Boarding was on-time and seamless. The aircraft looked clean, the crew was cheerful, and the aromatic smell of authentic Italian cappuccino was oozing out from the aircraft galley. Everything I needed to have a great flight was in place and I looked forward to it. As I settled down on my seat, I visually scanned through the aircraft cabin and discovered there were only two black passengers on the full flight, one other person and I. But that wasn't 'bad' enough to make me uncomfortable, even a little. So I fastened my seat belt, switched my mind to a zero state, and waited for takeoff.
Perhaps, the first pointer to what I was to experience later, were the in-flight announcements from the crew which were strictly in Italian. As the crew intermittently rented the aircraft cabin with their in-flight announcements, the recurring phrase Signore Signora was all I could identify with, having heard it severally on my previous flights with Alitalia. Throughout the flight, I was alienated and even though it bothered me, I didn't read a racial meaning into it.
Of course, I had heard that Africans, especially blacks, were facing extensive and firmly established prejudice and racial exclusion across Europe. I had heard and read that Italy was one of the European countries very much obsessed with systemic racism against black-skinned Africans. I also knew that Italy was famous for having a pronounced and deeply rooted afrophobia even though they were colonial masters to a number of African countries including Libya, Eritrea, and Somalia. I had also read that in 1979, a homeless Somalian man named Ahmed Ali Giama was burnt alive in the Piazza della Pace in Rome simply because he was black and poor. I had heard and read all of that and even more, but I refused to buy into the stereotype. I wanted to experience it myself.
Following a smooth flight from Milan Malpensa International Airport, the Alitalia Airbus A320 gently touched down at the Aeroporto di Florence in central Italy. Having left Nigeria about 12 hours earlier, I was happy and relieved that I had safely arrived my final destination, but what I didn't know was that the Italian Police and their dog had a little surprise for me. I was travelling for an official training sponsored by the company I worked with at the time. This wasn't my first time in this capital city of Italy's Tuscany region. Two years earlier, I had made the same journey with the same airline, to the same city and for the same purpose. So I understood the terrain a little.
Arrival formalities, including immigration protocols and baggage reclaiming, were uneventful. But what followed next was an unpleasant surprise, something I had never even imagined. The second black passenger on our flight, a young man probably in his early 30s, was carrying a locally made traditional musical instrument from Africa. As we walked down the arrival hall, I couldn't help but think aloud. Could this young man be hiding something in the talking drum? Could he be 'illegally' moving it from Africa to Europe? Being the only two black passengers among over 100 others, I feared this young man might draw unnecessary security attention to us, and he did. If the Italian Polizia didn't have a reason to stop and search us, an excuse was now staring them in the face.
I never liked dogs, I still don't. In fact, I'm scared of dogs, even the toothless ones. So when I saw three Italian Police men strategically positioned at the arrival hall with their fierce-looking police dog, I became apprehensive. The more I gave the dog a wide berth, the more it came too close for comfort. As a matter of fact, I was more scared of the police dog than I was of the three Police men. My ordeal began when the Police stopped the two of us and cornered us for 'questioning', our skin colour must have sold us out. After a couple of questions, they let the other black passenger go, but detained me for 'more questioning' which turned out to be drilling. Apparently, the other black guy had been living in Italy and could speak Italian very well. With all the passengers gone now, I was left alone with the Police and they literally descended on me. After three consecutive flights in less than twelve hours, all I wanted to do was to head straight to my hotel room and rest. But the Italian Police had a different plan for me, I became their prey.
After seeing my passport and discovering I was Nigerian, something automatically happened to their psyche. Their sense of judgment assumed a new meaning and the drilling began, but there was a language barrier. Before I could figure out a response to a question, another one came. The questions came in quick succession, maybe deliberately in order to overwhelm me and put me in a psychologically disadvantaged situation. There were more questions than answers, more body language than vocal expressions. The situation was delicately poised. I couldn't make an intellectual argument in Italian and here I was facing a potentially heated argument with three Italian Policemen who couldn't speak English. My Italian wasn't good and I couldn't express myself without stuttering.
During my first visit to Italy two years earlier, I had learnt some basic Italian language just enough to express myself, but had forgotten almost all of them at this point. Who wouldn't? The Italian I knew was only good enough to allow me say scusi, un informazione, per favore or quantodistail Colosseo when asking for directions. I had learnt some Italian only enough to say un bicchiere di acquaminerale per favore or quantoviene when ordering my favourite pizza or pasta at an Italian restaurant. But the Italian I knew wasn't good enough to allow me engage in an intensive interrogative session with three mean Italian Police men and an angry police dog. At best, my Italian was cut-and-join and their English wasn't good either. So the obvious communication problem made an already bad situation even worse.
The Police dog wouldn't stop sniffing around me and my luggage and that made me even more apprehensive. And for the Italian Police, that made me a prime suspect, the dog must have 'sensed' something. Then the search began, and grew in intensity and scope as it proceeded. After a long search, it became obvious that whatever they were looking for, I didn't have it. They found nothing on me, yet, they didn't want to let me go. The interrogation and the search continued until it metamorphosed into intimidation, harassment and embarrassment.
In the search process, they literally turned my luggage upside down and made a mess of every single item inside it. All my clothing items and some documents were soiled by my cream and other liquid items which they had inadvertently or even deliberately forced open in the process. Other airport workers who cared to watch, had their eyes on me. At this point, I felt like I was a high profile criminal and a wanted drug baron. They searched and treated me like I was a terrorist who had come to bomb Italy. They searched me as if I was an illegal immigrant who had just crossed the Mediterranean Sea from Africa. And then there was an adrenaline rush and my emotions moved from sadness to anger, from bitterness to resentment and from disappointment to frustration. I almost couldn't contain them.
I watched helplessly as my ego was bruised and my personality insulted. I watched in absolute horror as my little 'African' integrity was deflated. I watched in desperation as they 'happily' scourged and made mockery of me just because they could. I felt utterly ashamed of myself and almost wished I didn't come on this journey. Although I was greatly infuriated, at no point did I wish I wasn't black and African. Rather, while all of that humiliation was going on, I managed to remain proudly African and happily black. But then I began to develop strong hatred for Italy, the Italian Police and the Italian people that I hadn't even met yet. At this point I began to believe all the negative things I had read and heard about Italy with respect to racism against Africans.
The Italian Police almost succeeded in driving me to an extraterrestrial level of paranoia and I very nearly lost my cool. And as if there was a personality switch, I became a different version of me - the version that hated and resented, the version that was aggressive and vengeful, and the version that didn't want to let go. But then I remembered the story of Giacomo Valent, a 16-year-old Afroitalian boy who was stabbed to death in Italy in a frenzied racist attack in 1985. What if they frame me up and attack me? Since they haven't found a reason, what if they find an excuse to justify their actions? Of course, I was very sure I had nothing implicating on me, but at the same time, I was sure this wasn't about illegal substances. It was about something else. It was about my skin colour.
A few hours earlier, the same luggage had passed through several security checkpoints, both in Lagos and in Milan, without any incidents. So why would the guys in Florence think I wasn't good to go? Were they wondering what this black African had come to do in the white man's country? If I had been an American or an Asian or even a white African, would they have treated me differently? Why did they subject me to such a humiliating and dehumanizing treatment? Why did they diminish my self-worth and made me develop an inferiority complex? Did they think I was a male prostitute? Was this a racially motivated discriminatory police profiling or just a coincidence? Too many questions were running through my mind all at the same time. The more I thought about the questions, the more I believed that this wasn't about what I did, but about who I was. It was about my personality, my colour and my race. Deep down, I was convinced that this random stop-and-search was racially motivated. I was convinced that the Italian Police was playing the racism card with me.
This wasn't my first time of travelling outside Nigeria, so I wasn't racially naive. Travelling with a Nigerian passport, I already knew I was carrying the weight of many negative assumptions. I knew that whatever reputation and respect I had as a Nigerian ended in Lagos. I knew that immigration officials and other airport workers in Italy would make assumptions based on my passport. I knew they were very likely going to express disbelief and assume that everything I said was a lie. I already knew I could be asked to step aside for 'more questioning' at airports. In fact, I had zeroed my mind and even anticipated a not-so-good treatment from the Italian people. But never did I imagine that this absolutely humiliating treatment by and from Italian Police would be a possible scenario. If I was coming from a racially conscious country like South Africa, the experience would have been different for me. But I was coming from Nigeria, where my values as a human being were not determined by what passport I had. I was coming from a country where airport screening wasn't connected to skin colour, where the Police didn't make their dog sniff around you because you were black. So even though I wasn't racially naive, this whole discriminatory racial profiling was a novel experience for me.
This racial drama went on for a very long time, creating scenes, building tension and heightening anxiety. It must have lasted for up to two hours. The person who had come to pick me at the airport on behalf of my host, waited for me, became impatient and left thinking that my flight hadn't arrived. He must have looked very stupid standing in the arrival hall all alone with my name on a placard. But his leaving turned out to be a good thing. Calls were made, emails were exchanged and finally they reluctantly let me go. I had expected the Italian Police to be sorry or at least pretend to be sorry for what they did, but they were unapologetic. I was disappointed, but I wasn't surprised considering that everything they had done up to this point smacked of racism and prejudice.
As I left the airport and headed to my hotel in Via Masaccio in downtown Florence, I struggled with a lot of things. I struggled to regain my self esteem, I struggled to shrug off the artificial inferiority complex they imposed on me, and I struggled to put myself back in the mood. Although the rest of my stay in Italy was exciting, this experience left an indelible scar on my mind.
Chidozie Uzoezie is a Travel & Tourism Blogger, freelance writer, content creator, and aviation geek. He is also the Admin of the African Aviation Group on Facebook. Reach him by email: email@example.com or WhatsApp: +2348178379876.