As an Italian volunteer with PROJECT-E, I find myself fascinated by the country, the NGO operates in. Ethiopia has a rich culture and history, and it is a place I hope to someday be able to visit. I am also aware of my country’s past, and of its destructive, imperialistic, colonial campaigns in the Horn of Africa. I, thus, found myself researching the effects of the Italian occupation of Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia, to see if there are still any signs of the Italian invasion, and if it left any lingering influence on the area. Well, here is what I found out about the Italian influence in Ethiopia.
History of Italian colonialism
In the European “scramble for Africa” at the end of the 19th century, Italy occupied both modern day Eritrea and Somalia and controlled them as colonies for approximately six decades. Italian forces also launched an ambitious campaign to annex Ethiopia to their existing colonies, but they were met by a stern resistance. After a few skirmishes, Italian forces were annihilated in the battle of Adwa of 1896. This single event has since become a source of national pride for Ethiopians, since it turned Ethiopia into one of the two only African countries which were never fully colonized by foreign powers. Actually, the battle also became a symbol of freedom worldwide, with leaders of the Pan-African movement, such as Marcus Garvey, referring to it as a source of inspiration. Decades later though, in 1936, Italian forces were deployed for a second Ethiopian war by fascist dictator Mussolini. Through despicable warfare tactics (such as the extensive use of chemical weapons), Italian forces swiftly arrived in Addis Ababa, and occupied the country for the next 5 years. Italy thus controlled most of the Horn of Africa; Italians emigrated to the occupied countries, and inevitably influenced the way of life of the populations it controlled.
Since Italian rule in Ethiopia was relatively short-lived, its legacy really pales in comparison to what can be found in Eritrea and Somalia. Asmara, the Eritrean capital, is riddled with Italian, colonial architecture: from cafés serving espresso to 100-year-old FIAT service stations; from cinemas to pizzerias, and from palaces to local markets, 1930s Italian futuristic architecture is ever-present. Italian is still spoken in Eritrea, and some words have even permeated the local language (bicycles are called “bicicletta”, for example). Moreover, Italian dishes, such as spaghetti and lasagne, have become part of the national cuisine. The Italian influence is ever-present in Eritrea.
On the other hand, there are fewer traces of Italy left in Ethiopia. Whatever Italian influence was in the country, it has now dwindled away with time: only a couple of Italian buildings can still be found in the old quarter of Addis Ababa; one or two truly Italian restaurants have survived from the 1950s; and an Ethiopian version of pasta is still eaten by people across the country. The Italian occupation did not last long enough to leave any lasting legacy. Moreover, the remaining Italian families that had stayed after WW2 were forced to leave by Mengistu’s communist government in 1974. What was left of the Italian influence is now mostly history.