Amedeo Vergani was an Italian photojournalist. Actually, so much more. He covered events in the Balkans, Africa, Middle East, conflicts and worldwide natural wonders. He followed the sub-Saharan nomads, was curious and the world spoke to him; he was passionate and a compassionate fighter: he never forgot any of his fellow photo reporters while working for the Union, teaching for free, helping everyone, known and -mostly – unknown.
His language was coloured, his voice loud, due to the age difference paternalistic at times; he never failed to make me laugh. When his work was being published internationally, he remained disarmingly humble and curious. Our telephone calls lasted eternity.
Amedeo was the first one ever – and the only one – to dare call me a Catho-Communist. I was outraged. ‘Come on, that is our upbringing. We are dual’. I never told him which of the two I could not digest and, throughout the years, I have often questioned how true was his statement.
Blinded by the sun, I see a woman. Must be I am tired and melancholic, but I think of a Madonna with child. As if my holy juxtaposition were not enough, in one of my acts of recurrent, utter stupidity I seem to master so well, I look at the horizon thinking Amedeo might be laughing. I blow a kiss to the sky. Just in case.
For Giovanni swirling and singing O Sole Mio under a pouring sky at the end of April 25 (Liberation day from the fascists) rally in Milano. For Peter who took me to Nottinghill Carnival hoping I would dance in the streets, not get lost and, perhaps smile. Occasionally. Just that one time would have been enough. For the Masai who told me I just had to jump. Upwards, better. For Antonio who kept patting the sweat off his forehead because I could not dance to a valzer and preferred the chair of a cheap Italian restaurant, in a neon-lit night, surrounded by bottles of Martinis. Not mine. For Mamoon’s mother who tried to teach me a Yemeni dance on a Friday afternoon while we were chewing qat, while I stumbled in my abaya, barefeet, feeling oversize, graceless, praying for the embarassment to end soon. For Madam Suher on the river Nile who thought mellow waters and more wine would convert me into a belly dancer. Or a far less shy person. For Saeed who thought we could be best dancers ever in Rub Al Khali desert. Camels our witnesses, sand on our feet, sweaty hands intertwined, my body filled with antihisthamine. For the guy in a dive bar in Lalibela holding the microphone who underlined publicly I was terribly ugly, but still wanted to dance, microphone off. For Dominga, 75, who told me ‘un paseo, una discoteca’ (a stroll and a disco) might find me a husband.
For all the times I ran away from streets, people, concerts, aerobic classes, frantic moshing and dancefloors: it just was not the right moment. In the meantime, women of Dassenech tribe are dancing, inviting me to join. This could be the right moment.
‘Tomorrow is my birthday’ she says. ‘Look, you were born in July, now it’s only May.’ ‘My life has started the day I met you.’
Addisallem, New World, was born in July, 29 years ago.
This is not her real name though it suits her perfectly. Addisallem has lived more than one single life can bear during her skinny three decades. Equally true: she has come to life again.
Her parents were not in love and not married. Her father never wanted any wife and Addisallem simply got in the way, she happened, in their lives.
She grew up in Bahir Dar (Ethiopia) with her mother and an Auntie, a sister of her mother. Her father was living in Addis Ababa, far from any potential wife. But he did have another family; the important was: no wives.
He had no permanent job and, according to the fluctuations of the touristic season, he was a bus driver. Fluctuantly, he was sending money to Addisallem’s mother.
Addisallem claims her life was normal up to when she was 7.
Maybe it’s just that she does not remember much prior to going to school because at 7, she says, she was already working. The days were all consistently the same: wake up early in the morning, no breakfast, the rush to a neighbour´s home to do house chores, the long walk to the well to fetch water, a faster rush back home to prepare coffee for her mother before she would wake up . And the rush to school.
Categorically empty stomach. Empty stomach even when there was no school.
There are no memories of school, just a whispered ‘I was not good at it.’
The afternoons were simply a photocopy of the mornings: the rush home and, before lunch, the cleaning of the kitchen, the usual mess her mother used to make.
Addisallem’s mother was not any mother. She was a heavy drinker: a seller and consumer of Areki, a homemade alcoholic fermented drink. She was even running her own Areki House in town, working at night and consuming large quantities of alcohol.
The Areki came with the joints and the qat – locally called khat – the mildly stimulant leaf chewed in Ethiopia, Somalia and Yemen, mainly.
Addisallem’s memories overlap: her mother never home or home and nervous.
Money was never enough.Until, one day, Mother was gone. That day lasted 5 years. Without a letter, without a word, without a phone call. She had moved South, almost on the border with Kenya.
It is Auntie to take care of Addisallem until Mother decides to return. She is in a bad shape. Skeletal, nervous, with peaks of cruelty and paranoia.
Addisalam spies on her: she sees her mother injecting something- most likely drugs, but the girl is too young to know – in her arms or sticking cotton up her nostrils after having soaked it in something the girl cannot understand what it is.
It is silence which engulfs Addisallem. The fear the police might eventually abduct her mother, the fear to be left alone after the Auntie decides she cannot handle the situation any longer.
In silence. Because the day she decided to ask her mother why she could not have a new dress considering the father, occasionally, sends some money, the mother finds nothing better to do than grab the kettle boiling on the coal and pour the water on Addisallem’s back.
She still bears the scars.
Or the night they were walking home and two dogs started barking at them. The mother, scared, upset, paranoid, most likely high on Areki and drugs, pushes the daughter in front of her, towards the dogs. Addisallem is bitten on the leg, falls on her head and cracks the skull.
Auntie is gone, Addisallem is sore. She decides her only way out is to go to her grandmother – from her mother´s side – to Addis Ababa. 600 km is nothing when you are fleeing for you life.
She will return a year after when informed that Mother is bed ridden. It will last only 1 month. Mother dies on an anonymous day weighting 20 kg.
Now Addisallem is totally alone. If she wants to survive, she needs a job. School is for the fortunate. She finds a job cleaning homes.
This is when her Father reappears. He helps her enrolling in an evening school. Hotel Management. At the end, he knows that with its fluctuations, tourism can bring money.
Addisallem earns her diploma and lives on her own. She has always been alone, at the end. ‘Had it been my father instead of my mother to die, I would be dead too. I am happy and strong now. Because, now, I know everything.’
Addisallem is still afraid of dogs. But she knows everything now. She dreams of a family and a son. She knows how a real mother should be.
Yes, she knows everything. A New World awaits her and when she meets a new friend, it’s like a birthday to her. Earned.
”I live in Ethiopia in Bahir Dar in the region of Amara. I have been here for 26 months, my first working experience abroad, apart from a summer I spent working in a hotel in France. Bahir Dar is a tourist destination, ranked among the 10 most beautiful cities of Africa, being near to the waterfalls and the source of the Blue Nile.”
Danilo Vallarino is humble, timid almost. At times he seems to be carrying an ancient melancholy in him.
He arrived to Africa more than two years ago, following his job call. He is a Chef and when asked how can an Italian cope with the difference of ingredients available on the market, the tastes of the different latitude, – Ethiopia is not Italy, his home country – he makes no fuss: ”Not easy, but I manage. And every chef up to his job simply goes to the market!’.
He tells me this is not the Africa of the safaris, the Africa people generally have in mind.
His is the Africa of the Blue Nile river which, within Ethiopia, runs over 800 km and is the longest river of the continent. But it is in Ethiopia it holds its heart running up to Khartoum to meet the White Nile and give life to the entire Egypt.
The Blue Nile Falls are about an hour by car from Bahar Dar and then there are all the Orthodox monasteries on the Lake Tana, where the Blue Nile originates. In its own way, this is a very special tourist destination.
For the past 15 years, Danilo has a companion. Better, two: an Olympus and a Nikon. He always carries them along. Even when he goes out just for two hours.
Sometimes, even when he is cooking. He does not photograph food – there is plenty of that in the net – he takes shots of people working with him. The smiles at the end of a difficult evening, the vapours and the aprons. Sometimes a hug, when a dish has come out particularly well.
From the kitchen of the hotel where he works, he looks outside. Ethiopia is there.
The Blue Nile chanting its blues. It´s a call he answers once a week, on his day off.
”I always carry the camera with me, even when I go out for just two hours. Even before Ethiopia, when I was in Italy. The nature, nature itself, in its most savage – or natural – form, or people, daily life, the ordinary, are mind blowing to me. The lights at the end of the day when all these people have is a piece of bread, to share. The markets where people sell anything and fix anything. The workers, the basket weavers, the farmers.. virtually anything which is natural.”
Do you manage to talk to people? To discover their stories?
”It is not easy to photograph them. At times people do not like it; at times someone asks for money. But I do not buy a photo. It would not be natural. So I have some patterns I follow tricks – that help me.”
He adds that a picture is obviously not merely a picture: there is always a story behind it. ”Sometimes I venture out alone and find myself in a crowd, surrounded by so many people. Each one of the men, women I meet bears on the face, hands and feet a databank of endless information. It is up to us to decode it, read it.” ”The women at the market, for instance, always remind me of delicate ceramic creations. They face the scorching sun all day long, selling little to earn even less. These women are a delicate equilibrium of its own kind. I always fear they might break. Yet, they are so strong.”
I happened to read a couple of poems of Danilo. Delicate, angry, sometimes sharp.
When I try to tell him, he distances himself from the concept of being a poet of any kind. ”I do not consider myself good at writing, but thank you anyway. I use angry words, true. Because anger is a part of me. I am often pissed. But it is a form of struggle I engage in, always, in order to never accept anything which is being served in front of me. But it is from that very same anger inside me that love grows. If only I could rely on more inner peace, then I think I would be a better person. Especially for those around me. Human relations are all we have. They should always come first.”
Ethiopia is already a part of him. Ethiopia has changed him. He is one of the few people I met who does not use the experience abroad as a platform to move on in life. ” I see the gap now. It happens when I return to Italy. I may be talking to my family, or anyone, and people pay attention to what you have to say for no longer than 5 minutes. I realise at a certain moment no one is listening. Someone interrupts me just to mention the Champions League.. just while I was trying say Hey, I was telling you about the women who every single day walk for hours carrying 15 litres of water on their head, bare feet. They look like mules…”
”I really do not know if people are not interested or prefer to ignore there is another reality, uncomfortable one. Maybe it’s a way to keep the conscience at bay.”
His conscience is not at bay. ”I do have a project, you know? It´s a big word, can I say it? It´s PEACE, in its broadest sense. Starting from inner peace. But relating to Ethiopia, I would like, one day, to publish a photographic book and try to help a small community. With no institutional help, no association involved. I think the biggest danger we run in places like this is darkness when it comes to historical memory. I will try to explain it: here, as in many other countries, there has never been an ‘age of the camera film roll‘. Nowadays people take pictures with their smartphones. Selfies and alike. Horrible. They think they are giving a sense of modernity and progress. But if you do not print, you are most likely going to lose everything. Pages of history and memory. What we received, as a society, has always been transmitted to us by stone, wood and paper. We need to print. A digital file is nothing. This is what I am planning to do: preserve for the future. Transmit. I do this also for my children who represent my bridge to the future. They might understand who their father was.”
Danilo, most likely, will leave Ethiopia at the end of the year. His children await him. ”I love this people. There are times I get so angry when we work together but there is a fundamental attraction, a sense of belonging. Otherwise I would not have stayed. Fact is my children need me.”
The Blue Nile is chanting and returning to Italy will not stop it.
Danilo will never, really, leave Ethiopia. He will come back, not only for the book.