Making the Future Female

Danilo Dolci – the Sicilian Gandhi Part 1


Danilo Dolci (June 28, 1924 – December 30, 1997) was an Italian social activistsociologist, popular educator and poet. He is best known for his opposition to povertysocial exclusion and the Mafia on Sicily, and is considered to be one of the protagonists of the non-violence movement in Italy. He became known as the “Gandhi of Sicily”. Wikipedia

Danilo Dolci was born near Trieste, northern Italy in 1927, a son of a devout Slav mother and a sceptical Italian father who worked for the railways and became a station master. Dolci originally studied architecture in Rome, Milan, Switzerland, and also trained as an engineer. As a student he published works on the science of construction and the theory of reinforced concrete. He was hailed as a man with a brilliant future.

Dolci first came to Sicily because of its ancient beauty, in particular its Greek buildings, spending time studying the ruins.

In 1954 he returned to rural western Sicily and stayed for the rest of his life, throwing away a professional future. He settled in Trappeto – a slum area of Partinico, a province of Palermo – in an area notorious for banditry and poverty. Dolci married one of his neighbours, a widow with five children. From their small house with none of the usual conveniences he launched his campaign against the misery that surrounded him.

Dolci, his family and followers faced the hostility of the church, the government, landowners and the mafia. He charted his work in a book – The Outlaws of Partinico.

“The illness of violence cannot be cured by greater violence”

Dolci could see that men became bandits because they had no money for medicines and started committing kidnappings and robberies. Generally, he said, local people thought it was wrong to deny a person the right to risk their lives for their family as they were expected to do so in the armed forces for their country.

“There was no law and order”, which meant that the local people had to become a law unto themselves. Once people had sold all of their possessions to buy food, they were forced to break the law. Because of the poverty there were countless robberies. Every new day brought hundreds more as everybody was forced to steal. Times were so hard that the poor even stole from each other. Because the police were not respected and could make matters worse, much crime was not reported. “The people lost all self control” and “the hungry became bandits.”

Another big problem was that of police persecution. Dolci claimed this was “at the bottom of the banditry” in the area, made worse because the people were so hungry. Abuses committed by the forces of law and order included summary arrest, torture, thievery, bribery and other forms of corruption. In chilling accounts of police brutality, Dolci recorded how Sicilians were tortured with water-boarding, electric shocks, beatings, sexual abuse, verbal abuse, burning with cigarettes, suffocation and summary execution. Also the police would rob ordinary people’s houses. Once corrupt officers knew there was food or resources at a particular location they were likely to continue until it was all gone.

The police occasionally arrested suspects and after torture and other interrogation techniques produced a confession. Often, after months or years in jail, many suspects were found not guilty and released by the courts. Faced with this, the Carabinieri took to arresting whole families in an attempt to force wanted men out of hiding. On one occasion, the police rounded up everybody they could across a huge area of the countryside. So many contadini were detained that the police barracks was full and many suspects were locked up in a disused distillery.

In this way, many bandits – in reality, the rural poor – were forced into exile and lived as “wild beasts.” So the poor peasants were caught between the law, landowners and Cosa Nostra. However, thieves that were protected by the mafia were able to prosper, while others were turned into the police or murdered.

Animals that were stolen by the mafia were often disguised by the thieves so their original owners would never recognise them again. Also, Cosa Nostra had contacts with other criminal organisations on the mainland and would regularly ship stolen animals to them for distribution or the knacker’s yard.

Yet “The police knew all about the mafia and were sometimes hand in glove with them.” Not surprisingly, the links between politicians and the mafia were more obvious during election periods. Across the whole of Sicily Cosa Nostra exercised an intimidating influence on politics. Although many of the mafia were very powerful, most of them were uneducated and had never been to school. They often had to get their sons and daughters to keep their accounts and read letters and communicate with them when they were in prison.

Partinico, Trappeto and Montlepre had a combined population of approximately 33,000 yet only one of the 350 outlaws from the area was raised in a family with both parents reaching past the third elementary grade of school. Dolci calculated that the ‘bandits’ he studied completed 650 years at school compared to more than 3000 years in prison.

“There is a world of the condemned in our midst; condemned to death by we ourselves.”

In a cost benefit analysis, Dolci noted that it cost 13 million lire per month to pay for the prison service, security forces and police force on Sicily, yet there was no provision for relief for families of men in prison or who had been killed. In less than 10 years over 4 ½ billion lire was spent on repressive actions while over 4000 people were unemployed.

In an attempt to work out the scale of the problem, Dolci and his followers began to measure all kinds of social facts in the area. They counted people, families, the unemployed and land. They quickly realised that underemployment and unemployment were serious ills and this was made worse by the seasonal nature of the work – men might only get paid for 6-8 months. Other important issues identified by Dolci were waste and inefficiency. For example, agriculture suffered greatly from lack of water and fertilizer.

The whole island suffered from lack of educational attainment. Dolci noted there was significant under-attendance at schools, no public library or theatre in the town, and in the poorer areas, no running water or drains. The area had hardly any poor relief, a very high infant mortality and a very low standard of education. Medical care was poor or nonexistent, and what there was suffered from a shortage of staff, equipment and medicine.

One of Dolci’s great achievements was to chart the actual deprivation in Sicily. One of the ways he and his helpers did this was to go out and interview ordinary people about their lives. This work produced some fantastic accounts of ordinary Sicilian life and they also created tables showing the lack of schooling of so-called bandits and their parents. The tables recorded time in prison, exile and on probation and comments show many were killed or injured through their encounters with the police.

Dolci argued that if real efforts had been made to find gainful work for the people of Sicily then most criminal acts would have been avoided. In an area where land is scarce and unemployment and underemployment is common, it was not surprising that men were prepared to steal to save the children from starvation. People in the area were so desperate, that Dolci recounts how they were stealing metal from an ammunition dump when a shell exploded and killed 23 people including children. In Montelpre there were no public lavatories or showers and Dolci said the children mostly ran “wild in the streets.”

Dolci suggested using the money for the upkeep of the police to build the dam on the river Jato which would enable the local people to irrigate their land without paying the mafia for the privilege.

Dolci estimated the money spent in10 years on the legal system, prisons and the police force and argued that if this had been spent on supporting the population then law and order would have been maintained. He also suggested there should have been one social worker for every police officer.

Dolci argued that we must work towards the truth – to bring transparency and light into the dark places – to show up the poverty and the desperation. To achieve this end, Dolci deliberately exposed volunteers to some of the worst slums Sicily had to offer – often the sights and smells were too much for educated westerners to bear.

He recorded stories of child abuse at the hands of nuns at the religious schools in Sicily. Children recounted being locked in small dark rooms, being beaten and tied up, made to stand in cold places, being sent to bed hungry and being made to stand on sharp objects.

As can be seen from the above, to be a poor child in Sicily was to be at risk of abuse from many sources. Child prisoners suffered especially. With no social security and any provision for families of convicted men, they were at great risk of starvation and ultimately death. Not surprisingly, prostitution flourished with the poorest women being bought and sold for a small amount of money. As usual, violence was employed to keep women in line and make them work for their mafia bosses. Echoing Jesus’s words, “Forgive them lord they know not what they do”, Dolci claimed we hurt each other and damaged the planet because “We know not what we do”.

“Perhaps we are beginning to believe, at last, that to sow good is to reap good.”

Dolci realized that Partinico, the small town he was working with, was a microcosm of the whole world. The conflicts and challenges he found there were repeated a billion times over globally. Evidence for this can be seen in the title of another brilliant book, The World Is One Creature (1984).

There are similarities in Dolci’s approach to World Systems Analysis – the perspective developed by Immanuel Wallenstein (2004).

Immanuel Maurice Wallerstein (born September 28, 1930) is a US sociologist, historical social scientist, and world-systems analyst. Wikipdia

Throughout the Cold War period, most commentators focused on the division between capitalism and communism and their two ideological camps. The alternative perspective, where the world was split into rich and poor rather than the dominant economic system, was developed by people working on the left and with radical traditions. A good example of this was the World Systems Analysis developed by Wallerstein.

Similarities between World Systems Analysis and Dolci’s perspective include the idea that community is organic, that Sicily’s issues were because of a structural problem not due to some inherent weakness of the population and that the powerful use their advantage to further abuse the weak and poor.

In Wallerstein’s view, the world system distributes resources from the periphery to the core. Core or centre corresponds with the developed nations and the periphery equates to the underdeveloped parts of the global economy. Wallerstein argues that the world economy has a tripartite division of labour between core, semi-peripheral and peripheral nations. He developed the concept of domination to explain the unequal relations between nations at different levels of this tripartite system. Sicily would be considered peripheral in this perspective, both within Italy and Europe.

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2 responses

  1. Aisha

    Brilliant and informative article, thanks – a real midwife of change 🙂

    August 25, 2012 at 6:29 pm

    • Nice one – I was going to mention that in part 2 🙂

      August 25, 2012 at 8:01 pm

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