I met him just before the Italian “bad season of 2017” started, during last year’s summer. Before the droughts that left the historic country paralysed, lakes evaporated and seabed transformed to baked mud. Wildfires blazed, crops damaged, and tonnes of tomatoes charred. I fervently hope this year’s would not be as bad.
It was so bad that the more than 2,800 drinking fountains known as ‘nasoni’ were turned off to conserve water. These were the taps scattered across the ancient city of ,, to dispense water at all times to help combat the usual hot summer. (The free drinking water is known by Romans as “l’acqua del sindaco” – the mayor’s water.)
Then, Pope Francis weighed in. The Vatican City turned off all fountains, including two Baroque masterpieces in St. Peter’s Square and interior fountains in the Vatican Gardens. Around 100 fountains in total were switched off. Vatican authorities declared that it was the first time the Holy City was being forced by nature to turn off the fountains.
Alas, when the heat wave subsided, intense rains visited! Major cities in Italy were flooded, buildings collapsed, power went out, subway stations and major tourist attractions were under water, speeding rivers of mud snatched cars and submerged streets.
In Rome, the beautiful and scenic Colosseum was suddenly surrounded by an emergency lake. A city that is a tourist delight suddenly turned to a turgid desert, where the traditional sight-seeing trekkers must find a rain boot to plod with.
Then, an earthquake, magnitude 4.0, shook the vacation isle of Ischia at the peak of the holiday season, killing two women and injuring 39 people. Ischia, off the coast of Naples, has a population of about 50,000 and is hugely popular with tourists, many of whom were out in bars and restaurants when the shaking started.
My meeting with the young Nigerian was unexpected. I was rushing for a meeting at Via di Vigna Murata, Rome, when I missed my way. I decided that the best strategy to meet up with my appointment was to go to any popular landmark in the area, and put a call across to my Italian colleagues so they would come and pick me up.
So, I went to a supermarket off the road. Immediately I walked up to the arcade of the mart, I saw a young black male standing in front of the place. He did not seem like a shopper to me because he was not carrying any shopping bag. He did not look like someone in a hurry. He just faced the main entrance of the supermarket with his two hands in his jacket pockets. I became suddenly aware that throughout that afternoon while on my way to Murata, I had not met any non-European. It was a high-end area of the city.
Considering that the supermarket was in an isolated location, I stopped on my track and took a second to analyse the situation. However, the first thing I noticed was that he did not look dangerous. He wore a pair of clean blue jeans and brown work boots. He had a well-groomed hair. He was neat in every sense of the word.
I then approached the man. When I got closer, I had a sudden feeling that this was a Nigerian. There was no doubt about it. At a close range, he looked smart and confident. My curiosity sharpened. I went even closer.
“Good day, bro!” I greeted. I told myself that even if he turned out to be a non-Nigerian, any black man in Europe was actually my brother, in every sense of the word.
He turned and smiled knowingly, in a manner that revealed that he had noticed me long ago, and guessed I was a Nigerian, and was wondering the same thing I was wondering – “What is this guy doing here?”
He ignored me. He turned his gaze to the entrance of the supermarket, as if waiting for a more important person to come out. Then, the automatic glass door swung open, and a big European woman dragged her shopping cart out. The Nigerian man stepped away from me and outstretched his hand to the woman. He spoke an inaudible Italian phrase.
By sheer instinct, I got the meaning of what the Nigerian said. And then, to confirm my hunch, the Italian shopper outstretched her own hand to the young Nigerian and dropped a couple of coins in the man’s up-raised right palm.
The young man was a beggar!
As the woman walked off to the parking lot opposite the mart, the Nigerian turned back towards me. This time, he smiled broadly, in a very brotherly way. One could see that now he knew that I was aware of his business at the shop, he was more comfortable with me.
“You are a Nigerian, right?” I asked the unnecessary question.
“Yes, from Edo State.” He answered. “I come here to hustle. This part of Rome is good. You will not see Nigerians dragging with you; and these people are good.”
That was how we started our chat, standing under the portico of a deluxe supermarket in a reserved area of the Eternal City. Bishop (not real name) told me that he immigrated to Italy three years earlier. In order to get his papers, he was at the refugee camp for two years, where he was given 200 Euro monthly upkeep allowance.
He told me that he was into begging because it was more lucrative than doing menial jobs. He lived in one of the far suburbs near Rome, and took the train every morning to come to commute to the city in order to beg.
He told me that in Nigeria, he was known as a very successful man working in Italy. This I later confirmed when I checked him out on social media. His profile pictures were even more appealing than his physical appearance. He told me that many people in Nigeria, both boys and girls, were falling over themselves to be his friend because they believed he was the next big thing.
There was pride in his eyes as he told me, “Ol boy, I dey run things from here! See my phone na. Dis na my local government chairman just call me dis morning. E say make I sponsor im next election. I be beggar for here, but I be big man for Naija!”
When he brought out his phone from his pocket, it was actually the latest Samsung Galaxy type.
Bishop even had some advice for me. When he saw how I called my colleagues to come and pick me up at the supermarket, and realised that their office was in that “big man area”, he told me that I should think of staying back in Italy. He told me that I should “just sacrifice two years in an asylum camp”.
When he saw how amused I was with his idea, he did not relent.
“Bros, make I tell you, even big man for Nigeria dey suffer. Anything wey you get for Naija, na suffer you go suffer to chop am. E better make you stay for here. You be Chairman, but God will bless you here more than for Naija. That na why many of us dey risk am to come here. Dying on the way to Italy is like dying on the way to heaven. It is a good death!”