Editor’s note: As the years go by, migrating to other countries has become increasingly popular, particularly for Nigerians (and Africans generally). Japa, we call it. For the next 10 weeks, Imo Ekanem, in partnership with BellaNaija Features, will explore what it means to live in Italy as an African professional.
Work & Life in Italy is a weekly series where we talk about how Africans live, work, deal with discrimination, and so on. Did you miss our second episode with Chierika Omenaka? Read it here.
For our third installation this week, we are presenting Isabella Nuemia Ngana, a hairstylist who was born and raised in Italy by Angolan parents who also lived in Congo. Despite spending her entire life in Italy, Isabella has been using Afro-hairstyling to connect with her African heritage.
Hi Isabella, thank you for doing this with us
Yes, thank you for having me.
So, how has living in Italy been so far as an African?
Living in Italy as an African descent was not very easy when I grew into adolescence. You have to know how to deal with many unpleasant situations that make you feel different. Surely it is a country that offers a lot but as a black woman, the stairway has more obstacles, but this can be overcome with the right determination.
Tell us about your background
My parents were born and raised in Angola and for a time, they also lived in Congo. Before their thirties, they decided to come to Europe for a better life. So I was born here in Italy, but I have a beautiful African heritage.
Tell us about your professional journey
My training and work path have always been very dynamic. I have carried out various jobs of different types but always stimulating. But through it all was my one passion that kept coming back: offering an exclusive service to people who have curly and Afro curly hair. So, out of a necessity for myself, I created a service that did not exist before. I started my business with many sacrifices with a leap of faith. It wasn’t easy because my service is for a specific group of people. For many people around me, it was initially difficult to understand the need to create an exclusive space to treat and take care of only curly-haired people. But now I can proudly say that my business flourished and it is becoming a way for many people to rediscover their natural beauty and accept themselves as they are.
We’re proud of you and love your hair! What are the challenges, lessons and high moments from your career journey as an African in Italy?
The most difficult moments were certainly those where I have been discriminated against for the colour of my skin or the texture of my hair, which always came before my skills and before my culture. My appearance in Italy is the calling card, unfortunately, but what I’ve always done is to try to always be one step ahead by trying to specialise or simply educate myself in other areas to have even more skills to offer.
The satisfying moments, on the other hand, have certainly been in the salon when I meet Italian people with light skin who have very curly hair – my clients are dark or light skin of every ethnicity – who proudly say that they have a black hairdresser that knows how to manage, heal and cure their hair as few other Italian hairdressers do.
What would you consider as your special ingredients to your success?
My story is a success story because I’ve become a point of reference for many African or Afro-descendant girls. This gives you a little more strength in a country where equal representation still struggles. Dealing with people’s identity is a great responsibility and hair has a great role in people’s pride, culture and self-esteem. And I created a service where a curly girl can feel proud of her hair while maintaining its naturalness.
Well done, Isabella. We’re proud of you. What is the one thing Africans in Italy can adopt to help them thrive?
Africans should follow their instincts and not be overly influenced by local beliefs. This would ensure them to be able to have the courage to propose and do something that can improve their lifestyle and their country.
What are the things Africans looking to relocate need to keep in mind?
A foreigner who comes to Italy must remember that he is always someone’s foreigner, even if – as in my case – he was born in Italy. Their success will be solely and exclusively the result of their efforts and their abilities, and therefore they must rely on their strengths and always try to fill themselves with culture. In the beginning, they may do a job that does not represent them, but this must not cloud their main goal. Eventually, they will get there.
Many thanks to Isabella Nuemia Ngana for having this conversation with us and to Imo Ekanem for making this possible. Catch up with the next episode next Sunday.
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