily send the bodies of relatives who have died in Italy, back to Senegal. Ahmadou Ndiaye is the vice-president of this organisation. At its headquarters he spoke of how, in the 25 years he has lived in Italy, this is the worst economic situation he has encountered.
He said unemployment is high and members of the community are struggling to pay rent or have failed to honour mortgage repayments. This results in there being less money to send back to Senegal, and has even resulted in some people losing their homes.
“Now we take the money from Senegal in order to live, to pay the rent, the food, to get through the month. It’s not convenient anymore, do you understand?“
– Djembe Cisse
He went on to explain that as money got scarcer and more people lost their jobs, there was a need for his association to collect money on several fronts: “We have to organise more money collections than previously in order to send bodies home, because members and non-members in the Senegalese community cannot afford it anymore. Since we are also, at the same time, organising support for people here to buy food – it’s tough!”
The feeling among the African community is that there is nowhere left to hide from the economic crisis. It’s a view endorsed by an editor at Valori magazine, Marou Megiolaro. The magazine monitors the economy and sustainability. Megiolaro says that Italy has been hit twice with two different but related issues:
“First there was an underlying economic problem that has been blighting the country for 10 years. Its industry has been losing out to cheaper and more flexible competitors overseas while its system of tax collection has been woeful.” The second hit came last year, says Megiolaro, as Italy became inextricably linked to the European debt crisis.
Megiolaro says that regardless of whether an African migrant is in a salaried position or working as a freelancer or entrepreneur, they will now face demands placed upon them by the country’s need to raise revenue through taxation.
Back at her market stall, as she closes for the day, Djembe says she will soon be packing up for good. “We are arranging things in order to shut the business down and go back to live in Senegal.” She used to send money home, but now receives money to support her from her parents in Africa.
“Now we take the money from Senegal in order to live, to pay the rent, the food, to get through the month. It’s not convenient anymore, do you understand?”
It’s very understandable, and a glance at the register of Italians living abroad suggests they understand too. On January 1, 2012 the total number of Italians included on the AIRE (Register of Italians Living Abroad) stood at 4,208,977 – equivalent to 6.9 per cent of the total population resident in Italy.
It’s been widely reported that Italians are leaving their country in droves for a new beginning overseas. As Djembe plans on joining them, she might not be alone, as many other Africans in Italy consider their future options.