January 6th, 2009
LOMI AND TOTÒ:
AN ETHIOPIAN-ITALIAN COLONIAL
OR POSTCOLONIAL “LOVE STORY”?
Article by: Dr. GIOVANNA TRENTO
“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 Europe. 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, anthropological, and historical.
“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 descendents.
This story highlights a controversial and unstable degree of fluidity between colonial and postcolonial periods and it also questions the degree of freedom people might have within a given social framework. Even though some of my choices as a researcher may suggest some links with the issues that came forward within the “postcolonial perspectives”, I tried to brake away from the risk of having a colonial/postcolonial binary approach.
As 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 particular – through their uncertain process of remembering. On the other end, the “historical frame” of this article is mostly based on written sources, 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.
I 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 today. 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 rules. I 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.
Questions 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 interlocutors, 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?
From family storytelling, 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 period14, as a sailor he finally joined the Italian Military Naval Service.
Unfortunately, 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 Oromo. 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 1940s.
In the Thirties, Totò repeatedly sailed from the port of Taranto. Until around 1940, at the very beginning of World War II, 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 camp. 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 1941.
Who 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 Italy. 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 Horn. 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 Empire, and projects of agricultural settlement that largely failed for various reasons. 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”. 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 connotations.
Fascist 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 possibilities. 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 men. 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 impact.
Sexual 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 power. 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 cases.
2.Meeting and Getting Close
Totò 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 programs. Yet, harder and more authoritative attitudes were often adopted in the colonies during the fascist period, thus reproducing the contradiction between street violence and normalization of law which had characterized fascism in Italy.
During 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 children.
In 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 1938.
While 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 Rome. As 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 marriage. 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). 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!”. Even if Vitale may sound naïv 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 aspects.
The 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 ranges of elements: “the material one, concerning the sexual union, and the moral one, concerning life sharing or life union”. 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.
Several 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 working. 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 approval. 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 house. 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?
If 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 towards Africans in general and African women in particular must have been still prevalent. 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”.
Nevertheless, 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. Rina states that “Totò always considered Lomi as his woman: they had a very intimate and close relationship”. 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”.
Even 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 rare. 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 classes. Once 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”. 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”.
For 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 project. 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.
Apparently 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”. As sons and daughters of an Italian unmarried male citizen, children born from Lomi and Totò were legally considered Italian citizens. The babies were first baptized according to the Catholic Church rite and then to the one of the Orthodox Church of Ethiopia. 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.
Even 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”. This statement can 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 fascist.
Lomi 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. In the 1960s postcolonial Ethiopia, Totò kept working for Italian building contractors on roads, bridges, etc., so that Lomi, Totò, and their children often moved from a town to another.
4.Leaving Home or Going Back?
In 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”. Rina adds: “We didn’t dream the West. We had not been raised like that”.
The reasons why Totò wanted to leave 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”. 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 want to enter the aircraft”.
As 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 recalls.
Lomi 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. Totò 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 Italy.
Rina 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”. As 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 “mulatti” (mulattos), but unquestionably never as Ethiopians: “In Ethiopia, we had to deal with the fact that people considered us Italians; then, when we got here – Gio believe me – people were staring at us! There was nobody else… we were the very first Africans”. 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 much racial 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”, thus overlooking on differences connected to gender that may influence how people relate to Africans.
Totò’s health conditions got worse and he suddenly died in Marittima in 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”.
To 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 Ethiopia. All 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 identity, 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.
I 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 identity. Still, a question needs to be asked: do their lives and the lives of many other Ethiopian-Italians reproduce, suffer, or overcome the “colony”?
Even 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.
( We want to thank the author for this extraordinary article that opened us another dimension of our past and helped us to see it in its realistic nature. Lissan Team)
I hold a master in Migration Studies and a PhD (2008) both in Anthropology (Ecole del Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris) and in African Studies (L’Orientale, Naples). The title of my PhD thesis is Pasolini et l’Afrique – L’Afrique de Pasolini. Panméridionalisme et représentations de l’Afrique postcoloniale. I work internationally both as independent scholar and journalist. I’m courrently co-curating a conference to be held at the universities of Rome, La Sapienza and Tor Vergata, focusing on Italian Race Laws and their literary repercussions. I lectured in Canada, US, France, Israel, and Italy. I was granted with a research mission in Senegal in 2004. Among my publications in English, French, and Italian, the most recent is: Trento, G., Oublier et récupérer ? L’ « héritage » du colonialisme italien en Afrique de l’est, in Jewsiewicki, B., Auzas, V. (eds.), Traumatisme collectif pour patrimoine : regards sur un mouvement transnational, introduction by Henry Rousso, Institut du patrimoine culturel / Presses de l’Université Laval, Québec 2008.
Dr. Giovanna Trento
Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris (Center for African Studies)