Festivals in Sicily — Pastorale di Nardo

by Bakary Sambou

At the beginning of each year, on January 6th, Sicilians from the province of Agrigento celebrate the Christian Epiphany holiday through one of the island’s most ancient and authentic festivals. The ‘Pastorale di Nardu’, as the festival is called, has been celebrated for over 70 years in the small town of Santa Elisabetta in the Sicilian hinterlands. But over the last five years there has been a big difference, because now the town celebrates together with the refugees who are living there.

This year, festival started in the morning with the procession of a band down the main street, which the townsfolk follow and sing along with. After lunch, the crowd swelled to over 600 people. Women, children and old people cheered on the local performers in celebration of the Epiphany, the day in which Christians believe Jesus’s divinity was announced to the world. Besides the music, magicians entertain the crowds with magic tricks.

The best part of the festival is the main act, in which Nardu, the town’s traditional figure, a type of jester representing honesty to the point of ingenuity, begins to make the typical pasta with ricotta cheese in the piazza with other people from the town. Nardu wears a white mask and goes around sharing his food with a spoon, putting it in people’s mouth. Many people were scared to get close to him, especially the children, because of the way he dressed.


Unlike in Gambia, the country some of the refugees in Santa Elizabetta are from, most of the crowd stands and watches while only a few people celebrate. In Gambia however, all of the people attending celebrate together. This festival is very different from a festival in Gambia because the people are from a different culture – they wear different masks, play different music, and dance different dances.

In the last part of the Pastorale di Nardu, the acting took on a more religious tone as the village elders and the mayor start reciting Christian prayers. After the prayers, young men smoked their traditional cigarettes, and the moment of the Epiphany was reenacted. Following the reenactment of the Epiphany, the band returned accompanied by young boys in their multi-colored traditional dress, and more acting and games took place. The festival ended by 7 p.m.


On the Value of Bonga Fish

“If I catch the Bonga fish, I make money, you know, and my family can eat you know,” M. said smiling, two decayed teeth marring an otherwise perfect set. “But if I don’t catch the Bonga fish, then I have a problem you know, and my family cannot eat. It is a big problem.”

M. looked at me earnestly, and I nodded.

“That’s why I come here, you know, so my family can eat. I come because I want to hustle and make some money to send to my family, you know? So they can have food to eat, for my mother and my father, you know? So I need to find some work to hustle to make some money.”

He stopped talking and his face darkened in concern. His words sounded rehearsed, like they’d been drilled into his brain since he rode across the Sahara or sat wretchedly in a Libyan prison. He’d been on the road for three years, he told me, but Libya was the hardest part.

“Blacks cannot walk free in Libya. If they see you on the street they will take you.”

He said he was regularly beaten and jailed for a year until his captors realized he couldn’t pay ransom and let him go. He lifted up his pant legs to show me his bloodied shins, one from his Maghrebi captors and the other from gasoline burns suffered during the sea-crossing.

Now that he was in Italy though, he was staying with nice people, he said.

M. and I met in front of a supermarket in Palermo where newly arrived migrants hang out. Since he’d only been in town a few days, I offered to show him around the city, and we walked to the migrant-heavy neighborhood of Ballarò where I figured he might find some English speakers and fellow countrymen. M. commented on the richness of the street markets as we strolled past stalls of sparkling seafood and olives.

We sat down on some plastic chairs outside to share an ice tea, and I soon realized he was completely ignorant of the challenges that awaited him. He did not know what an asylum request was, nor of residency or work permits, nor of the long wait for documents. His English was passable but he didn’t speak any Italian, had only done four years of school, and didn’t know how to read or write. But he was happy to be here and eager to work.

My heart sank.

There wasn’t much work here, I told him, and in any case, they weren’t handing out work permits anymore. His best shot was to apply for asylum, but with his story he was unlikely to receive it. I advised him to make something up about persecution or violence and not to tell customs officers what he had told me: that Gambia was a very nice place with friendly people that I should visit if I got the chance.

This troubled him and he replied that he was thinking about going to Germany. So I told him that the borders in the north were blocked and that the Germans were looking for people like him and that even if he did manage to cross the border it would be difficult to find work. He nodded and thanked me for the information, but I wondered how much he believed me.

We kept chatting about his life in Gambia, about how he made a living catching Bonga fish with his father, and how when his father’s eyesight deteriorated he decided to come to Europe. He missed his family, he said. The last time he had spoken to them was before boarding the boat to Italy, and they did not know if he had survived. I asked him if he wanted to use my phone.

“Ok man, no problem,” he said, barely concealing his excitement.

I brought up Skype, found Gambia’s country code, and within seconds he was talking to his father in Mandinka, his native tongue. When he put down the phone he was beaming, obviously relieved. He smiled and thanked me profusely.

Before parting ways I took him to a Jesuit charity that offers language classes, second-hand clothes and medical check-ups hoping he might learn Italian, see a doctor about his legs and get out of his boat clothes. Then we walked back to the supermarket, I gave him my number, and I wished him luck.

M. struck me as a goodhearted guy and it hurt me that his future seemed so bleak. Sicily has a youth unemployment rate of 56%, Italy’s is around 35%. Migrants race to the bottom competing for illegal, low wage work. So what is a 20-year old, illiterate, uneducated, unskilled Gambian man going to find in Italy when Italians themselves are on the ropes? I suppose it doesn’t really matter so long as it’s worth more than a Bonga fish.

On Making Friends

After a few days in Palermo I’m able to shop on credit. I only go to the super market for brand items like Barilla because everything else I can buy on the street. Vendors, Sicilian men with faces like leather, sit beside their three-wheeled trucks displaying colorful arrays of fruits and vegetables. Five euros can get you enough produce to last a week. There’s also plenty of street food like arancine, balls of meat wrapped in rice and deep fried in a golden crust, or sfincione, a simple but delicious Palermitan bread and tomato specialty.

Seeing these guys many times a day I’ve developed a relationship impossible with cashiers in a supermarket. I’m friends with the fruit guy, the arancine guy, the fish guy, and the wine and olives guy. The advantage is that if I find myself short on cash I can bring the money next time, and maybe next time they’ll tell me to forget about it. If a pizza costs five euros and I only have four, then the price drops to four. I shop daily, picking up each meal as I feel, so I’m continuously opening and closing little debts up and down my street. The vendors are eager to over fill my bag and their approximate measuring techniques – one man still has a brass steelyard scale – always work in my favor. In exchange, I happily hand over coins that “I don’t need” or round up to the nearest euro.

Little touches like this, over time, turn mundane business transactions into personal affairs. It’s a little bit of theater that demonstrates reciprocal willingness to do a favor, to wink at the rules, to transcend from being buyers and sellers to being friends. As charming as this mentality is in the context of vegetable stands, it points to a darker side of Sicilian culture. The eagerness to make sacrifices and break rules for friends also means disregard towards strangers, civic duty, and impartial application of law. For all business in Sicily, whether public or private, it’s essential to have friends. Without them, expecting that basic services or business standards are met is a gamble.

A conversation I had with two men working in migrant reception centers illuminates the concept:

Adam was criticizing Bob* for allowing himself to be exploited by his employers. Adam said that Bob, at his boss’ request, took on responsibilities far beyond his job description and ran big legal risks. If people like Bob wouldn’t accept such demands from their bosses then the country wouldn’t be as corrupt, Adam said.

For example, at the migrant center Bob is responsible for the safety of the minors. If one of them wants to leave and go into town, Bob needs to alert his boss and get the request approved. But Bob says that there are so many requests, and such poor organization, that it’s implicit that the rules needn’t be followed. So Bob just lets the minors out. The boss is happy because he neither gets bothered with requests nor takes responsibility if something happens. Bob is happy too because he still has a job and even gets paid on time – a rarity for social workers in Sicily.

But Adam points out that if one of those minors gets hurt or in trouble, Bob is the one who will face the music. The boss can claim he didn’t know what was happening, that Bob never informed him of anything, and so Bob would be the one facing court and maybe jail. By contrast, Adam refuses to break the rules and put himself at risk and consequently has a much harder time holding on to jobs. Bob makes friends, Adam doesn’t.

The Sicilian modus operandi is personal. If you have friends the rules don’t apply, if you don’t have friends you can’t apply the rules. Regarding the migrant centers, many people have told me that without political connections it’s impossible to open a successful center. To cut costs at one migrant center, the director had his friend at a hospital prepare meals for the migrants using hospital food and deliver them by ambulance. All, of course, at the public’s expense.

The stories are so outrageous that people can’t help but laugh when they tell them. In fact, there’s often an undercurrent of admiration and envy when Sicilians tell of those who cheat, scam, or steal to game the system. There’s a sense of silent respect for those cunning enough to succeed. Of course, many Sicilians are nauseated by this attitude, but they are typically found in Germany, the UK or the US. A few proud, brave, young Sicilians have decided to remain in Sicily as an act of defiance. These people – and I’ve only met a few – look very tired.

*Not their real names

Seaborne Migrant Arrivals to Italy Set Records — 60,200 in May

Source: Italian Ministry of Interior

Seaborne migrant arrivals to Italy have reached 60,200 in 2017 as of May 31, according to the Italian Ministry of Interior. Arrivals in 2017 have been consistently higher than in the previous year and are on track to set an annual record, topping the 181,436 that arrived in 2016. 

Arrivals rose by 26% year-on-year in May 2017 to 23,010. Except for January, each month in 2017 has seen more arrivals than the corresponding month in 2016. Higher numbers are expected in the summer months as migrants take advantage of the the better weather.

The largest number of migrants come from Nigeria (8,048), Bangladesh (6,352), Guinea (5,423), Ivory Coast (5,142), Gambia (3,654), Senegal (3,555), Morocco (3,241), Mali (2,710), Sudan (1,840), and Pakistan (1,786).

Picked up in the Mediterranean and brought to ports along Italy’s southern coasts, usually in Sicily, most migrants are then distributed among reception facilities across the country.

Lombardy, one of Italy’s northernmost and economically prosperous regions, hosts the country’s highest percentage of migrants — 13% of the total.


by SW


First Migrants Arrive in Palermo Since G7

May 29, 2017

PALERMO — Offshore supply ship Vos Thalassa brought 1,042 migrants and seven cadavers to the port of Palermo, Italy around 13:30 yesterday, May 28. The migrants were the first to arrive in Sicily since the island’s ports were closed in occasion of the G7 summit in Taormina. 

According to local newspaper La Sicilia, the ship was conducting security operations for an oil rig 40 miles off the Libyan coast when it ran into the first migrant boat. Soon after, Vos Thalassa was asked to stay in the area by the coast guard to assist other nearby migrants.

By the time I reached the port around 10:00 on Monday, May 29, there were still around 350 migrants waiting to be brought to an immigration center nearby. They were still at the port because the immigration center, where they would be properly identified and then directed to a reception facility, was at capacity.

The migrants waited around two large tents; some were sitting outside in the sun while others lay down inside on pieces of cardboard. The tents smelled strongly of urine.

All of the migrants I could see were men, most of them in their twenties or thirties and the vast majority seemed to be from sub-Saharan Africans. There was a fair number of what appeared to be Bangladeshis, and a few North African fellows. Most were silent, while a few talked in small groups. They looked exhausted but healthy, thin and muscular and upright. A medical volunteer told me that there had been fewer illnesses than expected.

Watching them were about twenty Italian police officers, a few medical and emergency personnel, and staff from the IOM, Save the Children and the UNHCR. Two buses sat idling in front of the crowd.

When I arrived there was a discussion between the policeman in charge and some of the NGO staff about which migrants were minors. From what I could understand, 62 of the migrants had claimed to be minors but only 49 were actually. Many migrants lie about their age, they said, with minors claiming that they are adults and vice versa.

Nine people were identified as minors, taken out of the crowd and loaded onto a bus, waving to their friends as they left. The discussion between the policeman and the NGO staff continued as they puzzled over 11 minors present on the list but missing among the crowd. I wonder how accurately minors can be identified without proper documents.

By law, minors who reach Italy cannot be deported and immediately become the charge of the municipality in which they arrive.

Around 1,500 migrants also arrived in Naples on the same day as these, Sunday, May 28, aboard the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) ship Vos Prudence, according to the AP.

by SW