Although I’m Somali-Italian, I was born and raised in Italy, and I’ve spent very little time in Somalia, mostly during the summers and then once for about a year and a half. I went to the Italian consulate’s school there. I had no idea what Somalia would be like at first. It might as well have been Mars or any other unfamiliar planet populated with little red men that moved in ranks like soldiers in a military parade. The truth about the Land of Punt, though, is more miraculous than these fictions. I’ve never seen so many free-roaming animals as are in my distant homeland. Grus, baboons, goats, camels, hawks, hens, cats, martens, termites, dik-diks. The most extraordinary aspect is the importance ascribed to stories. Storytelling is never wasted time. Stories teach, inspire dreams, help one grow and also become a child again. When evening fell at my aunt’s, stories were told about wild hyenas and ingenious women, brave men and magic tricks. Adults and children sat together listening to and recounting tales. The word itself occupied the seat of honor. We practiced using it wisely.
My mother tongue blossomed amid this linguistic maelstrom, when before it had been hiding in a crevice in my throat. It had been embarrassed and afraid to emerge for years. Italian is the first language that I spoke, but the lullabies and songs I heard at home were sung in Somali, with an occasional Bravanese addition by my father. This made for a very confused child. What a lovely perplexity it was. I hopped like a cricket from one language to another and felt a thrill whenever I said things to my mother that the grocers didn’t understand. It was incredible.
This changed when I had to go to school, where they told me, “You’re not talking, it’s monkey babble. You don’t know anything. You’re all freaks, gorillas.” Recall that I was young. Gorillas, though splendid animals, frightened me because of their size. That’s not what I wanted to be. After checking that my black skin couldn’t be changed, now I had to deal with this. At least language was something I could work on. I was four or five years old, hardly an enlightened African woman proud of her own skin. I hadn’t read Malcolm X. I decided, then, to stop speaking Somali. I wanted to assimilate, to become one with the snow-white masses. Renouncing my mother tongue became my unorthodox way of saying, Love me.
No one did.
Some Italian mothers today bemoan the presence of immigrants’ children in schools. They don’t want to make their own kids sit in the same classroom, thereby contaminating their offspring. If someone were to call them out as racist, they would deny it. “It’s not racist. But these kids limit how productive the school can be. We want the best for our children. We don’t need them turning into Zulus.” By best they mean white, obviously. White Italian mothers in the ‘80s said the exact same thing about me. Because I was Black, their logic went, I’d be a dumbass and have hair swarming with lice. One kid told me directly: “You have germs and diseases because you’re Black. My mom said not to play with you or else I’ll get really sick and die.”
My classmates’ parents were against me and thus so were my peers themselves. The bigger kids called me Kunta Kinte after the character from Alex Haley’s Roots. The series debuted in Italy on September 8, 1978, during primetime on Rai 2. This was the beginning of my academic life. It was easy for my classmates to associate me with what they’d seen on TV. All black skin was alike. It’s a shame these children didn’t get the message of the series. Kunta Kinte’s fight for freedom was his choice, as were his actions as a man warring against the barbarism of slavery. The kids and their parents never read past the story’s surface. All they saw was a Black man whipped until he bled by those who’d stripped his freedom. My color united me with Kunta Kinte. Instead of saying, “It’s great that your Black brother is a hero, we love him,” they said, “You look like Kunta Kinte, a grimy nigger, we’re gonna whip you. You were born to be a slave.” I was five. I cried when my mother came to pick me up. Why did I have to face such abuse? I’d seen the TV series, too. Getting whipped wasn’t what these people wanted. The actors’ faces clearly said as much.
I didn’t have many friends in kindergarten or elementary school. I usually holed myself away in a corner to eat the snack my mother had lovingly prepared for me. The poor woman didn’t know how to help me. It was hard for her to be in this strange land, too. Once she spied on me to see why I was crying every day, ceaselessly. She told me this when I was much older. She took position behind the school’s little wall to see whether I was playing with the other children. She saw me lonesome and companionless apart from everyone else. The only things people said to me were aspersions like “grimy nigger.” I felt so helpless when I saw you like that, Igiaba. Your mother felt like she had nothing to give you.
But Mama gave me everything. She began telling me stories about Somalia. Somali nomads believe that every story contains the solution to a problem. Mama’s stories aimed to show me that we did not arise from emptiness and that our foundation consisted of a country, its traditions, and its history. The ancient Romans and Gauls, Latin and the Greek agora—they existed not alone but alongside ancient Egypt and the incense harvesters of the Land of Punt, that is Somalia, and the Ashanti and Bambara kingdoms. Mama wanted me to be proud of my Blackness and the country we left because of an overwhelming force that pushed us out. She told me of our distant empires, our relationships with Egypt, India, Portugal, and Turkey. Her words carried the heavenly scent of incense and uunsi, for whose fragrances Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt’s Eighteenth Dynasty led an expedition in Somalia. Mama’s stories freed me from my dread of being seen as a walking caricature. They made me human, gave birth to me once more.
Even my elementary school teacher did her part. Ms. Silvana Tramontozzi was a gorgeous woman with buoyant, vaporous white hair and old-fashioned tenacity. She and my mother didn’t initially hit it off. Mama was shy and spoke broken Italian. At gatherings with other parents she said as little as she could get away with and left when the small talk started. Having to face the parents who treated her like a circus freak because she wore a hijab wasn’t fun for her. Invariably, she looked wounded and worn when she came home from one of these meetings. It was partly my fault. I wasn’t an exemplary student when school first started. I knew many things: times tables of 9, the capital of the Ivory Coast, the tributaries of the River Po, Giovanni Pascoli’s poem “L’assiuolo,” and the last five presidents of the United States. I never let it show at school. I was quieter than a fish. Not a peep from me. I didn’t even respond to questions the teacher asked me directly. I feared the onslaught of insults too much. My thinking was that if I breathed so much as a word, I’d get pummeled. I let my mind wander during lessons, imagining an alternate universe in which my black skin and I made many friends. I was the picture of a girl with her head in the clouds. Sometimes I left my notebooks all over the classroom. My only dream was to escape the school that persecuted me. The teacher would say Marco was the best student, Vincenzo breezed by, Valeria excelled at math, Silvia was a careful reader, and me, well: “The poor thing always has her mind elsewhere.” This convinced the other parents that I was developmentally challenged, and so perhaps maybe all Blacks were. Mama asked me one day, “Igi, what’s going on with you? Why don’t you say anything when the teacher asks you something?” What could I say? I tried offering an explanation. “Because they hit me.” This was not entirely false. There were times, at recess, when someone would approach from behind and smack me on the butt, which hurt like hell. A couple of girls punched me once, in the head and eye. I told my mother I’d tripped.
Mama complained to the teacher. She explained what a good, studious girl I was, and that I wasn’t speaking because I was scared. I don’t think my teacher had ever experienced a case like mine. She may have given it a bit of thought. Whatever the case, things soon changed substantially at school. The teacher called me to come see her and told me she had a drawer full of fantasy stories, but if I wanted to read them I had to promise that for every story, I had to say another word in class. I loved reading, so this was a drawer of goodies: tales of submarines, flying carpets, mythical gods, princesses with flaming crowns, knights on invisible steeds, kids who invented magical worlds, silly wizards, and fairies. I would do anything to get my hands on these stories. My only friends were in books. I promised the teacher I’d say whatever she wanted me to. Slowly, story after story, my tongue unfurled. I went from mute to voluble. The teacher encouraged me to speak about themes related to Somalia, what Somalis’ lives were like, our practices, the dramatic colors of our attire. My classmates were dumbfounded. I was a bigger hit than Mr. Rogers. I started making friends and earned a name for myself, thanks largely to a teacher who was understanding for the first time that words have an incredible power and whoever speaks (or writes) well is unlikely to ever be alone. My teacher also helped my mother. She played a kind of chaperone, giving her parental advice and finding her reliable friends among the other mothers. With a wave of a magic wand, we metamorphosed from circus sideshows into two human beings.
In a way, Ms. Tramontozzi had performed an ancient rite of cultural mediation.
I’m not joking when I say my elementary teacher, the one with the buoyant white hair, saved my life.
© Igiaba Scego. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Aaron Robertson. All rights reserved.