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Lomi And Totò : An Ethiopian-Italian Colonial or Postcolonial “Love Story”?

Giovanna Trento


Lomi and Totò. An Ethiopian-Italian Colonial or Postcolonial “Love Story”? introduces various and still open questions related to the current necessity of a deeper study of the Italian colonial presence in the African Horn. The source of this article is the relationship between Lomi and Totò, an Ethiopian woman and an Italian man who are not alive anymore, as it is seen and told by their five children (with some additional illuminating interviews). This story started during the Italian colonial fascist period, continued in the Fifties and Sixties in postcolonial East Africa, ended up in Italy in the Eighties, and is still alive in the memory of Lomi and Totò descendents. This “love story” has different shades and can be read from several points of view: personal, sentimental, familiar, social, anthropological, and historical. For some aspects it is unique, but for others it is exemplary of its time and allows us to look into important dynamics during wide and complex periods. Giovanna Trento in this article, thanks to the observation of this “private history”, highlights a certain controversial and unstable degree of fluidity between colonial and postcolonial periods, also questioning the degree of freedom individuals might have within a given social framework, thus suggesting some crucial and sometimes ambiguous issues related to: the use of racial laws in the fascist period; notions of concubinage, marriage and citizenship; gender and power relations; subaltern conditions and marginality within Italian colonialism; discrepancies between portraying African women and relating to them; new African-Italian identities; building collective memory and family storytelling; reproducing, suffering, or overcoming the “colony” today.

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1“Lomi and Totò” is the story of the relationship between an Ethiopian woman and an Italian man – who are not alive anymore – as it is seen and told by their five children, all born in Ethiopia and currently based in Europei. This is a “love story” that has various storytellers, different shades, and that can be read from several points of view: personal, sentimental, familiar, social, anthropologicalii, and historicaliii.

2“Lomi and Totò” is a “private history” that leads us into wide and complex periods, providing changes across time and space. In fact, it started during the Italian colonial fascist period, it continued in the Fifties and Sixties in postcolonial East Africa, it ended up in Italy in the Eighties, and it is still alive in the memory of Lomi and Totò’s descendentsiv.

3This story highlights a controversial and unstable degree of fluidity between colonial and postcolonial periods and it also questions the degreeof freedom people might have within a given social frameworkv. Even though some of my choices as a researcher may suggest some links with the issues that came forward within the “postcolonial perspectives”vi, I tried to brake away from the risk of having a colonial/postcolonial binary approachvii.

4As far as the gathering of the material for this short research is concerned, I followed two different methods. To give an account of the lives of Lomi and Totò, their “love story”, and the relation they had with their children, I only used oral sources: narrations provided by their five children – three of them in particularviii – through their uncertain process of remembering. On the other end, the “historical frame” of this article is mostly based on written sourcesix, even if I consistently tried to read them in the light of what my storytellers were telling me plus some additional interviews and conversations that I found illuminating for the numerous (and still open) questions that “Lomi and Totò: An Ethiopian-Italian Colonial or Postcolonial ‘Love Story’?” rises.

5I hope that this article can give some contribution to the current necessity of a deeper examination on the colonial Italian presence in the Horn, by analyzing complex and contradictory aspects that contributed to create a certain mentality that may persist even todayx. Moreover, my choice of focusing on this “love story” also holds a dialogue, in a non-programmatic way, to the works of some scholars who portrayed private and personal events as – up to a certain extent – public ones, thus becoming eloquent signs (traces, results or even causes) of leading rulesxi.

6I am aware that this presentation might be quite incomplete, but this short article, rather than providing answers or portraying exhaustively a particular aspect, is meant to suggest some key knots to be further investigated and that I hope can be of interest from different points of view.

7Questions involved in how the processes of remembering and storytelling work are also very important, even if we won’t have time or space to discuss them extensively. Thus, I would only point out that these processes may be influenced by several aspects that I can suppose but not clearly detect at the moment. Among others, some of those aspects are: personal and affective legacies involved, gender differences among my interlocutorsxii, and definitely a sort of collective memory that takes shape within the family. This last aspect doesn’t apply to any event in particular, but it rather refers to a certain mood, to an image of “Africa”, to notions of love and intimacy, etc. that the five children seem to share with each other, as testified by their propensity for remembering and ritualizing family festivities and anniversaries and their tendency to idealize the relationship between their parents.

1. From where to where?

8From family storytellingxiii, I got to know that Lomi was born in Entotto, north of Addis Ababa, in 1930 and Salvatore, friendly called Totò, was born in Marittima (municipality of Diso) in 1910. Totò lived with his Italian family on the south-eastern side of Italy only until the age of about 9. Still a child, he left his poor natal village and moved around in the countryside of his region in search of temporary manual works. In 1930, during the fascist periodxiv, as a sailor he finally joined the Italian Military Naval Service.

9Unfortunately, family storytelling doesn’t tell much about Lomi growing up in Ethiopia in the Thirties and Forties, thus suggesting that she spoke less and after Totò. I was repeatedly told that she was Oromoxv. Apparently, Lomi used to speak Oromo only in her natal village, while she usually spoke Amharic, the mainstream Ethiopian language, and also spoke some Italian. On the other hand much emphasis is given, especially by his sons, to the “epic” journey that leaded Totò to Ethiopia in the early 1940sxvi.

10In the Thirties, Totò repeatedly sailed from the port of Taranto. Until around 1940, at the very beginning of World War IIxvii, Totò and his ship’s company were taken prisoner by the British Army in the Red Sea, at the proximity of Suez. He was deported to Kenya and kept in a detention campxviii. He spent about one year in the camp until he finally ran away and started a long and hard march on foot. Walking at night in the dark and hiding underground during the day, Totò arrived in Somalia most likely in 1941-1942. From Somalia, Totò finally reached Ethiopia with some Italian companions after 1941xix.

11Who was this young man who arrived in the Horn during the World War II? Totò came from a costal village in Puglia: a very depressed rural area of south-eastern Italyxx. I would like to point out that when Italy occupied Ethiopia in 1936, already had quite a long history as a colonial power in the Hornxxi. The fascist regime then conceived Italian East Africa as a way out for Italian unemployed workers and landless peasants. For thousands of unemployed young Italians of that time, the fascist colonial African “dream” represented the only illusion on which one could escape a condition of poorness and isolation. In the Ethiopian colony, established in 1936, stress was put with populistic accents on land products, food autarchy for the Empirexxii, and projects of agricultural settlement that largely failed for various reasonsxxiii. Even if Italian colonists came from both middle and subaltern classes, it was poverty that encouraged Italians to intermingle with the colonized, in a petty underworld of promiscuity and abuse of Africans that undermined “racial hierarchies” and “Italian prestige”xxiv. In Italian East Africa, a large number of Italian men used to have and live with African partners. The concubinage with African women was called madamato and it did not seem to have any social connotationsxxv.

12Fascist propaganda, in order to build a wide support in Italy and make the African “adventure” appealing to young Italians, pictured East Africa as a land full of possibilitiesxxvi. The expectation of meeting sexually available women has also been an important factor in the configuration of the image of Africa in the minds of young Italian menxxvii. We do not know exactly yet how conscious the role played by the regime was, in terms of portraying African women as exotic beauties and as sexually available objects. Still, in Italy there was a wide and secret circulation of pornographic postcards portraying naked black beauties, that locally had a strong impactxxviii.

13Sexual exploitation of women in the colonies has been already portrayed as a consistent part of the colonialist project and sexual encounters as not mere private affairs, but rather tools and symbols of public colonial powerxxix. However, even in the colonial period when babies were easily left unacknowledged by their Italian fathers, relationships between Italian men and African women could be much more complex than isolated sexual intercourses, involving both emotional and juridical controversial aspects in some rare but significant casesxxx.

2.Meeting and Getting Close

14Totò settled in Addis Ababa sometime in the first half of the 1940s. In the 1920s fascist colonial political strategies didn’t differ much from the ones followed by the previous governments, due to a lack of clear colonial programsxxxi. Yet, harder and more authoritative attitudes were often adopted in the colonies during the fascist periodxxxii, thus reproducing the contradiction between street violence and normalization of law which had characterized fascism in Italyxxxiii.

15During the Thirties, fascism formalized and dictated some resolute rules around the notion of “race”, consequently reconfiguring the notion of citizenship. In 1937 Italy started promulgating “racial laws” on the metropolitan territory and in all the fascist Empire, getting to the point of forbidding Italian men to pass on their last name and the Italian citizenship to their African-Italian childrenxxxiv.

16In 1937 “relations of a conjugal nature” (“relazioni di indole coniugale”) between Italians and Africans were banned, but only the Italian citizen, since considered “morally superior” to the African, could be convicted. In the following years, various additional laws were promulgated in order to discourage the engenderment of “mixed blood” children and to preserve the “racial prestige”. Marriage was also forbidden in November 1938xxxv.

17While marriage was very rare in Italian East Africa, concubinage between Italian men and African women – named madamato only in the Horn – was quite widespread and hardly comparable to any other kind of relationship Italian men may have with women in Italy at that time. Even if banned in 1937 during the fascist period, apparently the madamato did not disappear and colonial authorities often tolerated it in spite of the laws issued in Romexxxvi.

18As we understand from various sources, in theory the African woman was for physical contacts and sexual outlets, while the Italian one for love, feelings, and marriagexxxvii. But it has been already pointed out how Italian men who spent years in the colonies, besides social rules to attend, must have also had emotional needs to fulfil (the need of paternity in particular)xxxviii. A simplified picture of relationships as exclusively based on sex and exploitation does not seem to correspond to what Vitale experienced later on: “I met a lot of beautiful Ethiopian-Italian couples, but it’s true that Lomi and Totò were really special!”xxxix. Even if Vitale may sound naïf in his attempt of hiding a servant/master dynamic that probably still existed within Ethiopian-Italian couples in the Fifties and Sixties, it is true that the situation was more nuancé. The way Italian men related to Ethiopian women was also complicated by additional practical, sexual, and psychological aspectsxl.

19The complexity of the issues involved in the notion of madamato is attested by the fact that in many cases it was difficult to define what a “relation of a conjugal nature” (madamato, precisely) really was and to delimit its boundaries. In court, different practical, emotional, sexual, and intimate “proofs” played a decisive role for a man to be considered guilty or innocent. The madamato, whom nobody knew exactly what it was, was neither marriage nor prostitution, but “something” characterized by two different rangesof elements: “the material one, concerning the sexual union, and the moral one, concerning life sharing or life union”xli. A rule that was based on notions of race, gender, carnal union, emotional intimacy, colonizer, colonized and more – at same time muddling up its layers – was complicated to deal with.

20Several versions of how Lomi and Totò met in Ethiopia in the Forties still exist. Annunziata told me that they met in a paper-mill where they were both workingxlii. Vitale’s version of the facts is quite different: Lomi was the daughter of an important chief of the Entotto region; thanks to the fact that Totò was already introduced in very friendly terms in the local Ethiopian network of relations, he managed to get close to Lomi and gain her family approvalxliii. In 2002, during a family gathering in Terni, I listened to another version (that actually doesn’t contradict the last one), which suggests that at an Italian friend’s place, Totò met a girl – Lomi – who often came by; she was a relative of his friend’s employee: an Ethiopian woman who worked in the housexliv. According to this last version, Lomi fell in love with Totò right away. He fell in love with her as well, but, since he thought she was too young, he waited for her to turn nineteen before getting “married”. This last information would picture a quite unique situation.

3.Marriage and Parentage?

21If Totò arrived in Ethiopia in the early 1940s, it is clear that, even if the Italian central power had left Ethiopia a few years before, a certain mentality towardsAfricans in general and African women in particular must have been still prevalentxlv. As stated above, in the family context, I first got to know that Lomi and Totò got married at the very end of the Forties and then had five children, three boys and two girls, all born between 1956 and 1965: Vitale Kidane Mariam, Giuseppe (friendly called Pippo), Annunziata Johannes, Mosè Josef, and Rina Hiruth Sellasie. Years later, while writing this article, I was then told that “they were not really married” and that “a small black and white picture of daddy’s fiancée left in Italy at the time of his departure circulated at home for years”xlvi.

22Nevertheless, all of their children stress the fact that Lomi and Totò were a very harmonious couple. It’s impossible to tell how much the recollection of this “love story” is idealized by the storytellers due to migration and the loss of their parents. However, the fact that all of them have a similar feeling toward their parents and their relationship suggests that Lomi and Totò actually had a good relationship.

23Rina states that “Totò always considered Lomi as his woman: they had a very intimate and close relationship”xlvii. Annunziata seems to agree: “They loved each other, even if they didn’t show it much in public. My mother was African and in Africa you do not show love in public; moreover people of their generation were not keen to mawkishness and affectations. But they were very close”. So close that Annunziata images that they had a wedding party somehow: “I think they had some sort of unofficial wedding party in those days. They must have had it”xlviii.

24Even if I discovered recently that Lomi and Totò’s status in Ethiopia was closer to concubinage than marriage – thus performing typical colonial man-woman dynamics – I will assume that these statements are based on solid grounds. Then, Lomi and Totò relationship, as portrayed by Rina and Annunziata, must have been, if not unique, most likely rare and consequently “marginal”, at first within the Ethiopian context of Ethiopian-Italian unions and later on in Italy, at a time where intercultural unions were very rarexlix.Thus, Lomi, Totò, and their relationship would all find themselves in a position of “double marginality”. In fact, besides a certain degree of marginality within the context of “mixed” relationships, we envisage a second and wider type of marginality in terms of “history”, connected to the fact that “traditional” historical sources conceal or distort the social reality of subaltern classesl.

25Once in Ethiopia, Totò never contacted his parents and siblings back in Italy. Why didn’t he do so? During an informal conversation in Jerusalem in May 2006, Abebe Zegeye, an Ethiopian sociologist based in South Africa, told me that “it was quite common among Italians who got married to Ethiopian women decades ago to avoid getting in touch with their Italian relatives”li. During a conversation over the phone on July 13th 2006, Giulia Barrera suggested that Totò, besides having a fiancée in Italy, might have suspected that his Italian relatives would have found his African partner rather “inadequate”lii.

26For about seven years after they started living together, Lomi and Totò didn’t have any children. I’ve been told by more than one person that Lomi was concerned about it, thus suggesting that she conceived their relationship as a long term projectliii. Finally in 1956 on Christmas day a baby-boy was born. He has been the first son of five children. Even though Totò didn’t keep any contacts with his parents, the first son was named Vitale after Totò’s father and the first daughter Annunziata after his mother.

27Apparently Totò relatives became aware of the fact that he was still alive in 1956, when he started registering the birth of his children. Annunziata recalls: “There was a certain mister Dino involved… To register us the Italian embassy first had to get in touch with the register office in Diso, where dad had been registered when he was born. That’s how through someone working in the register office – maybe mister Dino – my aunts got to know that dad was still alive”liv.

28As sons and daughters of an Italian unmarried male citizenlv, children born from Lomi and Totò were legally considered Italian citizenslvi. The babies were first baptized according to the Catholic Church rite and then to the one of the Orthodox Church of Ethiopialvii. On the contrary, as we will see below, male circumcision – commonly done to baby-boys in Ethiopia as in most African countries – caused several conflicts within the family, since Totò didn’t want his sons to be circumcised.

29Even if Totò lived for decades in Ethiopia and “went native” up to a certain extent, his children state that he always considered himself a fascist. What did being a fascist meant to him ? This is quite a complex question to answer to, since it involves several motivations, both personal and collective. In the first place we can argue that many Italians growing up in the fascist period, even if they didn’t come from a very fascist family, at that time easily and almost “automatically” considered themselves fascist. Giuliana Fuortes, who never showed any kind of right wing sympathies after World War II, recalls that “as children and teenagers, growing up in Italy in the ventennio we sort of became naturally fascist: due to the school system and to our social life in general, we didn’t even consider the possibility that an alterative to fascism might be appropriate to our generation”lviii. This statementcan help us to understand Totò: fascism got in power in 1922 when he was twelve years old; he left Italy at the very beginning of World War II and never came back for more than thirty years; most likely, he kept unchanged a certain mentality that was widespread in Italy during the years of his youth (emphasizing such concepts as: sense of honour, national pride, love for the motherland, etc.) without having the option to reconsider it within the Italian post-war political and social debate. However, his sons and daughters never considered themselves fascistlix.

30Lomi spoke some Italian, but Totò only knew a few words of Amharic. Lomi and their children have always been Totò interpreters. Where did the children learn Amharic? Vitale and Pippo went to Italian schools in Ethiopia while the others started going to school only in Italy at the beginning of the 1970s. Then, Amharic must have been spoken at home since all their children – even the youngest who left Ethiopia at the age of six – still speak some Amharic. Lomi and the children must have shared a sort of unique communication, allowing the mother to have some special control and intimacy with her children. The fact that Totò, even if he lived and worked in Ethiopia for decades, didn’t need to learn Amharic to work as foreman and to relate to people – including his Ethiopian “wife” – also suggests that he was somehow reproducing a colonial framework and that people around Totò allowed him to do so.

31In the1960s postcolonial Ethiopia, Totò kept working for Italian building contractors on roads, bridges, etc.lx, so that Lomi, Totò, and their children often moved from a town to another.

4.Leaving Home or Going Back?

32In 1970, Totò left Ethiopia for the first and last time and went to Italy with the oldest children: Vitale, Giuseppe, and Annunziata. Lomi didn’t want to leave and she remained in Ethiopia with Mosé and Rina. Annunziata recalls that “there were two aspects involved: mamma didn’t feel like leaving, but she also couldn’t because she wasn’t legally married to dad. They got married by proxy the following year”lxi. Rina adds: “We didn’t dream the West. We had not been raised like that”lxii.

33The reasons why Totò wanted to live are not easy to detect. Rina and Annunziata suggest that he was tired and/or he was getting old and not in good health conditions, while Vitale says: “he did it for us; he wanted his children to have a future. He understood before other Italians who left Ethiopia later on that things were going to get worse and worse. He knew that we were not going to be able to gain our lives in Ethiopia”lxiii. Annunziata remembers: “The Red Cross was involved in our fly to Italy in 1970. We gained the status of “profughi” (“fugitives”) that helped us to find a boarding school. Vitale was the only one exited about going to Italy. We were not happy about leaving. I remember Pippo in the airport: he grabbed the plane stares crying and screaming; he didn’t what to enter the aircraft”lxiv.

34As soon as Totò left, Lomi had Mosé – who at that time was about 8 years old – circumcised. This detail is interesting in terms of Lomi’s “strategies” as a mother and her degree of “power” as a woman in family dynamics. In fact it highlights how important boys’ circumcision was for a Christian Ethiopian mother, but also that circumcision was not relevant enough for her to openly contradict Totò’s will on this topic while he was in Ethiopia. Besides, her uncircumcised sons were somehow “less-Ethiopian” and “more-Italian”: “When Vitale got undressed in front of his Ethiopian friends they made fun of him because he was not circumcised; he felt strange and disturbed about it”, Rina recallslxv.

35Lomi didn’t stay away from the others more then a year though. After they got married by proxy in 1971, she reached Totò and their children in Italy with Mosé and Rina.

36Totò had spent more than thirty years of his life without ever contacting his relatives and friends in Italy. Once back he got in touch with them. After a first shock of his sisters, he actually managed to regain some relevant contacts. Lomi and Totò didn’t settle down in Totò’s natal village though. While their children went to boarding schools that were mostly attended by so called repatriates, in the 1970s, Lomi and Totò finally made their home in the town of Terni after searching for a job throughout Italylxvi.

37Rina remembers that she went with her sister to a boarding school in Rome called “Casa bambina” (Baby-girl House). “The school was attended by children of ‘fugitives’: daughters of Italians who had arrived from ex-somehow-Italian territories: Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea, and former Yugoslavia, Istria maybe…. My brothers went to another boarding school in Piediluco, that had finally accepted to acknowledge what they had done in Ethiopia, at the Italian school”lxvii.

38As children or teenagers, when Vitale, Giuseppe, Annunziata, Mosé, and Rina arrived in Italy at the very beginning of the Seventies, they must have definitely been among the very first African-Italians living in Italy. Rina says that when they were in Ethiopia, they were mostly perceived as Italians or maybe sometimes as “mulattilxviii” (mulattos), but unquestionably never as Ethiopians: “In Ethiopia, we had to deal with the fact that people considered us Italianslxix; then, when we got here – Gio believe me – people were staring at us! There was nobody else… we were the very first Africans”lxx. On the other hand Annunaziata states that when Rina and she were living in the boarding school, they didn’t have many contacts with the world outside so they didn’t feel muchracial pressure. However, Annunziata also states that her brothers, since they were going to a boarding school that was in a small town and they were allowed to go out by themselves in the streets, found it hard sometimes to deal with the fact that people considered them different and “African”. She suggests as additional explanation: “My brothers are darker-skinned than me and my sister”lxxi, thus overlooking on differences connected to gender that may influence how people relate to Africanslxxii.

39Totò’s health conditions got worse and he suddenly died in Marittimain 1983. Lomi outlived Totò only one year and died the following year in Terni. They were both buried in Totò’s natal village. Vitale portraits his mother as a faithful and committed wife by saying: “She died the very day dad died”lxxiii.

40To commemorate Lomi in Ethiopia, in 1985 her two daughters, Rina and Annunziata, went back to their native country for the first and last time. They stayed in the native village of their mother, with her sister. Rina and Annunzia hesitated to go back to Ethiopia, since they were afraid to find everything different and changed and never went back a second time.Vitale, the eldest son, is the only one who visited Ethiopia once in 2000, thirty years after he left and pushed by a business partner. This was the occasion of a big and touching family gathering.Giuseppe and Mosé never visited Ethiopia after they left; “It’s such an intense experience to go down there; it’s too strong!” Rina says to explain the fact that they prefer not to go to Ethiopialxxiv.

41All the five children of Lomi and Totò – especially Rina, the youngest – have a sort of “myth” of Ethiopia (and of Africa in general), the land of their mother and of their childhood. This is also proven by the fact that out of the nine grandchildren of Lomi and Totò (three girls and six boys), eight have an Ethiopian first name; among them two girls out of three were named Lomi. This aspect can be partly explained by the fact that many African-Italians tend to rediscover in Italy their African identitylxxv, but also by the fact that Lomi and Totò children keep an excellent image of their mother, maybe also because they shared an exclusive linguistic relationship with her.

42I am keen to state that, thanks to a good degree of harmony that existed between Lomi and Totò, the majority of their children developed a personal and apparently well-balanced identitylxxvi. Still, a question needs to be asked: do their lives and the lives of many other Ethiopian-Italians reproduce, suffer, or overcome the “colony”?

43Even if it is impossible to answer such a complex question in the scope of this article, I would like to highlight the fact that it suggests the necessity of working on how we “remember” the colony and on how the colony (disgracefully, unexpectedly, or unconsciously) might be still alive in our contemporary lives.

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i  Four of them (Vitale, Giuseppe, Mosé, and Rina) live in Italy, in Rome or Terni, while Annunziata recently moved to Germany.

ii  At the beginning of the 1980s Carlo Ginzburg and Carlo Poni already wrote: “The closer and closer relationship that has been tying history and anthropology is all together the symptom and the tool of this new awareness. […] Only anthropology impregnated with history or, likewise, history impregnated with anthropology, will be able to rethink the thousands-years adventure of Homo sapiens species”. Cf. Ginzburg, C. and Poni, C., 1981, “La micro-histoire”, in Le Débat, 17, 133-134.

iii  Fifteen years ago, Peter Burke reminded us that, while history had been traditionally concerned with politics as it had been national and international rather than local, the new history had come to be concerned with virtually every human activity. The issue of Burke’s notion of cultural relativism won’t be discussed or criticized here as it is not the object of this article, but his following statements seem quite relevant to this context: “The philosophical foundation of the new history is the idea that reality is socially or culturally constituted. The sharing of this idea, or assumption, by many social historians and social anthropologists helps explain the recent convergence between these two disciplines, […]. This relativism also undermines the traditional distinction between what is central in history and what is peripheral”. Cf. Burke, P., 1991, “Overture: the New History”, in Burke, P. (ed.), New Perspectives on Historical Writing, Cambridge, Polity Press, 3-4.

iv  We won’t elaborate on the articulation of the notions of “memory” and “history” and their complex relationship. Pierre Nora wrote: “Memory, history: they are far from being synonymies, we are becoming aware that everything opposes them. Memory is life, always carried by living groups and, as such, constantly evolving. Memory is open to the dialectic between souvenir and amnesia, unaware of its following distortions, vulnerable to all utilizations and manipulations, susceptible of long abeyances and sudden revitalizations. History is the always problematic and incomplete reconstruction of what is no more. Memory is a phenomenon that is constantly present, a tie lived in the everlasting present; history is a representation of the past”. Cf. Nora, P., 1984, “Entre Mémoire et Histoire”, in Les lieux de mémoire I. La République, ed. by Nora P., Paris, Gallimard, XIX-XX.

v  According to Giovanni Levi, “The question is, therefore, how to define the margins – however narrow they may be – of the freedom granted an individual by the interstices and contradictions of the normative systems which govern him”. Cf. Levi, G., 1991, “On Microhistory”, in New Perspectives on Historical Writing in Burke, P. (ed.), op. cit., 94-95.

vi  In the 1990s Bhabha explained that: “Postcolonial criticism bears witness to the unequal and uneven forces of cultural representation involved in the contest for political and social authority within the modern world order. Postcolonial perspectives emerge from the colonial testimony of Third World countries and the discourses of ‘minorities’ within the geopolitical divisions of East and West, North and South”. Cf. Bhabha, H. K., 1994, The Location of Culture, Routledge, London, 171.

vii  Introducing Subaltern Studies, Jacques Pouchepadass argues that many writers imperceptibly “move from the binary opposition elite/subalterns to the opposition Western modernity/native culture. They tend to re-establish as a whole the Precolonial for the sake of criticizing the Colonial, or ([…]) Minority and Marginality in the name of the opposition to the Nation-State which is the product of the independence movements and that in India is the incarnation of an oppressive political modernity that goes back to the ‘Lumières’ ideology”. Cf. Pouchepadass, J., 2000, “Les Subaltern Studies, ou la critique postcoloniale de la modernité”, in L’Homme, 156, 75.

viii  The major storytellers have been Rina, Vitale, and Annunziata; I also met Giuseppe and Mosé a few times, but they provided some information only during a family gathering in Terni in 2002. The story of Lomi and Totò is actually the story of the parents of a very good friend of mine: Rina. Through her I also became close to her sister, Annunziata. Then I repeatedly met their three brothers (Vitale in particular) and their families. Since we are friends the story has been told to me during the years in several informal occasions. Nevertheless, some conversations, as I will indicate below, have been particularly relevant. There is the possibility that I gave more room to Rina and Annunziata and moreover, due to our friendship, addressing some “uncomfortable” questions might have been sometimes hard, thus influencing their answers (for example, as you will see, the controversial issue of their “marriage” took several years to be discussed in a less standardized and more complex way). On the other hand, it’s also true that the affective ties I have with these people and their story pushed me to keep working with them, even though in 2002 a first project in Roma 3 university didn’t work out, due the lack of founding.

ix  As shown in the bibliography, I relied on serious contemporary historians and anthropologists, more than on old archival sources.

x  Referring to today representation of Italian colonialism and to the risk of levelling the complexity of both the colonized and colonizing societies, historian Alessandro Triulzi suggests: “In other words it is a matter of providing the complex interlacement of relations between colonizers and colonized with its thick depth of complexity and with its operative fluidity that the historiography debate in Italy has long denied to it”. Cf. Triulzi, A., 2002, “Premessa”, in Quaderni storici, 109, anno XXXVII, fascicolo 1, 6.

xi  Referring to the changing criteria by which European colonials defined themselves, Ann Laura Stoler states: “Assessments of civility and the cultural distinctions on which racial membership relied were measured less by what people did in public than by how they conducted their private lives – with whom they cohabited, where they lived, what they ate, how they raised their children, what language they chose to speak to servants and family at home”. Cf.  Stoler, A. L., 2002, Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power. Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule, Berkeley, University of California Press, 6.

xii  Without focusing on transcultural essential gender differences, a book edited in 1996 by Leydesdorff, Passerini, and Thomson can be of interest to see how the question of gender difference in memory has been examined in oral history and other disciplines. Leydesdorff, S., Passerini, L., Thomson, P. (eds.), 2006, Gender and Memory, New York, Oxford University Press.

xiii  Annunziata told me that family storytelling was mostly delivered by Totò when friends were coming by. She only lived with her parents in Ethiopia until the age of 6 and later on in Italy, when she was around the age of 20, for two or three years before they dyed: “At that age I didn’t realize how important these stories were. It’s a shame I never really had the chance to have a conversation with my parents as an adult”. Conversation with Annunziata on July 19th, 2006.

xiv  Called the ventennio, the fascist period spans from the Marcia su Roma (March on Rome) in 1922 to 1943, when on July 25th Mussolini was removed from his position.

xv  Referring to Italian “Anti-Amhara, pro-Muslims and pro-Oromo politics”, Le Houérou states that Italian colonial strategies were based on establishing new hierarchies of peoples: by empowering minority groups as Muslims and Oromo Italy meant to upset the local order. See Le Houérou, F., 1994, L’épopée des soldats de Mussolini en Abyssinie (1936-1938). Les « Ensablés », Paris, L’Harmattan, 90.

xvi  Italy occupied Ethiopia from 1936 and 1941, invading the country from Eritrea and Somalia. The Campaign of Ethiopia was one of the noisiest and most clamorous fascist “adventures”; as a consequence in Rome on May 9th 1936 the Empire was officially proclaimed. Haile Selassie I left the country in 1936 and spent his five years of exile mainly in United Kingdom. During World War II, the country became a base and a theatre of military operations. Italian East Africa was surrounded by British territories and the Empire soon collapsed. Haile Selassie I returned to Ethiopia in 1941, after Italy's defeat by United Kingdom. The peace treaty was stipulated in 1947, even if later on Ethiopian rights of restitutions and reparations haven’t been always respected by Italian governments. Haile Selassie I was deposed in September 1974 and Ethiopia became a one-party communist state. See: Del Boca, A., 1976, Gli Italiani in Africa Orientale. La conquista dell’Impero, Roma-Bari, Laterza; Del Boca, A., 1984, Gli Italiani in Africa Orientale. Nostalgia delle colonie, Roma-Bari, Laterza; Labanca, N., 2000 (1994), Storia dell’Italia coloniale, Milano, Fenice; Trento, G., 2005, Una parola di granito. L’obelisco di Axum / Il significato di una riconsegna in “Nigrizia”, anno 123, 5.

xvii  Italy joined II World War next to Germany in June 1940.

xviii  Vitale always stresses the fact that Totò had very good relations with Africans; he also states that: “Totò became friend with his Kenyan guards in the detention camp where he was kept; so sometimes he managed to go to another camp to get cigarettes, extra food, etc.” Conversation with Vitale on July 30th, 2006.

xix  Vitale states that “Totò entered Ethiopia with some Italian friends once Haile Selassie came back to Addis Ababa and declared that Italian individuals were not banned anymore and were allowed to live in the country”. Conversation with Vitale on July 27th, 2006.

xx  The “Questione meridionale”, dealing with the problems of the Italian South, it has always been one of the most relevant issues in Italy. For more information, see the work of Antonio Gramsci and most specifically: Gramsci, A., 2005, La questione meridionale, a cura di Franco De Felice e Valentino Parlato, Roma, Editori Riuniti.

xxi  Italians occupied Ethiopia for five years, but stayed in Eritrea more then fifty years. In 1869, the Rubbattino Shipping Company acquired the port of Assab and in 1882, the Italian government took over Assab. In 1885, Italy occupied Massawa and started heading inland, formally establishing the colony named Eritrea on January 1, 1890. From 1989 to 1960 also Somalia has been alternately and in different forms occupied by Italians. See: Barrera, G., 1996, Dangerous Liaisons: Colonial Concubinage in Eritrea (1890-1941), Evanston, Northwestern University, Program of African Studies (Working Paper Series); Del Boca, A., Gli Italiani in Africa Orientale. Dall’Unità alla marcia su Roma.

xxii  Italian colonial possessions took the name of “Empire” from May 9th, 1936, after the conquest of Ethiopia and until 1941.

xxiii  Italians living in Ethiopia were soldiers, officials, workers and laborers, small traders, clerks, but not peasants; cf. Labanca, N., Storia dell’Italia coloniale, 49. “In Ethiopia the Italian community was created from scratch in a matter of months; in 1940, it totalled 62.000, military personnel excluded”. Cf. Barrera, G., 2003, “Mussolini’s Colonial Race Laws and State-Settlers Relations in AOI (1935-41)”, in Journal of Modern Italian Studies, VIII, 3, 428.

xxiv  ibid,. 431. To study the social background of Italians in the Horn, see also: Del Boca, A., Gli Italiani in Africa Orientale. La conquista dell’Impero; Labanca, N., 2001, Posti al sole. Diari e memorie di vita e di lavoro dall’Africa italiana, Roverto, Museo storico italiano della guerra; Labanca, N., 2002, Oltremare. Storia dell’espansione coloniale italiana, Bologna, il Mulono; Le Houérou, F., op. cit.

xxv  Barrera, G., 1996, op. cit., 4; Iyob, R., 2005, “Madamismo and Beyond: The Construction of Eritrean Women” in Italian Colonialism, in Ben Ghiat, R., Fuller, M. (eds.), Italian Colonialism, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 237.

xxvi  “Controlling the media almost in full, from 1928 on the regime undertook a large campaign in favour of the colonies. It also entailed the daily press and used the radio system that between 1929 and 1934 faced a wide development, thanks to the setting of new and longer broadcasting programs and channels”. Cf. Del Boca, A., Gli Italiani in Africa Orientale. La conquista dell’Impero, 22.

xxvii  “Sifting through the photographic archive of the Istituto Italo-Africano in Rome during a brief visit in 1990, I was struck by the importance given to the colonized Eritrean woman. […] / The commercialization and objectification of women in the colonial and postcolonial eras begs the question of the identity of these women. Until now these images of women have been dismissed as ‘victims’ of Italian colonialism”. Cf. Iyob, R., loc. cit., 234-235. To study the controversial political use of images of young women in Twentieth Century Eritrea see the same article by Ruth Iyob.

xxviii  Sturani, E., 1995, “Le cartoline: alcune avvertenze per l’uso”, in Triulzi, A. (ed.) Fotografia e storia dell’Africa, Atti del convegno Internazionale Napoli-Roma 9-11 settembre 1992, Napoli, I.U.O.

xxix  Stoler, A. L., op. cit.

xxx  The majority of Italians abandoned their children and, most of all, their mothers in Africa, but a certain number of them played in full their role of father, especially those who lived steadily in the colonies. The relationships with their African partners were in most cases marked by colonialistic patterns though. Marriages were extremely rare, usually they were only religious and often officiated when the partner was about to die, as the case of Chidan and Alberto Pollera. See: Barrera, G., 2002, “Patrilinearità, razza e identità: l’educazione degli italo-eritrei durante il colonialismo italiano (1885-1934)”, in Quaderni storici, 109, anno XXXVII, fascicolo 1; Sòrgoni, B., 2001, Etnografia e colonialismo. L’Eritrea e l’Etiopia di Alberto Pollera (1873-1939), Torino, Bollati Boringhieri.

xxxi  Goglia, L., Grassi, F., 1993, Il colonialismo italiano da Adua all’Impero, Roma-Bari, Laterza, 203. However Labanca asks if between fascist colonialism and the previous colonialism of the “Italia liberale” continuities or differences prevailed. Cf. Labanca, N., Storia dell’Italia coloniale, 56.

xxxii  Sòrgoni, B. 1998, Parole e corpi. Antropologia, discorso giuridico e politiche sessuali interrazziali nella colonia Eritrea (1890-1941), Napoli, Liguori, 141.

xxxiii  Giulia Barrera wonders “How was the model colonist envisioned by Mussolini – the hard-working, right-minded, dignified colonist – to be reconciled with the thug who, instigated by party authorities, ravaged Addis Ababa?” Cf. Barrera, G., “Mussolini’s Colonial Race Laws”, 436.

xxxiv  Segregation on race basis was not peculiar to the Italian fascist rule. For instance in three German colonies “mixed” marriage was banned as early as the beginning of the Twentieth Century through administrative decrees that inserted “race” as a category into citizenship. These bans were issued by the colonial and not by the metropolitan power and infringed on German men right to pass on citizenship to their wives and children; for these and other reasons many jurists considered the bans illegal (both Germany and Italy have a jus sanguinis attitude toward citizenship). On the contrary in the post-1935 Italian case the central power and Mussolini himself played a substantial role in the regulation on race basis of relations between colonizers and colonized. See: ibid, 3; Wildenthal, L., 1997, “Race, Gender, and Citizenship in the German Colonial Empire”, in Cooper, F., Stoler, A. L. (eds.) Tensions of Empire. Colonial Cultures in a Bourgeois World, Berkeley, University of California Press.

xxxv  The first Italian race law (R.D. 880/1937) made ‘relations of a conjugal nature’ between a citizen and a colonial subject of Italian East Africa (and madamato in particular) a crime, punishable by up to five years imprisonment. Marriage between Italian and colonial citizens was banned on November 17th, 1938 (R.D. 1728/1938). In 1939 the ‘Penal sanctions for the defence of racial prestige against the natives of Italian Africa’ (L. 1004/1939) provided a comprehensive legal framework for racial segregation and colonial life was fully segregated up to the point that in 1940 a law forbade to Italian fathers to pass on their citizenship to their Africa-Italian children. See: Barrera, G., “Mussolini’s Colonial Race Laws”, 425-443; Le Houérou, F., op. cit., p. 94; Sòrgoni, B., Etnografia e colonialismo, 211.

xxxvi  What Giulia Barrera writes concerning the large number of Italians who had Eritrean concubines may also be applied to the Ethiopian context: “We do not know precisely how many because reliable figures are difficult to find, but colonial sources overwhelmingly suggest that mixed-race unions were very common. As well, the Fascists’ vociferous campaign in the late 1930s against mixed-race unions and miscegenation (métissage) indirectly attests to the magnitude of the size and social impact of the phenomenon. Another piece of indirect evidence is the large number of mixed-race children born at the time. […] Though declared illegal, the madamato certainly did not disappear. It might have changed in nature and/or practice, but we cannot be sure. Much evidence suggests that the number of cases of madamato actually rose after it was banned […] reminding us that the gap between governmental policies and actual behaviours can be considerable”. Cf. Barrera, G., op. cit., 1 and 3.

xxxvii  ibid., 14; Le Houérou, F., op. cit., 100-101.

xxxviii  Barrera, G., “Patrilinearità, razza e identità”.

xxxix  Conversation with Vitale on July 27th, 2006.

xl  I found it difficult to investigate how Ethiopian women related to Italian men, but, as far as Italians were concerned, we should keep in mind that before the 1960s and the major industrialization of the country, Italy was a sexually repressed society and in most contexts, sexual relations outside the marriage were extremely dangerous and disgraceful for women, as proven by the very difficult social and economical position of the so called “ragazze madri” (unmarried young mothers). Moreover, in terms of long-term relationships dynamics, generally speaking, Italian men tend to have a sort of “childish” propensity for emotionally depending on women.

xli  As stated by the first sentence of court (Addis Ababa, September 9th, 1937) reported by Barbara Sòrgoni. To be convicted all or some of the following aspects had to be involved: a steady relationship, non-paid regular sexual intercourses, sharing of food and home, gifts, affectio maritalis, jealousy and exclusivity, and more. See: Sòrgoni, B., Parole e corpi, 234-235.

xlii  Conversation with Annunziata on July 19th, 2006.

xliii  Conversation with Vitale on July 27th, 2006.

xliv  Who was this woman’s role more similar to: a housekeeper or a madama?

xlv  Mentalities and life styles do not change from one day to another. For instance, during a conversation over the phone on July 13th 2006, Guilia Barrera told me that in the 1950s in postcolonial Eritrea, racial urban barriers (such as segregated neighbours, bars, etc.) got stronger in comparison with the colonial period. This phenomenon could be explained by a weakening of collective identities, which might have given rise to newly emphasized spatial segregations.

xlvi  Conversation with Rina on July 16th, 2006.

xlvii  Conversation with Rina on July 16th, 2006.

xlviii  Conversation with Annunziata on July 19th, 2006.

xlix  Rina remembers that they met several Ethiopian-Italians who had not been recognised as children by their Italian fathers. Moreover, once in Italy Lomi and their children didn’t have to deal with the existence of an Italian wife and her children previously left in Italy by the father. Annunziata remembers the case of Mario and Franco, whose father managed to make them move back to Italy with him (most likely by forcing his Italian wife to declare that she was their mother). Once back in his village, this man moved in with his two Ethiopian-Italian sons, while his wife and her children lived somewhere else in the same village; then he almost never went out because he felt too guilty and didn’t want people to look at him. Conversations with Rina and Annunziata in July 2006.

l  Even if the more I study Lomi and Totò “love story”, the less I look at it as an exception, I still consider pertinent what Carlo Ginzburg and Carlo Poni wrote more that twenty years ago: “But the ‘normal exception’ can have another meaning. If sources constantly conceal and/or deform social reality of subaltern classes, a really exceptional document (meaning statistically rare) can reveal mach more than thousand stereotyped ones. […], marginal cases question the old paradigm and at the same time they can be of help to crate a new, richer, and better articulated one. They work then as traces or indicators of a hidden reality which in general cannot be grasped through documentation”. Cf. Ginzburg, C. and Poni, C., loc. cit., 136.

li  Conversation with Abebe Zegeye on May 24th, 2006.

lii  These details can match the very contradictory way in which the Italian men interviewed in Ethiopia by Le Houérou present their relationships with Ethiopian women and the feelings they have. However the general portray provided by Le Houérou doesn’t seem to be exhaustive and doesn’t go deep into relationships dynamics. See: Le Houérou, F., op. cit.

liii  As told me by Annunziata on July 19th 2006, Totò would sometimes make fun of Lomi in friendly terms saying that at first she was unable to have children, but she finally made it. Totò was assuming that the woman, and not the man, was in those days sterile and then “guilty”.

liv  Conversation with Annunziata on July 19th, 2006. Annunziata’s clear explanation perfectly matches with other similar versions already provided by the others.

lv  Totò couldn’t be married in Italy, as proven by the fact that from 1956 on he registered all his children at the Italian Embassy in Ethiopia. At that time the Italian civil code forbade to married Italian men to acknowledge the children had with other women outside the marriage, while married.

lvi  From 1912 on, only children of Italian men could be considered Italian citizens from their birth. On the contrary, only in the 1970s Italian female citizens who had children with non-Italian men have been allowed to pass on Italian citizenship to their children; Italian men could also finally acknowledge children that were born outside their marriage.

lvii  Recently, Rina told me that only she and Vitale received both the Catholic and the Orthodox baptism, while the others were only Catholic. Conversation with Rina on July 28th, 2006.

lviii  Giuliana Fuortes was born in Naples in 1920. Her parents always considered themselves anti-fascist. Since she is my aunt, I had the opportunity to repeatedly ask her various questions in July 2006. She also recalls that she was particularly shocked by the promulgation of racial laws at the end of the Thirties: “That’s when I started to became sceptical about the regime”.

lix  Ubax Cristina Ali Farah, who was raised in the Seventies in Somalia by her Italian mother and her Somali father, told me in April 2002 that “a lot of African-Italians who grew up in East Africa – like I did – ended up showing right wing sympathies, especially those who have an Italian father”.

lx  At the time of the Italian-Ethiopian war more than 50 000 unemployed men went to Italian East Africa, particularly in Eritrea, to work in street constructions and in other public works. Cf. Barrera, G., op. cit., 3.

lxi  Conversation with Annunziata on July 19th, 2006.

lxii  Conversation with Rina on July 29th 2006.

lxiii  Conversation with Vitale on July 27th 2006.

lxiv  Conversation with Annunziata on July 19th, 2006.

lxv  As reported to me by Rina during a conversation in Rome in April 2002.

lxvi  Once in Italy it was very difficult for Totò to get a small pension. Giuseppe told me in 2002 during a family gathering: “He did a lot, but when he came to Italy he didn’t get anything back!”

lxvii  Conversation with Rina on July 29th 2006.

lxviii  Rina and Annunziata use the term “mulatto” without any denigrating shade. On the contrary Giulia Barrera, referring to Italian-Eritreans, asserted: “The terms ‘meticcio’ (métis) or, even worse, ‘mulatto’ are perceived by them as offensive and we know that in the 1920s it was already like that”. Cf. Barrera, G., “Patrilinearità, razza e identità”, 22.

lxix  What Rina states does not contradict the description of the Italian-Eritreans status as extensively presented by Giulia Barrera in ibid.

lxx  Conversation with Rina in April 2002.

lxxi  Conversation with Annunziata on July 19th, 2006.

lxxii  Denis Diandwengila, who moved from Zaire (Democratic Republic of Congo) to Italy in the 1980s, suggests: “In Italy for black African women is easier to be welcome than for us. People are more suspicious of men than of women” (Conversation with Denis in 2002). Could we say that the attitude Dindwengila describes is somehow the consequence of how African women have been portrayed and of how men related to them in the Italian colonial period?

lxxiii  Conversation with Vitale on July 27th, 2006.

lxxiv  Conversation with Rina on July 29th 2006.

lxxv  As reported during our conversation over the telephone by Giulia Barrera on July 13th 2006, and as can be also noticed on a daily base if one is in touch with African-Italians.

lxxvi  All of them, except Rina, got married to “white” Europeans; at the same time they make sure they keep close legacies with Africans and with people of African descend.

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Giovanna Trento, « Lomi And Totò : An Ethiopian-Italian Colonial or Postcolonial “Love Story”? »Conserveries mémorielles [En ligne], #2 | 2007, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2007, consulté le 17 juin 2024. URL :

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Giovanna Trento

s’occupe de la représentation de l’Afrique dans ses différentes articulations, y compris l’art, la littérature, la muséologie et le concept de diaspora. Après ses études universitaires en sciences humaines et histoire, elle a obtenu en 2001 un master en anthropologie des migrations. En train de terminer un doctorat en cotutelle en anthropologie et en études africaines, à l’Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales (Paris) et à l’Istituto Universitario Orientale (Naples). Le titre de sa thèse est : Pasolini et l’Afrique – L’Afrique de Pasolini. Panméridionalisme et représentation de la ville postcoloniale, de la tragédie grecque et du “mythe de l’Afrique Noire”.

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