Rita Pankhurst (1927- 2019)

Rita Pankhurst, a life time friend of Ethiopia and the wife of the late historian Richard Pankhurst, died on May 30th 2019 at the age of 91. At the time of her death, she was working on Volume 2 of her autobiography 'Ethiopian Reminiscences.' Below is Rita's bio courtesy of the Pankhurst family. (Photo: Tsehai Publishers/Ethiopian Reminiscences video)

Tadias Magazine

Rita Pankhurst’s biography courtesy of her family

Life Time Friend of Ethiopia Rita Pankhurst (1927- 2019)

Rita was born in Romania in 1927. She immigrated to the UK with her parents in 1938. After attending the Perse School for Girls in Cambridge she studied modern languages (French and Russian) at Oxford (LMH) and obtained her MA in 1948. She spent the next year in Paris boarding with Russian-speaking Armenians and
attending the Ecole Nationale des Langues Orientales Vivantes, obtaining a Diploma in Russian. Her first job was in the Press Library of Chatham House. She worked there until 1956 when she joined Richard and Sylvia in Addis Ababa.

Rita Pankhurst was a librarian who lived in Ethiopia for over 60 years and worked at the National Library, the Kennedy Library at Haile Sellassie I University and the library of the Economic Commission for Africa. As wife and companion of Richard Pankhurst, she shared his passion for Ethiopia and worked with him on many of his writing including his books, the publishing of the journal, the Ethiopia Observer, taking part in numerous conferences of Ethiopian studies and supporting the Friends of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies. She also wrote several articles on Ethiopian culture, notably on women in Ethiopian history, and on the history and development of libraries in Ethiopia, starting with a publication on “The Library of Emperor Tewodros II at Maqdala” published in the Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies vol. 36 in 1974.

Rita began work at the National Library of Ethiopia (Womezekir), along with distinguished Ethiopian scholars: such as The World Laureate Maitre Artiste Afewerk Tekle, the Honorable Dr. Kebede Mikael, and Artist Ale Felegeselam, and began correspondence courses in Librarianship. She married Richard in 1957 and had two children: Alula Andrew, who had two children Henok and Heleena and Helen Sylvia who had two children Laura and Alex. Alula was born on 27 September 1960 exactly two years after Sylvia’s death. Rita resumed her courses, interrupted by childbearing, and was awarded the Associateship of the Library Association (ALA) in 1964. (She was awarded an Honorary Fellowship in 1987). Thereafter most of Rita’s working life was spent in academic librarianship. She became University Librarian of Haile Sellassie I University, a post she held for a decade.

When the family returned to London in 1976, she was appointed Head of Library Services of the City of London Polytechnic, and remained in charge for eleven years until she and Richard returned to Ethiopia. During this period she was instrumental in acquiring the library of the Fawcett Society for the Polytechnic. The Fawcett Library later formed the core of the present Women’s Library, now under the stewardship of the LSE.

Rita co-authored a number of publications with Richard over years on various topics including “A Select Annotated Bibliography of Travel Books on Ethiopia” published in 1978 in the African Journal vol. 9, no 3, “Ethiopian Ear-Picks” published in Abbay, no.10 (1979), and Ethiopian Figurines from Mugar Monastery in Shawa” published in African Arts vol. 37, no 3, (2004). She was involved with Richard in initiating the first International Conference of the History of Ethiopian Art in London, and attended successive International Conferences of Ethiopian Studies presenting papers such as “An unpublished Letter of King of Kings Tewodros II to the Egyptian Governor of the Sudan” at the Ninth International Conference in Moscow in 1986.

Rita and Richard returned to Ethiopia in 1987, and Rita undertook library consultancies, editing books and university theses. She became involved in voluntary work and was Chair of the United World Colleges National Committee – Ethiopia; Chair of the Programme Committee of the Society of Friends of the
Institute of Ethiopian Studies and Board member of the Ethiopian Gemini Trust. She was an active member of the Horticultural Society of Ethiopia.

Rita continued to take part in successive conferences of Ethiopian Studies, contributing papers including “International Conferences of Ethiopian Studies I-VI, 1959-1980: author and subject bibliography” published in S. Rubenson (ed.) Proceedings of the Seventh International Conference of Ethiopian Studies, University of Lund, (1982), “The legacy of the Magdala collection” in the Proceedings of the 8th International Conference held in Addis Ababa published in 1988, “Observations on a letter from Emperor Yohannes IV to the Protestant Missionary Martin Flad” presented at the 9 th International Conference of Ethiopia Studies held in Addis Ababa in 1991, and “in quest of Ankobar Church libraries” both the published in the Proceedings of the 12th International Conference held in Michigan in 1994.

A growing interest in Ethiopian art, led her to conceive the idea of convening international conferences on its history, and she contributed to four conferences: the second at which she presented a paper entitled “The Bull and the Bicycle: a new genre of popular memorial art in the Ethiopian Rift Valley,” published in Paul Henze ed. Aspects of Ethiopian art from ancient Axum to the 20th Century; the third conference where she presented “Art in the Service of Diplomacy: A drawing on a letter of King Menilek to Queen Victoria”; the sixth at which she presented an article with the photographer Denis Gerard entitled “The Life and Art of Desso Hordofa, a Contemporary Self-taught Sculptor”; and the seventh where she presented “Art in the Service of Diplomacy in Shäwa in the early eighteen forties: A Treaty and a Letter from King Sahla Sellasé to Queen Victoria” published in Ethiopian Art – A Unique Cultural Heritage and Modern Challenge, edited by Walter Raunig and Prince Asfa-Wossen Asserate, Lublin, 2007. She also contributed a chapter to a book on the renowned artist Gebre Kristos entitled “Gebre Kristos Desta through the eyes of friends and relatives”, in Elizabeth Wolde Giorgis, et al., eds., Gebre Kristos Desta: the Painter-Poet, Addis Ababa (2006). She also wrote a tribute to the eminent historian Tekle Tsadik Mekouria (1913-2000)” published in Aethiopica, vol 4 (2001). Rita also compiled successive bibliographies of the works of her late husband Richard, the most recent entitled “Bibliography of publications, written, edited or annotated by Richard Pankhurst” published in 2017 in the International Journal of Ethiopian Studies vol.11 no.1.

Her publications on Ethiopian women include: Senedu Gabru: A role model for Ethiopian women?” in Tsehai Berhane-Selassie (ed.) Gender Issues in Ethiopia, Addis Ababa: Institute of Ethiopian Studies, (1991). “Women of power in Ethiopian history and legend” Salamta, vol.13 no.1 (1996) “Forgotten women in Ethiopian history” CERTWID [ Centre for Research, Training and Information on Women in Development] Informs, vol. 6, no.2 (2001) and “Taytu’s Foremothers: Queen Eleni, Queen Säblä Wängél and Bati Del Wämbära.” presented at the 16th International Conference of Ethiopian Studies, Trondheim, 2007. About her mother-in-law she wrote “Sylvia Pankhurst: Portrait of a Radical” in Women’s Studies International Forum, vol.11, no.3, (1988).

Over the years Rita wrote a number of academic and popular articles on the history and development of libraries in Ethiopia including on the National Library published in Ethiopia Observer vol .1. no. 2 (1957), and“ Provision of libraries in Post-Revolutionary Ethiopia” in Focus on International and Comparative Librarianship vo.19 no. 2 (1988) and on the women’s library in London: “Collection development and women’s heritage: the case of the Fawcett Library”. Women’s Studies International Forum, vol. 10 no.3 (1987).

She also wrote on cultural topics such as Ethiopian spices and on the coffee ceremony which she presented at the 13th International Conference of Ethiopian Studies in Japan and was also published in Selamta vol. 15, no 3 in 1998, and “Names in Amharic: A Categorisation”, in Baye Yimam et al., Ethiopian Studies as the End of the Second Millennium, Fourteenth International Conference of Ethiopian Studies, Addis Ababa, 2000, vol 1, 2002.

Rita spent her final years with Richard working on a joint autobiography entitled ‘Ethiopian Reminiscences‘ based on the weekly letters she wrote home to her father which was published by Tsehai publishers in 2013.

Ethiopian Reminiscences – Rita and Richard Pankhurst from TSEHAI Films on Vimeo.

Her life and her work along with her husband Richard were celebrated by the Institute of Ethiopian Studies and Society of Friends of Institute of Ethiopian Studies (SOFIES) in 2011 with a Festschrift dedicated to her and her husband Richard Pankhurst in the Journal of Ethiopian Studies (2007).

Rita died on 30 May 2019 at the age of 91. At the time of her death, she was working on Volume 2 of ‘Ethiopian Reminiscences’.

May her soul rest in peace.

Ethiopia: In Memory of Historian Richard Pankhurst

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