Ethiopia’s sour colonial past in 'The Shadow King'

Friday June 04 2021
‘The Shadow King’ by Maaza Mengiste.

‘The Shadow King’ by Maaza Mengiste. PHOTO | FILE

By Elvis Ondieki

The failed invasion of Ethiopia by Italy in 1935 is focus of novelist Maaza Mengiste’s book, The Shadow King, and she recently used events from that time to address inclusion at a global virtual conference held to discuss pluralism and cohesion.

Maaza’s lecture titled, The Moment of Encounter: History, Disruptions, and Transformations, dwelt on how difficult histories of war and colonisation can help build inclusivity. Maaza used old pictures of Italian soldiers sent to “capture” Ethiopia, after the failed attempt in the 1896 Battle of Adowa, to reconstruct the power dynamics then.

One of the photos showed a rugged man, believed to be Ethiopian or Eritrean, photographed alongside a hat-wearing Italian.

Maaza then gave her interpretation of that photo and many others of indecently exposed women taken by the Italians.

“One of the first steps towards invasion and war involved photographs, a visual narrative to establish a definition of Ethiopians as uncivilised, backward in every sense and lacking in all imaginative capacities.

The photographs sent back to Italy portrayed the stark differences between East Africans and Italians,” she said.


She was main speaker at the 8th Annual Pluralism Lecture, organised by the Global Centre for Pluralism, an independent and charitable organisation founded by the Aga Khan and the government of Canada.

The University of British Colombia co-hosted the event. The Global Centre for Pluralism headquartered in Canada, promotes understanding between people of different backgrounds. Princess Zahra Aga Khan, a board member at the Global Centre for Pluralism, and who introduced Maaza said; “This is the first lecture to feature a speaker from the world of the literary arts.”

Previous speakers at the event include South African freedom fighter Justice Albie Sachs, former Chief Justice of Canada Beverley McLachlin, and current UN Secretary-General António Guterres.

Maaza, an Ethiopian-American used the recorded experiences of Ethiopians who lived through the invasion to write The Shadow King, published in 2019, and was a Booker Prize finalist in 2020. Maaza, also the author of Beneath the Lion’s Gaze (2010), was born in Addis Ababa and lived in Nigeria and Kenya before settling in the US, her current residence.

“Though there are two men here, it is him (the Italian) that the photographer has placed neatly in the middle of the frame,” she said. “I kept staring at the (African) man with hands folded across his chest. Why was he standing like that? Was he defiant? Frightened? In pain? What happened to his shirt? Were those scars on his legs recent? Did the Italian standing next to him cause them?”