The Anglo-Ethiopian Society
Book Review - Ethiopian Reminiscences: Early Days
Richard and Rita Pankhurst
Reviewer - John Mellors
This is not so much a conventional autobiography but more a book of Richard and Rita Pankhurst's collected anecdotes about their lives. Parts of the story are told by Richard and parts by Rita. The book is enlivened by many photographs from the family photograph album and elsewhere.
The first third of the book gives details of their respective families and tells the stories of their lives up to the point where they met each other. Richard describes his unusual childhood, growing up with his parents in Woodford, North London. His parents, Sylvia Pankhurst and Silvio Corio, were staunch anti-fascists and, realising that Mussolini was preparing to invade Ethiopia, had tried to alert the public about Italy's expansion plans. After the invasion started in 1936, when Richard was eight, his parents went on to publish the New Times & Ethiopia News. It was at this time that Richard started meeting many Ethiopian exiles, including the Emperor. After the end of the Second World War Richard went on to take a degree at the London School of Economics, before going on to join the National Institute of Economic and Social Reform in London. Many Ethiopian, and other African, students were sent to Britain to study after the war, and Richard made a number of long-lasting friendships with them.
Rita also had an interesting childhood. She tells how she was born in Moldovia, north-eastern Romania. Her Jewish parents were reasonably well off but, recognising the dangers when Hitler came to power, her father and brother emigrated to England in 1936. Rita and her mother joined them in early 1938 and Rita was sent to the Perse School for Girls in Cambridge. Rita took her degree at Oxford University and later went on to work in the Press Library at Chatham House. Richard and Rita first met at Toynbee Hall in 1954.
In 1956 Sylvia chose to go to live in Ethiopia and Richard decided to go with her. He invited Rita to join them and she accepted. Richard got a job lecturing at the University in Addis Ababa and Rita a job at the National Library of Ethiopia. Sylvia started a new monthly publication, the Ethiopia Observer, which was printed in England. The book documents aspects of their lives in their first years in Ethiopia in several overlapping chapters. These cover their early social life in Addis Ababa, with the functions they were expected to attend, Rita's work at the library, visits of prominent people to Ethiopia, of important festivals and events, and the growing recognition within Ethiopia of the importance of other African countries. The book closes with chapters on the death of Sylvia and the abortive coup d'état, both in 1960. The dramatic changes to Richard and Rita's lives in later years will be covered in a second volume.
There were a few small errors in my copy of the book that should really have been picked up by the proof readers, but as mine was an advance copy these may have been fixed in the latest edition. In any case they do not really spoil the stories. The book gives a fascinating, often humorous, look at Richard and Rita's early years and of life in Ethiopia in the 1950s. It answers the questions that people may have of why they first went to Ethiopia and why they have stayed for so long. The book is full of interesting, and sometimes surprising, photographs. A most enjoyable read!
Ethiopian Reminiscences: Early Days