Ricky the African

One Stuck Immigrant – July 2012
I talk to Ricky. Ricky is the Nigerian who stands in our local supermarket car park in Italy, selling socks and flyswatters and trinkets if he can. I learn a little of Ricky’s story. Ricky is one of thousands, maybe tens- or hundreds-of-thousands, of Africans who find themselves in Italy, with no route back and no route forward. His is the tale of a man who has tried to make good for himself and his family, and what will happen to Ricky and to the other African migrants? Who knows? But maybe we can at least help Ricky a little bit.
Ricky with his socks and fly-swatters for sale. He had a bad toothache that day, so I told him to keep his hat on.
Ricky had missed a day at the supermarket the day before I photographed him. His face was too swollen with the infected tooth that was bothering him, and his head was throbbing with the pain. He went to the doctor who said that the tooth probably needed pulling. But Ricky didn’t want it pulled, and he instead got pain-killers prescribed by the doctor. Why does Ricky not want his tooth fixed? Too expensive. It is costly enough paying the doctor and for the painkillers.
Ricky had been on the phone to his wife in Nigeria. Their two small daughters are now at school, and the school needs money for their lessons and textbooks. Ricky must send more money. But he has no money. His wife doesn’t believe him. He is in Europe, he must be making money. Ricky talks to the head teacher of the school, and promises money, but he cannot send any right now. Later.
Ricky at his pitch.
Ricky came to Europe from his home town, Benin City, Nigeria, in 2008, over the desert to Libya and then across the Mediterranean in an overcrowded boat.
“I took the risk”, said Ricky, “A lot of people died, you know”.
“But you survived.”
“Ye-ah, I survived, God must be on my side!”
“We hope so”, I reply, and Ricky smiles, for he knows much better than I do that for those who perished on the way, God was not on their side quite so much.
Ricky was, of course, not aiming for Italy, he was heading for Europe. It was only after arriving in Italy that he found he could get no further, or not without a lot of tricky customs-dodging. For all sorts of reasons I cannot advise him on this.
So how does Ricky come to find himself standing outside that particular supermarket every day, and does anyone actually buy socks or fly-swatters, and what does the supermarket think about this competition on their doorstep?
The answer to the second question is no, pretty-well no one buys a sock or fly-swatter. Ricky makes the little money he gets from a separate source. He helps people to their cars with their bags, with a cheery smile and a ciao! And with luck they’ll give him a couple of euros, with a little luck one euro, and sometimes they give him nothing at all, though he’ll ask.
Ciao! Come Stai? Ricky greets a customer to the supermarket, as he cheerily greets every customer at the supermarket.
And to the third question, what does the supermarket think about this? By 2011 the car parks of supermarkets in Italy were getting ridiculous, with African immigrants hassling people as they got in and out of their cars, ostensibly with goods for sale. The supermarket staff shooed them away, but that only worked up to a point. And the Italian people are for the most part a kindly and humane lot, and the owners of the family-run supermarkets sympathised with the plight of the people they found were bothering their customers. As Ricky said, “The people here try and help me out a bit”.
Taken through the door mirror of my car on 1st July 2011, an African trader hassles a shopper in the same supermarket car park. I spoke to the trader, he spoke natural English and said he came from Nigeria. If it was Ricky, then he has since had all his hair cut off. It probably was someone else as there were a few traders plying the car park that day.
So now the supermarket owners allow just Ricky to stand there. He has gained for himself a kind of monopoly. He needs to have something on display, because otherwise it would seem like he might be employed by the supermarket, which he isn’t, and cannot be, for that could expose the supermarket owners to big fines.
Ricky the African.
And where does he get the goods from, that he has on display? I don’t know, and haven’t felt it appropriate to ask, though Ricky did say to me that it had cost him €200 for his asta, which is the Italian word for an auction.
“Everything is so expensive here!”, said Ricky when talking about the asta, and about the doctor, and he must try and find some money to send back home to help educate his children.
Ricky is just one, just one of many thousands, who have done what the popular press hrmphs angrily that the unemployed in Britain should do, he has got off his backside and gone in search of work.
“In Nigeria, you know”, says Ricky, “It is very difficult. There are people with twenty cars in the drive and others who cannot afford a bicycle. And you must be so careful what you say. If you say the wrong thing to the wrong person, you can find yourself dead.”
In Italy, strangely enough, Ricky is relatively free. He can say what he likes to pretty-much anyone in Italy.
And he is unlikely to get deported back to Nigeria. He might, but the Italian authorities have enough on their plate, without negotiating with the Nigerian government, and the Ghanaian, and the Senegalese, and the Ethiopian, and the Afghan, and the . . . you name it, to accept hundreds of planeloads of their citizens back. For a plane cannot land without permission.
So Ricky is free, but poor, too poor to get his tooth extracted, and his wife back in Nigeria doesn’t believe him when he says he has no money. Who would want to exchange their life with Ricky?
I am trying to see if I can get some money sent over to Ricky’s wife in Benin City. At least that will take a little load off his shoulders. If you can give any support, moral or financial, to this, please drop me an email.