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Dance & Sounds | Migrant Bodies: Anna Zonta

Migrant Bodies | the 18th of July 2014, Bassano del Grappa

Interview with the activist Anna Zonta

Radio-feature and interview by Anna Trevisan

Anna Zonta is a beautiful young Italian woman, born in Uganda in 1987. She’s an activist, fighting for human rights and intercultural dialogue, helping children from the immigrant communities to enter and develop in the Italian educational system. She enrolled in the Faculty of Law in Padua, studying law and human rights. She participated as special guest in the residency of Migrant Bodies in Bassano.

The starting point of our conversation was her experience as intercultural mediator in a primary school, where she was witness to an episode of discrimination against a child of only 6 years of age.

I put many other questions to her: about her Italian family, about her African origin, about her ideal definition of “identity”, about her body and appearance. We also spoke about food and memories, about inclusion and discrimination, about citizenship and cosmopolitism.

Here is an audio-extract from the interview (Italian) and the related transcript of it (English translation).

Anna Zonta. Photo by ©Matteo Maffesanti

Anna Zonta. Photo by ©Matteo Maffesanti

To begin with I would like to ask you about the story of the little girl that you helped.

The child that I helped […] attended the primary school here, near Bassano, in first grade.

She was born in Italy, her parents came originally from Nigeria and have been living in Italy for only a few years and so don’t speak Italian very well. Because she was having difficulty speaking, writing and reading they asked me to help-out in her education, and seeing that she had grown up entirely within their household, whether on going to school she would find herself at the same level as the rest of her classmates. [….] In the first six months of school this child kept a personal record of her daily life in her exercise book, revealing a certain despondency, making her mother feel very down-hearted too […]. We thought that probably the best thing to do was to change their daughter’s environment. […] The child was only six years old, but she told me that she felt different from the others because she was black. But this is not a usual sentiment from such a young child to express, and … so there must be a significant problem within her scholastic situation.

[…] She enrolled in her new school at the start of April, she is a bright child and she’s doing very well. There is a different relationship with her new teachers. Some teachers from her prior school had even stopped on the street to offer their apologies […].

The support that the mother had to ask me for should really be readily available at all schools […].

So does it boil down to a proper reception and following set guidelines?

Yes, according to law every school must be supported by a linguistic and cultural mediator […]. My sister worked at an international school in Uganda for around six months —so we are talking about an African country —after the first week there she was assisted by an Italian–Ugandan cultural mediator. That’s to say that even in a country considered to be third-world there’s a very advanced setup for integration. This example indicates to me that it’s actually down to an unwillingness to act and give support to really important needs, energies which are set aside for other priorities.

What is your personal experience in the Italian school system? Is it overall quite different from the experience of that little girl?

Yes, my experience has been very positive. I arrived in Italy along with my adoptive parents, definitively at eight years old, the age I started primary school. I had a wonderfully warm welcome […]. My initial experience of Italy was first-rate.

How come your parents moved back to Uganda?

Well, when my parents had first got married […] they both sought out a different experience and so they looked into becoming volunteers in Latin America. But there was only one position available, in Uganda [….]. So it began rather by accident, but anyway they both remained in Uganda for twelve years. […] Then, they decided to return to Italy for our education, that is for myself as well as my siblings … so we all came together. Then, as we became able to cope on our own they decided to return to the place they call home, Uganda. And so my parents returned home, because in Italy they felt like Africans in Italy. So now they feel much better, feel at home and occasionally come to visit us in Italy.


Anna Zonta with Roberto Casarotto

Have you ever been back to Uganda since coming to Italy?

Yes, when I was eighteen I went with my adoptive mother to find my natural mother. It was my first trip back to Uganda, and the next trip will be in December, so after another ten-year gap.

You talked about siblings, how many do you have?

Eh, there’s lots of us, five in all. My adoptive parents have three biological children, then Sara and myself who were adopted, both from the same mother. When Sara was born my parents immediately moved for adoption, in part because, by already having taken me, the adoption bureaucracy was much simpler […].

But from the legal standpoint it was not all that simple: you were telling me that the adoption mechanism ran into a number of difficulties. How come?

My adoption ran into many problems because it was still 1987. As Uganda had once been a British colony the existing legislation did not take into consideration adoption applications from other European states. When I was very small, only two months old, my parents were forced to flee their home due to the civil war. The Italian Embassy had ordered an immediate repatriation. There had been years of war. I had been left in the care of nuns. As soon as I was able to come to Italy, they came to retrieve me. After that they had to validate the Ugandan bureaucracy from Italy, then subsequently through the courts in Venice, and also Rome. So after all that Ugandan bureaucracy along came the Italian red tape, including social workers, psychologists … So yes, it lasted several years […].

Recently there were news stories of those women kidnapped in Nigeria. What do you make of that?

It seems to me to be 300, if not more, because 300 is the statistic that is quoted. Often more girls are taken, I think that the abduction of girls is a routine […] going on for thirty years now. And I say this because my natural mother had once been one of the kidnapped girls, she then managed to escape from the guerrillas. What I think is that […] it is debilitating, embarrassing to see a lack of water, while children are able to obtain the latest rifle on the market. This leaves us with a lot to think about. […] In short, there are situations that remain as they do because there are too many political and economic interests […]. Museveni has been ruling Uganda for thirty years! It really makes you think. As well as all the political and economic warfare, because there are several ongoing training camps for Ugandan soldiers in South Sudan. This is a sorry state of affairs, because there are associations that help in the construction of schools; yet there are others who are behind training soldiers.

Anna Zonta with Cécile Proust

Being a woman here, how has it been? What does being a woman mean in your opinion? Does that question even makes sense or not?

Of course it makes sense. I consider myself very lucky from this perspective because for me, it may seem trivial, but I always felt fortunate with the courses that I could go on, the schools that I could attend, and I feel that these greatly formed me as a woman. The path that I feel had a great influence on my character was … the meetings that were held during high school. I attended the Liceo di Bassano (Bassano high school), Brocchi. It gave me plenty of drive, helped me to form my curious and independent nature. It was a good base from which to go on and confront university and the outside world, having no reticence about being a woman, with the recognition that it was not a limit but a chance to fulfil myself and go further and further. I think all the choices I’ve made are due to shrewd professors who helped me a lot to open my mind, to never stop and I was always trying to realise myself. Because you never really stop learning.

What relationship have you had over the years with your appearance?

Help! When I was very small my mother didn’t know how to treat me. It’s funny, however these details help underline the differences of colour … why bother applying skin cream … because at first she just didn’t know that black skin is a delicate skin, it should be taken care of, you have to apply lotion, it needs to be nourished, and she was convinced that I was always dirty and so I was washed three or four times a day until the African ladies told her “look at this little girl, you just have to apply some cream.”So this was … a small detail … My hair was another: curly and very thick, for her it was something that was quite unmanageable. It was kept short throughout childhood until one day when we were on the street I happened to see a black woman, I didn’t know who she was or where she came from, I ran towards her, pleading “Mum, Mum! Go and ask her about my hair!”. And from then on I started to grow my hair longer. These were our minor hurdles, around the body and hair care.

And how were you perceived when you went to Uganda?

When I returned with my adoptive mother we went to find my natural mother, I was eighteen. When we entered her hut I sat down cross-legged, because I was used to that here in school camps and suchlike. In fact, there the women and girls sit differently. […] In a much more composed way, because often these women would wear long and…needless to say my mother declared: “ah! Now you belong to this woman!”, referring to my adoptive mother.


Anna Zonta with Cécile Proust

As for your identity, how would you respond to those in need of a definition?

I consider myself more a citizen of the world that Italian. Although I have Italian citizenship from adoption, I am convinced that in reality we are all citizens of the world, because in times of need it is the individual, the person who chooses to help or not. So we can all make a difference. I think so because when I lived in Uganda with my parents we had diverse realities on an international level, and from that I realised that nationality doesn’t matter. What counts is each individual choice and our own selves. So yes, I am a citizen of the world and I rely on individual choice and the good that each person is able and willing to do.

A dish which you associate with Bassano, or otherwise to Italy, and a dish that you associate with Uganda?

A dish that I associate with Bassano: asparagus; risotto with asparagus. On the other hand a dish that I associate with Uganda is millet which is a black rice, particularly eaten with Cassava, a potato-like tuber grown there.

A song you associate with Bassano and one with Uganda?

A Bassano song? I don’t know …. There are the songs that the Alpini sing, because my grandmother also sings them. A memory flash … “Quel mazzolin di fiori che vien dalla montagna”(That little bouquet of mountain flowers) because my grandfather used to sing it, and when I was little and he was still alive he took me around and I sang that song about the bunch of flowers that come from the mountains. By contrast, what I always associate with Uganda, inevitably, even when I’m on the move, is the beating of drums. Any sound of drums.

Now if you could send a postcard from Bassano, who would you send it to, what image would you choose and what would you write?

Eh, it’s a tough one…if I were to send a postcard from Bassano, I would most likely choose one of the Ponte Vecchio (old bridge) because it is very emblematic, as well as being beautiful. Very symbolic because of the Alpini who fought for freedom, so for me it is the symbol of freedom and it’s a worldwide symbol, so I would then send it to any person around the world that doesn’t have this right, to bid them to not give up. Because we are fortunate, we were born free, but there are still those not born free.

Thank you.

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