Malick Diedhiou on Senegalese Culture + Racism in Italy

I was breaking apart a baguette in a town square in Bordeaux, France when Malick sat down next to me, striking up conversation and brimming with a smile. His presence put me at ease and, not wanting to end our interaction, I asked if he wanted vin chaud—French hot wine.  When he reacted in surprise, I insisted we head to the local Christmas Market to have a cup together. With charm, he accepted and we began our walk down Bordeaux’s cobblestone streets. As we drank our wine in the market, amongst the cold mist of a December afternoon, I heard his story.

Malick in a town square in France with a beanie and a blue jacket

Malick was born and raised in Senegal; after graduating from a Senegalese university, he started working in a bank, though he was denied long-term employment after 6 months. Malick’s story began, however, with a woman—as most do. Malick was with a woman who he wished to marry; his childhood sweetheart who he had been with for 7 years. He asked her parents for their daughter’s hand in marriage in 2015.

They refused his offer. Malick, born in the ghettos of Senegal, was poor and currently unemployed. Instead of marrying his childhood sweetheart, Malick was suddenly single. The next day, he packed his bags and left Senegal through the backroads of north-eastern Africa with his best friend. He wanted to build a better life for himself.

Malick talking about racism in Italy

In 2015, the two boys crossed borders together by foot, boat, and car, making their way through Mali, crossing the Sahara Desert, and entering Libya. It was in Libya that his travel companion, his best friend, was shot dead by Libyan terrorist. Malick was sent to prison in Libya, eventually escaping in the night to continue his journey– this time alone. Malick found himself on a boat, crossing the Mediterranean Sea, headed towards Italy. However, along the way, they go lost, trapping Malick and the fellow passengers. For one week, they were without food and little water until a German rescue team came and saved Malick, taking him to Torino, Italy. “It is a crazy story,” Malick contested.

In Italy, Malick went back to school while looking for jobs, finding work in a super market and eventually in restaurants. Fluent in Italian, French, and English, Malick was a valuable employee in the heavily touristed restaurants of Italy.

A man

“I quit, however, because they are racist in Italy, they think they are more important than black people. This is why I move to France, because here in France, black people are more respected, if you are black you can get a good job. They do not see skin color; they are more open. In Italy, it is not like that–it is like America, before.”

A man with a hat and a patterened shirt

Walking into work one day in Italy, a customer called him “negro merda”, or “black shit” in Italian. His first girlfriend in Italy left him because her family did not want her to date a black man. When he went out to an Italian club with his new girlfriend, he was told that he was not allowed to enter because he was black. Despite his girlfriend’s protests and tears, the bouncers would not budge. What spurred his decision to leave was when Malick’s boss told Malick that he was not allowed go near the restaurant’s storefront because customers would not come in if they saw him.

He did not know Italy would be like this, and he had few options when crossing the border. Italy is struggling to hold onto its peopl. And as their economic prospects dwindles and innovation stalls, Italy needs to fill the traditional industries. These circumstances makes it an easy place to migrate to, allowing people like Malick to build a new life.

Malick talks to me about racism

Malick’s mother calls him often, worried for a son who is so far from home. But he does not plan to be away forever; he dreams of starting a business in Africa to help their poorest people and orphans. He has a soft spot for orphans, as his best friend also left behind his children as well as his spouse. Currently, Malick supports charities for orphans and sends money back home to his family and his best friend’s widow.

With all this driving him, Malick is looking towards building his life in France and adjusting to the culture. “I loved Italy, the lifestyle there. Some are racist, but they have fun. In France, they seem sad, more closed. It is only 3 weeks, though, so I cannot say yet. In Senegal, we are poor, but we are rich in the heart, we can be happy every day, even if we don’t have money. It is the thing I love about my country. We are open with everybody.”

I asked Malick why he thinks the Senegalese are so happy, and he believes it is their emphasis on family. “We grow up like this, with a big family. And we have no stress because we stay with the family. We always have a place to sleep, we always eat. You can leave your home to go to eat at another home, even if they do not invite you. If I want to eat, I go to eat there. We do like this— if you want to see a girl, you don’t text, you go and you ask. Here [in Bordeaux] if you want to see your friend, go to eat or go to bar, to take a coffee, you text. In Senegal, every day you are out with friends to make a tea or to make like this (as we sit together and drink wine). Every night, every day, you make a tea, smoke a cigarette, speak about life.”

Malick posing in a photo and a leather jacket

“God can’t give you all, you know. White people, you are rich. You have money and car, but you are not happy. Black people, we are poor. But we are full of love. We know our neighbors; we can go to anyone’s house to eat and talk. We are full of love. God cannot give you everything.”

Not all Senegalese are this way, but Malick believes that if you come from poverty, as many Africans do, you understand life. “I am boy from ghetto, and I love ghetto. We can eat, enjoy ourselves, go out to dance… even if we don’t have money. There are other Senegalese who have money, they stay home and they do not know how to help people.”

Malick looks off into the distance in France

“We are not all like this. I have friend who I grew up with, came from poverty and move away. Now she doesn’t write, she is ‘me, me, me’.  So, it depends. But me, every day I help people in Senegal, Italy, France. And people help me. In Italy, I have [an adopted] Italian family that helped me find job. They help me. But many people don’t, they don’t say thank you, they don’t call. For me, if you are a human, I see you, I see your heart. I don’t care about your money, if you are black or white. Many white people think that if black people love you, it is because you are white. Italy is like this.

Malick speaks to me about racism

“If I see a black, beautiful girl or a white, beautiful girl, I see her. I can love. In Italy, people can’t love you because you are black—the idea is so crazy. People think that if you love someone, it is because you have interest, [a selfish reason]. I don’t have this problem. No, just love.”

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