by Caroline Omotayo, ITALY
Last week for the first time in 5 years, I went to Italy. I was born there and I moved to London when I was 9, so it was sort of a homecoming for me. The important bit about my story is why my parents decided to move to London, it’s therefore more of their story than mine.
My Dad moved to Italy from Nigeria when he was 22. Hoping to start a better life in a land supposedly filled with opportunities, he took the jump. He arrived to a land that was filled with opportunities… but just not for him. Despite studying to become a chemist, the only door that ever opened for him was that of an ‘operario’. Translated, it means the bottom of the job ladder. In summary, the job market saw colour first and talent never. In truth, we were lucky that we were able to entrench ourselves in our small community and despite not being well off, we became well known in the town and our family friends soon became well, family. However, fast forward 30+ years it appeared that the same mentality which restricted my family’s economic progress still remains.
I was excited to go back. Firstly and lastly because of the food, but also to see if anything had changed. I was prepared for the underlying theme of the trip to be about Brexit, but instead, I came back with a new perspective: I’m too woke for Italy.
In between the laughs and conversations, I noticed something different. We were just from two completely different worlds. The revelation occurred in the midst of statements such as “People run with machetes in Africa”, “You look like Naomi Campbell” (as flattering as this is, I don’t and you frankly need to increase your black girl palette), “There are lions in Africa”. For once, I found myself short on words. In that moment, I became more connected to the black beggars in the streets, the prostitutes lining the camps and the man walking downtown because he could not afford a car.
I wanted to make sure that I corrected their ignorance. I was confused about why I had never noticed such comments before. Was it because I was too young? Or was I just not listening. I discovered that it was the latter. The ideas were always there, I just upgraded my seat to the adult table. I was no longer a kid and ignorance was not bliss. The issue was not that “Well there are not that many black people” or that “We are all suffering from the economic downturn due to the governors”. Governments, ministers and institutions are all built by people and people regurgitate opinions, which in turn create false road maps of places and countries. As my food quickly lost its taste:
I realised how important it is that we change our narrative of our native countries.
When we talk of change and development we think of it in monetary terms. Investment is created through perception. If a country is perceived to be ripe for opportunities, it suddenly becomes attractive. Now, I am not an economist and I know it is way more complex than that, but my point is perceptions are created through discourse. What discourse are you perpetuating of your country? What stereotypes are you repeating and allowing to be passed down through generations.
You may not be able to donate a million dollars to a cause but you can donate your voice.
The dark tall grey buildings of London which I so often wish I could replace with the coloured cobbled streets of Italy, changed me. The Italy I knew was just a fantasy, the trip was really an awakening, that frankly I had always been a stranger in my home. I hope to one day help to change those of opinions, but for now, I’ll start here.
*inspired by an airplane reading of Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie