Ethio-Italian relations post Adwa: No hard feelings!

Last updated: 01.03.2010 // One hundred and fourteen years have passed since Italian forces were beaten at Adwa in their attempt to colonize Ethiopia. In the 1930/40s- Mussolini’s Fascist regime tried again through a bloody occupation of Ethiopia. But unlike many other countries who have suffered bloody invasions and conquests, Ethiopia has embraced many cultural traditions from its former foe.

Looking for Italian influences in Ethiopia anno 2010, one does not have to scratch far under the surface. Start by having coffee: a macchiato, meaning “mix” in Italian, which is drunk for breakfast, after lunch and for evening-meetings with friends by almost everybody in urban-Ethiopia. The machines pouring out the mixture of coffee and steamed milk are all coming from Italy.

Then proceed to the menu: Pasta! Pasta, pizza, calzones and related Italian dishes are included on almost all menus wherever you go in Ethiopia. Go shopping for food at some of the supermarkets in Addis, and you will find a large number of delicious Italian “prosciutto” in various counters. Salami can also be bought, but it will be referred to by Ethiopians as “mortodella”.

Then take a look at one of Ethiopia’s official languages: Amharic. A rich and comprehensive language- but not without words borrowed from-for example: Italian. A car in Amharic is called “machina”. And many of the cars are indeed Italian. Fiats are seen in many places, and many of the transport trucks are Calabrese trailers imported from Italy.

Other tastes of Italy in Ethiopian everyday life. When Ethiopians stay overnight at a pension, they will talk about staying in a “penzione”. When having health-problems requiring medical attention, they might have to undergo an “operazione”. When putting on a track suit for training at a gym, they will talk about putting on a “tutta”.

When travelling in the Northern part of Ethiopia close to the border of former Italian colony Eritrea, the use of Italian words becomes more frequent. The small charcoal stoves Ethiopians use for roasting coffee will in these parts of the country be referred to as a “furnello”. When eating with a fork, one eats with a “forquetta”. When an Ethiopian from the province of Tigray wants to approach a white foreigner, he or she might do so by approaching the foreigner with a polite : “Scusa, Signore/Signora”.

One of the results of the Italian occupation from 1935 until 1941 was a number of child-births were the father was Italian, and mother Ethiopian. These children are today an integrated part of  Ethiopian society. Few if any of them have experienced different treatment because of their Italian background. Many Italians also stayed on after the occupation, and made a comfortable life for themselves running business in Ethiopia.

Despite a history filled with conflict between the two countries, their cultural and strategic bonds are tight. Maybe the Ethiopian experience can be something other countries can learn from?

Read more about the battle of Adwa on:

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