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Haven’t you always wondered about the African guys selling purses, dark glasses and CD’s in every town in Italy? Me too! I always imagined there was some kind of Organization of African Vendors, with a capo who brought young men into the country (legally? illegally?) and then directed them where to go to set up shop. This evil capo, of course, would take all the profits, thereby effectively enslaving the fellows doing all the work. And he was probably running all the prostitutes as well.

Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong. A couple of weeks ago we were on a morning train from Rapallo to Celle. At one of the stops on the outskirts of Genova a whole bunch of Africans with bags of merchandise got on our car. The most picturesque arrival was a woman in a printed African dress, the kind with a long skirt and a top, with matching turban. She had a huge hand-rolled cigarette dangling from her mouth and an I-dare-you expression on her face – wish I’d gotten a photo (I didn’t dare). I did sneak an in-back-of-me shot of a couple of the gents.

After a pleasant day we boarded our train to return to Rapallo, and I ended up sitting next to a young man, clearly of the African vendor fraternity; let’s call him Franco. He turned out to be about the pleasantest person you could imagine, and didn’t mind my pumping him for information.

So here’s what I learned: Almost all the vendors come from Senegal, on Africa’s west coast (formerly a French colony, so French is the official language of the country and the language used in school). Wolof is the official Senegalese African language, and is the native language of about 40% of the population, though there are many other languages. Franco said it was like the different dialects in Italy – someone from the north of Senegal wouldn’t necessarily understand the language of someone from the south. All these languages are based on a different sound system than western languages – which is obvious when you hear it spoken. Franco had to get off before the language lesson got very far, but we both learned ‘man’ = I, and ‘moom’ = he, she, it. That last raises some gender questions.

There is no empire of vendors under the evil thumb of a capo. All the vendors come over independently, usually joining friends or family members who are already here. Franco chose his selling locale because a friend who had been here for 20 years said he did well there. He commutes daily from Busalla, north of Genova, to Pietra Ligure, west of Savona, for his day of work. In the winter he works in Viareggio, well to the south. Unlike sleepy, beachy little Pietra Ligure, Viareggio is still moderately active in the winter. The things he sells are almost all made in Italy, he said. (I did doubt that.)

What surprised me most was that Franco and his friends are legal entrants to the country. He said that he went to the Italian Consulate in Dakar and got a visa to come to Italy. I believed him, in spite of the fact that some studies suggest that up to 50% of immigrants in Italy enter illegally (Senegal accounts for only about 2.5% of immigrants to Italy).  (There are a lot of Pakistani vendors in Italy, too; they seem to specialize in silver jewelry, fabric items and pinwheels, leaving the dark glasses and purses to the Senegalese.)

Another thing that really surprised me is that Franco buys his merchandise from a wholesaler – actually another Senegalese whose ‘warehouse’ is his apartment in Genova. Far from being told what to sell by someone else, it turns out Franco is an entrepreneur!

He’s been here working for two years, but he does get home to visit occasionally. He would like to work and save for another few years and then return home for good.

How brave to leave your homeland, move to a distant country (though not that distant really – 2500 miles or so, about the same as New York to San Fran), hastily learn enough of the language to harangue passers-by, invest your savings (or money borrowed from family and friends) in a stock of dark glasses, and then go stand under the beating sun to sell your goods. Phew. It’s no wonder Franco has such a winning personality – he has to in order to succeed in his line of work.