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Chi Lives: venturing into Ethiopia's violent past

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Before Mussolini invaded in 1935, Ethiopia had been the only African nation to stave off the feeding frenzy of European colonization. Black outrage over the attack extended all the way to Laurel, Mississippi, where Imani Kali-Nyah's grandfather insisted his 13-year-old son quit his job at an Italian-American-owned furniture store and join a boycott of the business. Years later Kali-Nyah would be terrified by her father's vague, whispered stories of the terrible things the Fascists did during the five-year occupation.

Kali-Nyah is a writer, musician, historian, and cable television producer, and has a day job in the city's Department of Buildings, where she goes by the name Barbara Miller. Rejecting her mother's Southern Baptist church, she was "raised as an Ethiopian" by her father, who believed that the coronation of Haile Selassie I as emperor of Ethiopia was the second coming of Christ.

Her family moved north in the 50s, and Kali-Nyah remained haunted by her father's stories. In the mid-70s she was married and deep into Jimi Hendrix and transcendental meditation. "Then it happened," she says. "I heard this music. The bass--it was like my heart beating. I told my husband, I said, 'Get this album for me.'" Kali-Nyah says that when she deciphered Bob Marley's patois on her copy of Natty Dread she realized he was singing about the same things her father talked about when she was a girl--black redemption, liberation, and the divinity of Haile Selassie.

By 1979 she had fully embraced Rastafarianism and split up with her husband. A pianist, she then married a bass player, and together they formed the reggae band Ekklus. A year later they sold their house and moved to Jamaica. She thought she might find some documentation of Italian atrocities in the bosom of the Rastafarian movement, but after seven years she returned frustrated. Divorced again, she began producing reggae concerts on the south side in 1987.

That same year she wrote an article called "Discerning Ras Tafari" for Riddim, an internationally distributed reggae newspaper. A copy made its way to a federal penitentiary in Oklahoma that housed a number of Rastafarians, and she received a call from the prison chaplain, a sympathetic Jamaican. "He called me to see if I would come down and enlighten prison officials about the way of life of Rastafarians," she says. "They were considered a cultural group rather than a religious group. They were forcing some brothers to cut their locks, putting them in solitary confinement if they would not voluntarily cut their hair." Kali-Nyah addressed the inmates, impressed the warden, and thus was born the Association of Rastafarian Theologians. She took her traveling prison ministry to seven states, corresponded with inmates and chaplains nationwide, and produced two pamphlets about Rastafarianism for distribution throughout the prison system. In one of the tracts she included what little she knew about the Italo-Ethiopian War, which prompted requests for more information and rekindled her curiosity.

At the outset of Mussolini's invasion, the League of Nations imposed cosmetic sanctions against Italy, but when Haile Selassie appeared before the league to ask for help, Italian journalists jeered him. Two weeks later, the league voted to end the sanctions. During the war, the Italian army gassed troops and villages from airplanes, beheaded "rebels," massacred priests, and looted ancient artifacts. Hundreds of thousands were killed. It was only after Italy entered the war in Europe in 1940 that Britain came to Ethiopia's aid and, in 1941, the emperor regained his throne.

Kali-Nyah was puzzled by the relative lack of information on this period. Why weren't Italian officials held accountable for war crimes committed in Africa as the Germans were in Europe? To her the answer is simple racism. "That was the 1930s," she says. "The lives of blacks, like today, were just not as important as whites'."

In 1993 Kali-Nyah and her colleague Abraham Alemu, a native Ethiopian, formed the Ethiopian Holocaust Remembrance Committee. But she didn't feel like she had the goods on Il Duce until she met Richard Pankhurst, a widely published scholar of Ethiopian history. Pankhurst, the son of British suffragist and antifascist activist Sylvia Pankhurst, sent Kali-Nyah a copy of a pamphlet his mother published in 1946: Italy's War Crimes in Ethiopia 1935-1945. Alongside gruesome photographs of piles of bodies, public hangings, and Italian soldiers posing with severed heads are firsthand accounts of massacres, gassings, and lootings at the hands of the Blackshirts.

Pankhurst gave Kali-Nyah permission to reprint the tract, and after a few more years' research she's done just that, supplementing it with anecdotal personal and historical context, speeches by Haile Selassie, and the Covenant of the League of Nations, which was violated when that body refused to come to Ethiopia's aid. Kali-Nyah is an impassioned speaker, and if her own story sometimes ascends into mystical orbits, she just as often touches down with harsh indictments of hypocrisy, racism, and realpolitik in the international human rights racket. She'll lecture alongside her Ethiopian Holocaust Traveling Museum Exhibit on Saturday, June 30, the 65th anniversary of Haile Selassie's speech to the League of Nations. It's at 7 PM at Afriware, 948 Lake in Oak Park. Call 708-524-8398. --Mike Sula

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.

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