Tom Kington in Rome The Observer, Saturday 7 September 2013
Italy’s first black minister: I had bananas thrown at me but I’m here to stay
Cécile Kyenge has faced racist insults and threats, but insists she will not be deterred from her plans for integrating immigrants
Three mannequins stained with fake blood were dumped last week outside a town hall where Cécile Kyenge was due to make a speech, the latest in a stream of racist protests and insults aimed by furious Italians at the country’s first black government minister.
After being likened to an orangutan by a former government minister and having bananas thrown at her while on a podium, it is getting tougher for Congo-born Kyenge, 49, to keep up her oft-repeated mantra that Italy is a tolerant country – but she is trying hard.
“I have never said Italy is racist, every country needs to start building awareness of immigration and Italy has simply arrived very late,” she said on the day the mannequins were discovered.
Judging by the venom directed at Kyenge since she was named minister for integration in April, Italy needs to do some fast catching up as the ranks of foreign residents in the country swell to around four million, about 7% of the population.
But from her office in Rome, Kyenge insisted that children growing up in Italy’s burgeoning melting pot are free from the prejudices of their parents. “It’s easier for the young who have grown up with a different mentality, who have come across people from other places,” she said. “If you ask a child in a class who is their friend, it is more likely he will say ‘the one with the green jumper’ rather than ‘the black one’.”
That is not quite how Forza Nuova, the far-right party that left the Ku Klux Klan-style mannequins at the town hall, sees things. Kyenge’s work on behalf of immigrants, said party member Pablo de Luca, was aimed at “the destruction of the national identity”.
Such views are keenly shared by members of the Northern League, Italy’s anti-immigrant party, which propped up Silvio Berlusconi’s government until it collapsed in 2011.
MEP Mario Borghezio set the ball rolling in May by claiming that Kyenge would impose “tribal conditions” on Italy and help form a “bongo-bongo” administration. Africans, he added for good measure, had “not produced great genes”.
In June, a local councillor for the party called for Kyenge to be raped, while in July Roberto Calderoli, a party member and former Berlusconi minister, compared her to an orangutan before bananas were lobbed at her as she made a speech.
To top a vituperative summer, a rightwing deputy mayor in Liguria compared Kyenge on his Facebook page to the prostitutes – often African – who line a local road, while a well-known Italian winemaker, Fulvio Bressan, shocked wine lovers by reportedly calling Kyenge a “dirty black monkey”.
It has been a tough reception for a woman who moved to Italy to work as a home help while she trained to become an ophthalmologist, marrying an Italian man and plunging into local politics in Modena to push for greater rights for immigrants before winning a seat in parliament in February.
“When I arrived in 1983, I was one of the few; I was a curiosity. Then, in the 1990s, when mass immigration started, immigrants began to be seen as a threat,” she said, recalling patients who had refused to be visited by her. “The process needed to be accompanied by more information in the media, in schools, better laws.”
A shock survey in 2008 found that when people were asked who they found “barely likeable or not likeable at all”, 81% of Italians mentioned Gypsies, 61% said Arabs, 64% said Romanians and 74% opted for Albanians.
Then came the crippling economic downturn, which sliced 15% off Italy’s manufacturing sector, pushed the unemployment rate up to 12% and further hardened perceptions of “job-stealing” migrants.
What is really upsetting the Northern League is Kyenge’s work to overhaul Italy’s citizenship law, which currently forces the children of migrants born in Italy to wait until they are 18 before they can apply to become Italians, leaving a generation of children growing up feeling like Italians, talking local dialects like Italians, but unable to be Italian.
It has been dubbed the “Balotelli generation”, after black footballer Mario Balotelli – who was born to Ghanaian parents in Sicily and is now a mainstay in the Italian national team, but has faced stadium chants of “a negro cannot be Italian”.
Kyenge points out that she is not pushing for a US-style law that hands a passport to anyone born in the country, but for a toned-down version that would require the child’s parents to have spent some time in Italy or to have taken integration courses.
Meanwhile, she has backed new measures simplifying the bureaucratic nightmare faced by the children of immigrants, who have one year to complete a blizzard of paperwork needed to gain a passport when they turn 18. “You have from the age of 18 to 19 to apply and requests are often turned down due to a few missing documents,” she said.
It is just part of an ambitious programme to which the soft-spoken Kyenge has committed herself, stretching from working on housing issues for nomad families to inter-religious dialogue designed to make it easier for Italians to adopt overseas.
Her key task, she said, is convincing a country that has no shortage of culture – from its food to its art – that there is always room for more. “Diversity, sharing something you don’t have, offers a huge amount,” she said.
Turning to her own field, medicine, she said: “There are small examples of foreign customs which are being adopted by hospitals, like carrying your baby on your back, which can help children with ankle ailments as well as increasing physical contact with the parent while helping the posture of the parent.”
Critics have rounded on the fact that Kyenge’s father was polygamous, fathering 38 children by numerous wives, a custom she said she would not trying to encourage in Italy. “Let’s be clear,” she said, laughing, “this is a form of marriage I don’t agree with.”
Rather than threatening Italian traditions, Kyenge said the asylum-seekers now heading for Italy from sub-Saharan Africa and Syria could be taught to revive trades now being abandoned by Italians, especially if they were allowed to set up shop in the medieval hilltop villages that are rapidly being abandoned up and down the country.
Take, for example, the Calabrian town of Riace, which has reversed depopulation by welcoming the migrants landing on rickety boats after a perilous Mediterranean crossing and setting them up in trades such as dressmaking, joinery, pottery or glass-blowing.
“This is a good practice, using depopulated villages where there are many empty houses, where old farms, shops and workshops can be reopened,” said Kyenge, who visited Riace in August. “It offers a welcome to migrants, it’s good for the national economy and good for saving trades that risk disappearing.”
Back in Rome, as she works to get her message across, Kyenge is getting ready to dodge the next bunch of bananas as she continues to insist that Italy is not a racist country, just learning fast.
“Balotelli and I are both opening new paths in our fields,” she said, “and anyone who does that will face huge difficulties.”