I nearly left the road the first time I read this.
VI FACCIAMO NERI!!
WE'LL MAKE YOU BLACK!!
The banner comes out every summer and stretches over the front door of a beauty centre a few villages away, with a pumped-up and very tanned lady in a bikini next to the words. Every time I drive past I really stare to check I haven't made some translation mistake. A couple of times when I was already pissed off I have felt like stomping in there, shaking my wet swimming towel, and shrieking Whaat the? How can you appropriate the word 'black' when most of you are petrified of Africans and their black skin? Who on earth among you is going to walk through that door and willingly come out a black man or woman??
The thing is, Italy has been late to the party several times. They were late to join the scramble for Africa, ending up with Libya, a sliver of Somalia, disgrace in Ethiopia. And now the great wave of post-Independence migration has just recently hit Italy's coasts. I have heard hilarious stories from Ghanaian mates about posing as refugees from Liberia with their obviously Ghanaian names. Or the passport swapping that goes on because for the already-muddled carabinieri, all black people look the same (in Ghana people used to think all whites looked the same too, and the funniest crowd scene in my life took place when I was walking through the massive used clothes market in Rawlings Park and EVERY SINGLE PERSON started cracking up over my skinny non-African bum).
The thing is, everybody is afraid of real black skin here, that is why I can't understand the gist of that advertisement. My neighbour, a man who thinks our properties will both be handed down to the next generation when I know my kids will be taking off to Sydney or New York or Milan and I'll probably sell up, once told me I should watch out.
There is a shop near here where they congregate, he informed me. He didn't know I had to pass my Italian driving test with a bunch of fairly ordinary Senegalese.
I told him I knew the place he meant, which was true because the guy who runs it is called Omar and we once had a great laugh because I have a son called Omar too.
You've seen them out the front together, in those long dresses. My neighbour said they were all pimps and drug addicts, he was certain. They all had big cars.
That day I remember it was very hot and my neighbour spoke on at length but there was not a thing I could think of that was going to change his racist fears. I tried for a while, but then the idea of the men in robes set me thinking backwards. Back to my old hajis in Nima the Muslim quarter of Accra and the dusky call to prayer. Back to driving through Burkina with Cissé-the-crackhead and taking a wrong turn at Ouaga and doing 60kms of sandy road. Back to the night in the car on the border with Mali where we all woke caked in red dust - red fuzzy hair, red eyelashes. Back to the afternoon after Segou when I released cranky little Omar into the desert. Omar who was sick of the all-day driving, Omar who ran and ran and ran into the dust towards a big baobab tree, the biggest baobab tree I had ever seen.