Ethiopian “Madamas”: Cohabiting with the Fascist Subalterns – Les concubines éthiopiennes à l’époque de la colonisation par l’Italie fasciste

Colonial concubinage – “madamato” – characterized Italian colonialism in Africa from its beginning (1880s). After the pioneering work of A. L. Stoler, some women scholars have worked on the Eritrean case (G. Barrera, B. Sòrgoni, R. Iyob), while I am studying the Ethiopian case. By empathizing in the Horn of Africa a form of temporary marriage (dämòz), colonial sources implicitly justified the abuse of colonial concubinage by Italian men. According to Pollera (La donna in Etiopia, 1922), “madamato” was the “fatality” for those Italians who lived surrounded by “Abyssinian women”; thanks to their “Semitic ancestry” they were supposed to easily mate with Italians (see the “Euro-African species” theorized by anthropologist G. Sergi, 1900). Around 1935, thousands of fascist soldiers poured into the Horn to occupy Ethiopia, where the peasants without land were expected to become less subaltern, thus solving overseas the dichotomy of the Italian Southern Question. In 1937 Rome banned colonial concubinage (opening the road to the 1938 racist legislation against Jews, Africans, homosexuals, etc.). In spite of the relatively short Italian occupation of Ethiopia (5 years) and the banning of “madamato”, concubinage flourished in colonial Ethiopia. Even if the official Ethiopian judgment on Italians was always very bad, in everyday life Ethiopians often appreciated those “love-stories” and the fact that all occupants were eager to “get married” and to “mix blood” with the Ethiopians, in spite of the fascist efforts to ban “mixed” unions! Even if Ethiopian families are usually very religious, right after the occupation war, in years marked by emergency and transition (as historian S. Bekele told me), some families accepted their relative’s Italian partner; not only because Ethiopians knew that women were often forced to please the colonizer, but also because women were expected to benefit from it, by getting some extra-money for their family or by having “access to modernity”. Thus, the role played by Ethiopian “madamas” in Ethiopian society was complex or even contradictory. The “fiancés” or husbands of some of those “madamas” had left their homes to fight against the occupants, while their partners were seen by locals cohabiting with the enemies. Ethiopian colonial concubines were often considered as spies or traitresses, who were favoring the enemy, but at the same time they were also perceived as potential informers of the partisans, infiltrated into the occupants’ homes. After the return of Haile Selassie I in 1941, some former Italian soldiers (the “insabbiati”, interviewed by F. Le Houérou) remained for decades in Ethiopia and developed stable relationships with their Ethiopian partner, although often marked by contradictory feelings.

Giovanna Trento has hold a PhD magna cum laude in Social Anthropology and Ethnology of the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (Center for African Studies), France, and a PhD in African Studies of the University “L’Orientale”, Naples, Italy. She is currently Postdoctoral Research Fellow of the Centre for Humanities Research, University of the Western Cape (South Africa), Program on the Study of the Humanities in Africa, supported by Ford and Mellon Foundations, USA. She current research project is: Madamato and Colonial Concubinage in Ethiopia: Practices and Representations. She is also affiliated to the French Center for Ethiopian Studies of Addis Ababa. She is member of the American Comparative Literature Association (USA) and of the French Research Center CRECI, Paris 3/Sorbonne Nouvelle (France). She is the author of two books. A recent book on the representations of Africa in the work of writer and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini allows the reader to question Italian colonial memory in postcolonial Italy within the frame of contemporary African discourses. Her approach is interdisciplinary (History, Anthropology, Cultural Studies, Postcolonial Studies, Literature, Cinema). She have lectured internationally (France, US, Canada, Italy, Ethiopia, Israel, and South Africa) and have published numerous articles and book chapters (in English, French, and Italian) on topics related to: the representations of Africa in XXth century; Italian colonial memory and imaginary; Italian colonial cinema and fictional literature; colonial concubinage in Ethiopia and in the whole Horn of Africa (practices, memories and representations); colonial racism (legal practices, anthropological discourses and representations); Southern-Italian subalternity; the impact of the “colonial diffused culture” on Italian Futurism (i.e. writer F. T. Marinetti or filmmaker L. Comerio). Her current research interests focus on the problematic interstice between the representations of colonial life and the actual practices that took place in Africa.


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