SYLVIA PANKHURST AND ETHIOPIA
(Continued from page 2)
Departure for Ethiopia
By the Spring of 1956 Sylvia felt that one phase of her life had come to an end. Fascism, against which she had struggled for so long, had been overthrown. Ethiopia, for whose cause she had fought for the last two decades, was freed from both Italian, and later British, occupation – and the Princess Tsehai Hospital, for which she had been fund-raising so energetically, had at last been opened. On the personal level, Silvio Corio died in 1954. He had been her partner for forty years, and had contributed extensively to New Times and Ethiopia News. He had spent much of his time reading in the British Museum Library, and would not have wished to be torn away from London. Their son Richard had completed his university education – and was offered a college teaching position in Ethiopia.
Sylvia, now 74, sold her house in Woodford Green, accepted a long-standing invitation from the Emperor to live in Ethiopia. Richard, who had acquired many Ethiopian friends in his student days, and had helped his mother with New Times and Ethiopia News, was happy to fly with her to Addis Ababa, to start a new life in Africa. They left in July 1956, and I joined them at his invitation four months later.
Life in Ethiopia
Sylvia immediately set about various projects big and small. Her main activities were editing a new publication; supporting the Tsehai Hospital and involving herself in a voluntary society initially to assist in the rehabilitation of beggars. Her new journal was a monthly, called Ethiopia Observer. She edited it for just short of five years. Each issue attempted to focus on a different topic: Ethiopian women, patriots, educational development, etc. She herself produced many of the articles, which she wrote in longhand. Copy was then air-mailed to Manchester; proofs were duly flown back to Addis Ababa, where she and Richard, who had also written a number of articles, made the lay-out, a creative process which at time produced considerable tension between them. The proofs and lay-out were then finally returned to Manchester for printing. This was the moment in the month when the relentless activity finally relaxed – only for the cycle to start again soon afterwards.
As Editor of the Observer, Sylvia travelled all over the country, visiting schools, hospitals, and development projects – which she described in her periodical in some depth. On one occasion, aged 77, and not in good health, she proposed to see one of these projects at a place called Majitte, north of Addis Ababa. It involved many hours of travel by Land Rover over rough roads and the return the following day. When we suggested that this might be somewhat too strenuous for her, as she was becoming increasingly frail, she replied: 'Do you think I have come to the end of my active life?' – and duly completed her self-imposed assignment.
On arrival in Addis Ababa, Sylvia was not fully happy with the situation she encountered at the Tsehay Hospital. Ethiopia was not yet producing its own doctors, and there were difficulties in recruiting suitable personnel from abroad. The Ethiopian Ministry of Public Health was unfamiliar with the organisation and procedures favoured by the Tsehai Hospital’s British Directors, and both sides were reluctant to compromise. The hospital was short of both staff and funds. Sylvia continued her involvement in the Hospital as best she could, raising funds, purchasing equipment, and collecting clothes for hospitalised babies in need. Before leaving London, she had arranged for one of her supporters, Princess Rosalie Viazemsky, Gordon Selfridge’s daughter, to act as her main London representative for the Hospital.
Sylvia, in Addis Ababa, had begun to raise funds for a separate Maternity Ward, a Blood Bank, and an Orthopaedic Centre for the manufacture of artificial limbs. The Centre was the brainchild of a British orthopaedic surgeon, Oscar Barry, who became aware that many young polio victims begging in the streets could be restored the use of their limbs by breaking and re-setting them. Typically, while working for the establishment of the Orthopaedic Centre, Sylvia – I was later informed – on several occasions stopped her car and persuaded young beggars to go to the hospital, and have their limbs successfully re-set by Dr Barry, at her expense.
The Social Service Society
Appalled by the number of beggars in the streets she joined a group of Ethiopian friends in establishing a voluntary organisation, the Social Service Society, aimed at rehabilitating at least some of the vagrants. It was set up under the auspices of the dynamic newly appointed Mayor of Addis Ababa, Dajazmatch Zewde Gebre Selassie, whom she had known when he was a student in Oxford immediately after the war. He designated and fenced an area in which large corrugated iron sheds were erected, to house and feed the destitute, and to provide craft training, especially in making knotted carpets with Ethiopian wool. Sylvia expressed her concern about the situation in the hastily erected sheds. The Municipality proved unable to make the conditions attractive to the beggars, who, as it turned out, preferred the lively life in the streets – and the appointment of another mayor did not help matters. The Society was more successful in other projects, in which I, too, became involved. The first was the training of women in dress-making, including the use of sewing machines, previously, and still to some extent, the preserve of men. Another project was the establishment of the first youth sports ground in the city, which duly materialised. One of the active members of the Society was Liutenant Girma Wolde Giorgis, who later became, and still is, Ethiopian Head of State.
Sylvia, as an anti-colonialist, and anti-racist, was keenly interested in the African struggle for independence then being waged in many parts of the Continent, and had already published pro-independence articles in New Times and Ethiopia News. She visited Kenya in 1958, when the then Ethiopian Consul, Berhanu Tessema (a former Ethiopian refugee with whom she had corresponded during the Italian occupation), arranged for her to meet the African Trade Union leader, Tom Mboya and the African and Asian members of the Legislative Council. Jomo Kenyatta, who had spoken at her pro-Ethiopian meetings in London, was then in detention. The Mau Mau rebellion had only recently been crushed, and the Council members told her of the restrictions under which they were then labouring. She later devoted an issue of Ethiopia Observer to Kenyan affairs. Sylvia made contact with students from other parts of Africa who were studying at Ethiopian higher education institutions on special scholarships from the Emperor, and, once again combining wider political issues with consideration of the needs of individuals, on several occasions, introduced to him African refugees in difficulties.
On a personal note, although I had been to lunch with Sylvia at her house in Woodford Green, we had been to a concert together, and she had visited my parents, my eruption in Addis Ababa marked an entirely new development in her life. She was not demonstrative in personal relations but I think she was pleased that Richard had found a partner. I can’t help feeling, however, that she might have preferred someone more familiar with public political affairs. If this was so, she never gave any sign of it. In a rare letter to her sister Christabel in the course of a short correspondence towards the end of their lives, Sylvia reported, apparently with pride, that her son had married a Romanian who was 'an Oxford graduate'. She was thankful that I was willing to take over the running of the house. My only difficulty was finding food that she could tolerate, as her digestion had suffered permanent damage from the hunger strikes of Suffragette days, while our cook, who remained with us for twenty years, was ever anxious to show off her culinary skills.
Sylvia was happy to see us married. The wedding was a very modest affair by Ethiopian standards. Unlike local weddings that lasted a minimum of three days, with several banquets, ours comprised only a cocktail party at a hotel, followed by a get-together of intimate friends at our house. Sylvia’s and Richard’s friend, Mengestu Lemma, commended the simplicity of the event as an example to his compatriots, but nevertheless quipped that so many of Sylvia’s friends who were government officials were present at the cocktail that a Cabinet Meeting could have been held on the spot.
We lived in a bungalow surrounded by eucalyptus trees, and gradually developed a garden in which she liked to walk. Although she purchased oil paints and brushes in London, and brought them to Ethiopia, she never opened the paint-box. She found relaxation in reading 19th century English poetry, and writing poems in a similar style herself. One was about Addis Ababa, and another about eucalyptus trees. Both were later published in Ethiopia Observer. Our lives were largely work-oriented. If she was not on her travels Sylvia would go to her desk when we left for work – Richard at the University College of Addis Ababa, where he taught, and I at the National Library of Ethiopia. She was usually still at her desk when we returned at lunch time, and again in the afternoon. After supper she often went back to her desk. When the historian, Brian Harrison, once asked me what we did for our holidays it came to my notice that we did not indulge in them.
At meal times discussion centered on her current concerns or future projects. She did not, in my presence, look back on her past, and I felt she might have considered it a distraction to invite her to reminisce. When a particular project was finished, she moved to the next one. Though there was not much time for social life, Sylvia had several good friends in Ethiopia. She had got to know the Emperor’s eldest daughter, Princess Tenagne Work, when the latter was in England, waiting to return to Ethiopia, and Sylvia was struggling against the British officials who were proposing its annexation or 'Protection'. In Addis Ababa she met, and much admired, Senedu Gabru, headmistress of the prestigious Etegue Menen Girls’ School, and one of the first two women members of the Ethiopian Parliament. Her husband, Major Assefa Lemma, had been Sylvia’s energetic guide on her first journey to the country. Visitors to our house were mainly Ethiopian professionals, many of them returnees who had studied in Britain, and foreigners of all kinds interested in Ethiopia, its culture and development.