«Italy represented a new world for me. I realized that I had to start all over again: learn a new language, a new culture and, in turn, introduce mine.
I also felt that it was my duty to address some social issues dear to me, such as immigration...»
Yepahanan Samuel Hili
Our journey among the voices of culture continues with a theme that divides public opinion and triggers controversy in the political world: immigration. Extremisms in the world of travel and culture are short-lived. So? How can we talk about such a delicate subject? I thought of looking at the issue from another point of view: the stage. The theater, a great resource recently set aside and branded as a ‘’non-essential activity’’, is a place where everything is possible, even building bridges whose foundations are rooted in the sincere desire to understand and rediscover us similar.
Born in the Ivory Coast in the early 1980s to peasant parents and graduated in chemistry from the University of Abidjan, Samuel was forced to flee the fierce civil war that was raging in his country. After the journey and many difficulties, Samuel arrived in Italy in 2008 where, after having been a guest for about three months in the Crotone immigrants centers, he moved to Mantua, the city where he still lives today. From the very first moments in Italy, Samuel understands how difficult it is the dialogue between different cultures. He finds himself observing behaviors, languages, attitudes. In him starts to rise the desire for comparison and communication. While learning Italian and making friends, deepening the cultural, philosophical and religious aspects that have always interested him, he discovers his love for art and theater in particular, especially as a form of interaction and integration. In 2010 he began attending the Mantua Theater School, managed by the Campogalliani Theater Academy and by Ars Creation Entertainment, and in 2013 he graduated. After the first essay in which he represents the character of Othello, he begins to write his first show entitled Ambassador Mamma Mia: in an ironic way he represents prejudices and stereotypes, common and sometimes bizarre, which are typical of relations between 'foreigners'. Given the success of the show, the title will also become the name of his theater company and the cultural association Ambassador Mamma Mia, which collaborates with many cultural realities nationally and internationally. In 2014 he won a competition and received a scholarship that took him to Paris to gain experience in the field of physical theater. After the great success of the show Ambassador Mamma Mia, Samuel conceived and staged other theatrical performances including Once Upon a Time in Africa, Thomas Sankara's Africa and Aimé Cesaire's La negritude. He is currently in Africa for a training and research project.
Who is Samuel? Where does his story begin?
I am an artist and chemist originally from the Ivory Coast. Following the political-military crisis that my country experienced, I decided to move from the Ivory Coast to Mantua in 2008.
How was your passion for the theater born?
My passion for theater was born in Italy. As an artist I was born right here. After making the trip from Africa, Italy represented a new world for me. I realized that I had to start all over again: learn a new language, a new culture and, in turn, introduce mine. I also felt that it was my duty to address some social issues dear to me, such as immigration ... Theatrical art represented a work and battle tool to face all these challenges.
One of the sources of inspiration for your work are the fables and legends with strong moral teachings that the storytellers carried between one village and another. Popular wisdom suggests that we have two ears to hear and one mouth to speak. Do you believe that the figure of the ‘’sage’’ still exists in contemporary Western society? And if it exists, are we able to remind ourselves that we should listen to twice as much as we talk?
Western society and African society are different. An African writer said: "An elderly dying is a burning library". In Africa, the elderly people are seen as the "wise", that is, one who has a lot of experience in life, a lot of scientific, psychological, social knowledge etc. In contemporary Western society I think that the figure of the "wise man" does not exist, but it is the specialist (who could be very young) of a certain scientific or social field who takes his place. We live in a society where many people want to speak and be the center of attention, but don't want to listen. As a result, it is difficult to be able to remember that we should listen to twice as much as we speak. I think telling is very important. Through my artistic work, I have told my journey, my story, the world I lived in before coming to Italy. In my way of telling, I try to raise awareness, to exhort and encourage when it is legitimate, without ever forgetting the civil commitment to denounce.
The theater is fiction. Why does man need to create fiction to understand reality?
Raising awareness, teaching, educating ... requires effective communication strategies. Creating fiction is a communication strategy for dealing with the real problems of society. It is a process of elaborating the message to prepare the listener to receive it effectively, in a pleasant psychological and environmental state.
You have a degree in chemistry, a subject apparently very far from the theater. However, even in the theater there is a ''reaction''. What name would you give to this magic?
I would give it the name of "social reaction" because theatrical work helps to build bonds. Create empathy between individuals in a community and a society.
In previous interviews I have dealt with the theme of the fear of the different and the unknown. Your history allows us to approach this issue from a different point of view. When you left Africa for Italy, you too were traveling into the unknown. How did you feel? What situations did you face? How did you manage to convert the ''fear'' into a positive feeling?
Unfortunately, the fear of the different and the unknown sometimes creates social tensions between individuals. As for me, when I left for Italy, the emotion was strong. The fear of not being able to cross the border and being sent back was great. After entering the territory, I found myself facing the problem of recognizing my refugee status. Over time and going through various difficult situations, "fear" has shaped my character. Little by little I learned to have confidence and to face problems with serenity.
Can theater be a resource for dialogue between cultures?
Of course, theater is a great resource for the dialogue between cultures.
One of your most important shows is Aimé Césaire's La Negritude, a key figure in the struggle for dignity and equality among human being. How important is it to keep the dignity of differences alive?
Life is what it is. Each of us - black, white, yellow, rich and poor - has our own struggles. It is very important to respect the dignity of the other so that we can have a better world.
What role does irony play in this perspective?
Irony plays a very important role. As an author, writing my first show, I created the character "the Ambassador Mamma Mia" who in the Italian context is the immigrant, the refugee or the "poor man" for some. He presents himself as an ambassador, a very important figure, who criticizes the problems of society and claims his status as a politician.
I would like to ask you a question that is not easy to manage. I will try to bring out the most common thoughts. When people approach the world of immigration, they usually assume two attitudes: aversion - those who arrive on our shores want to deprive us of our space and our resources - or passive and, in a certain sense, sterile pity - the classic ‘’oh poor man’’ which lasts 30 seconds after the news is broadcast. What do you think about it? What would be the right attitude to take? How can we make it clear that migrants are not just a number, but that they are people with a history, a culture and a dignity?
I think the two attitudes are wrong. Migrants must not be seen as people who come to deprive citizens of their space and resources. They are not even the “poor”, even if some of their countries of origin are relatively poor. The migrant must be seen as a normal person. To make it clear that migrants are people with a history, with a culture and with a dignity, responsibility must be shared. On the one hand, the competent authorities and citizens of the host countries must be willing to create the conditions for dignified cohabitation, but on the other hand, migrants must work at all levels to demonstrate that they are people with historical, cultural and personal backgrounds.
Do you believe that travel can be a good way to exercise our empathic capacity and to understand the value of human beings?
Of course, for me the journey has been a path of personal growth, as well as a good way to exercise some of my skills. Traveling serves to learn and understand the many values of humans.
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I thank Samuel for agreeing to reflect with us. If you want to follow his work and take part in his future projects, I invite you to visit Samuel Hili's website. In the next interview we will explore together with the Ouattara twins, famous plastic artists, the culture of an almost unknown country: Burkina Faso.