Field Workers, Cycling and Exploited, Evoke an Older Italy

An African man rides a bicycle through an immigrant ghetto in the countryside in the province of Foggia in Puglia. In Italy, thousands of African immigrants ride bicycles to and from work in fields and work sites. For many African immigrants, bicycles are their only means of transport. (Photo by CAIN BURDEAU/Courthouse News Service)

ORTA DI ATELLA, Italy (CN) – Along the narrow country roads of southern Italy, there are African immigrants, most of them in their 20s and some even younger, on bicycles. They’re going to and from work in fields and work sites. 

They look so out of place in today’s Italian countryside. After all, almost no one but cycling enthusiasts rides a bicycle, especially so far out in the countryside. Cars and trucks zoom by, the rush of wheels leaving these African cyclists wobbling.

These are narrow two-lane roads; there’s hardly a shoulder. The sun beats down. Fields and orchards with maturing olives, grapes, tomatoes, watermelons, eggplants and peppers extend as far as the eye can see.

It’s here in Italy’s southern countryside, the heart of the country’s agricultural sector, where tens of thousands of young African immigrants work as field hands and day laborers. And for so many of these men, their only means of transportation is a bicycle. Typically, they don’t have the money and proper documents to own cars.  

Strangely, these black men dressed in work clothes who labor against the pedals of beat-up mountain bikes and old upright town bikes, puffing and tottering through the countryside, evoke a bygone Italy – the Italy of “The Bicycle Thief,” the classic Italian post-World War II movie about a poor father who searches Rome for his stolen bicycle, his two-wheeled means of making a living.

At one time when Italy was poorer, as elderly Italians like to recount, the bountiful countryside was full of people walking and riding bicycles. There were field workers, postmen, veterinarians, students and knife grinders on bicycles, and many farmers walking, often leading donkeys. Today, though, it’s almost exclusively Africans who go by bicycle or on foot through the countryside. Everyone else zips by in cars.

Theirs are lives of hardship and risk, African immigrants on bicycles told a Courthouse News reporter recently traveling through southern Italy.

Exploitation of immigrants in Italy’s fields has been well-documented by nongovernment groups, news reports and police investigations.

But besides tough working conditions, another risk for these Africans is being hit by drivers while they ride to and from work. So far this year,at least seven Africans on bicycles have been hit by cars and killed, Italian news reports show. In July, several African field workers were struck by stone-throwing attackers as they rode bicycles in Foggia, a major agricultural province in the Puglia region.

Most of these men on bicycles arrived in Italy by way of treacherous journeys across the Sahara Desert from their homelands in sub-Saharan Africa and after making perilous crossings of the Mediterranean Sea in dinghies and rafts. Each one has a story of fleeing poverty, war, famine, abuse and other calamities.  

In recent years, as the number of immigrants increased, they have become figures of scorn in an Italy where an increasing number of people see African immigration as a threat to social cohesion, job security and safety. There are an estimated half-million people living in Italy without proper documentation, many of them Africans. 

“There is no peace,” said Omaru Fofaná, a 28-year-old from Ghana in West Africa, speaking in a mixture of English and Italian. He arrived in Italy about a year and a half ago and he is seeking refugee status, he said.

He was riding a bicycle on a recent afternoon through Orta di Atella, a town in the fertile plain surrounding Naples in the region of Campania.

Like other African immigrants interviewed by Courthouse News, Fofaná was willing to talk about his life in Italy but refused to allow to be photographed out of fear. Immigrants expressed fear that they would be recognized by employers, authorities or racists who would do them harm.

As a field worker, he said he typically works from 6 a.m. until 5 p.m., earning between 25 and 30 euros (about $27 to $33) a day. But work is also sporadic and he said he is often left idle.

“Sometimes I have a one-day job, two-day jobs,” he said. “It’s not enough.”

Now, during the summer, there is more work, but the conditions are very difficult as employers don’t provide enough food and water, he said.

“It’s so painful. Lack of food, lack of water,” he said and made a gesture of wiping sweat off his brow with his arm. “It’s hot.”

Italian authorities and nongovernment groups have discovered instances where immigrants are akin to modern-day slaves because they are forced to work extremely long days in inhumane conditions. But Fofaná rejected the label this Sunday.

“I don’t think of myself as a slave,” he said.

He then continued on his way, pushing on the pedals of his bicycle, off to visit a friend on a day off from working in the fields.

Near Caserta, a large town in Campania, 27-year-old Biram Senghore from Gambia was riding to work on a bicycle on a recent morning. He said he was headed to a building site to do masonry work, earning 30 euros ($33) a day.

Senghore spoke out angrily about his life in Italy, where he said racism was strong. He said he was living in a center with other immigrants applying for asylum.

“The way they treat us is not very nice,” Senghore said, speaking in English. “They insult us. The food they give us is not like the food we know. They don’t let us cook.”

“There is a lot of racism,” he said and added that he wanted to leave Italy even if that meant doing so clandestinely.

“Staying here is a waste of time,” Senghore said. “There is no future here for blacks. I [will] smuggle to another country like I smuggled to this country. There is no love for blacks in this country.”

He was late for work, and pushed off on his bicycle. Cars zoomed by. 

(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)

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