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Benjamin Zephaniah
Benjamin Zephaniah

Sylvia was the most arrested Suffragette there was – yet, after women got the vote, many people seem to forget about her, even though she got involved in lots of other things.

In the 1930s, through her own enquiries, Sylvia realised the Italians were surrounding Ethiopia and took it on herself to alert the world to the coming invasion. But when Mussolini attacked, Britain didn't do anything. Emperor Haile Selassie appealed to the League of Nations and nobody listened to him. It wasn't seen as our struggle – but Sylvia felt really connected to it.

She moved to Ethiopia in her seventies but didn't retire. She set about building a hospital there and also started a newspaper. Each edition would have a different theme – for example women dying in childirth, or men who had been wounded in the war. Sylvia would go around the country looking for stories, which was a brave thing to do. I read that when she went out into the villages, some people were scared, thinking she was either a white devil or one of Mussolini's fascists. But she made a real difference and when I went to Ethiopia it was interesting to see how many ordinary people knew about her.

Sylvia felt close to the Ethiopian people and struck up an amazing relationship with the Emperor. They say Sylvia didn't smile much: in almost all of the portraits she is quite solemn, but there are a couple of photographs with her and Haile Selassie where she is beaming.

Sylvia came from a completely different background to me. Her father was a barrister and her mother founded a political union – whereas my father had a job sweeping at the post office and my mother was a nurse. I left school at 13 unable to read and write, so I educated myself by meeting people. Where I do connect with Sylvia is in her internationalism. She once said, 'wherever there is a need, there is my country' and I feel that as well. And she really cared. A lot of people from a privileged family would have done academic things to help the poor, but Sylvia got her hands dirty. She had such passion and energy. I hope that when I am in my seventies I can work as she used to.

Every now and then I find myself thinking people don't care any more. They see something on the news, it's gone and they carry on eating their dinner. Red Nose Day comes along; they give a pound, watch a few comedy turns and think they're doing their bit to save the world. People like me are labelled as militants and it can get tiring. But then I look at people like Sylvia and I think, no – if she could make a change, especially at her age, then I've got to keep trying.

Abridged from a conversation with Rob Attar for My History Hero, BBC History Magazine, in 2008. Reproduced by permission of the Editor, BBC History Magazine

Also in the 'Modern Perspectives' section:
Modern Perspectives: Introduction, Benjamin Zephaniah, The Very Revd Dr John Arnold, Berit Sahlström, Sylvia Ayling, Baroness Betty Boothroyd, Peter Tatchell, Linda Perham, Diana Kurakina, Shirley Harrison and Geoffrey Lusty