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March 1, 2005

I Didn't Do It For You

i_didnt_do_it_for_you.jpgA quick recommendation of a book I've just read.

I Didn't Do It For You, by Michela Wrong is an excellent history of Eritrea which, inevitably, pulls in lots of fascinating facts about its neighbour Ethiopia. The subtitle 'How the world betrayed a small African nation" says it all. The whole story is there, from Italy's taking of the port of Massawa at the invitation of the British in 1884-5 to the brutalities and betrayals of its current regime. In between there are the shockingly ham-fisted interventions by Italy and the UK (again and again) alongside the US, the UN and successive regimes in Ethiopia.

I especially loved it for its portrayal of the remarkable Pankhurst family. Sylvia Pankhurst, the famous UK suffragette, campaigned against Italy's invasion of Ethiopia in the build-up to World War Two and eventually moved here. Her son, Richard, is still here. We have both got to know him and his wife Rita - and Michela Wrong's portrait is spot on.

Now 77, [Richard Pankhurst] is recognised as one of the world's leading authorities on Ethiopia. Author of more than a score of ground-breaking histories of the country, founder of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies at Addis Ababa University, his expertise has made him a regular contributor to international symposiums and research journals so obscure, he wryly observes 'they are probably read by no more than twenty people'.

[He] could really be no other woman's son. His face has the same droop as Sylvia's: gravity working overtime. Like her, he seems more at ease in the realm of the concrete than the emotional. Discussing Ethiopian history, he rattles off thoughts at machine-gun speed, but ask him about his mother's frame of mind on moving to Addis and he flounders, suddenly lost, as though the question has no meaning. He has inherited her capacity for the dogged campaign, sustained across the decades: the most recent has been the fight to return to Axum one of the great obelisks Mussolini seized as war booty and used to decorate a Roman square.

There the similarities begin to peter out. Richard, one suspects, is rather more fun than Sylvia can ever have been. Endowed with the blinking diffidence of the shy Englishman, he has a habit of twitching his lips spasmodically, as though controlling an urge to laugh.

I have heard that Michela Wrong's book on the Congo - In The Footsteps of Mr Kurtz - is also worth a read.

Posted by aheavens at March 1, 2005 9:22 AM