Sports & Modernity in Late Imperial Ethiopia
Thank you so much for contributing to the African Griot! Can you please begin by providing a brief overview of Sports & Modernity in Late Imperial Ethiopia?
Broadly speaking, the book discusses the role of modern sports in projects that aimed to transform Ethiopia into a modern empire during the 20th century; a time that is called Zemenawīnet (usually translated as Ethiopian Modernity). In the introduction, I contextualise the topic within current debates about Zemenawīnet as well as within the broadening research about sports and leisure in Africa and the Middle East. In five chapters, I approach the spread of modern sports in Ethiopia through specific lenses: Urbanization and infrastructural development, physical education, volunteer organizations such as the Young Men’s Christian Association and the Boy Scouts, and propaganda. It is more a social history book. Taking sports as a prism rather than a sports history focussing on a specific kind of sports or athletic success stories.
How was sport used as a political propaganda tool?
On the one hand, sports, especially modern sports, and its display in various venues and media, was a way to show that Ethiopia and its enlightened, divine ruler belonged to a global modernity. Just think of the mass gymnastic displays on the occasion of official visits or Ethiopia’s early attempt to participate in the 1928 Summer Olympics. On the other hand, sports and its propagandistic use is a mechanism to produce consent with political agendas. I specifically discuss such attempts in relation to sports news in Amharic newspapers of the Fascist occupation (1935-41).
What are some of the sports you look at?
Out of the many sports that I discuss in specific contexts, I look at cycling during the occupational period, wrestling (both free style and traditional), bodybuilding which became very important during the 1960s and 1970s, and motor racing. The Ethiopian Highland Rally, which was a fixed event in the international racing calendar, became a real test for man and machine.
How did you choose this topic? Has Eastern Africa always been of interest to you?
Having worked over 20 years on Tanzania, Kenya and the Western Indian Ocean, Ethiopia has become my second love so to say. Being a long-distance runner myself, I started with the famous racing athletes. However, the more I looked into the history of sports in Ethiopia, I saw the great wealth of athletic practices with boxing and table tennis being much more important than running.
Can you tell us about your cover? What does the image depict?
The image depicts a physical education class at Haile Selassie I Secondary School in Kotebe. The physical education teacher was Onni Niskanen. Most people know him as the coach of the legendary marathon champion Abebe Bikila. I chose this image as the cover, because it represents my shift in focus from the Ethiopian runners’ story to the broader history about the role of sports in the formation of modern subjectivities.
What is one thing you really want your readers to take away from your work?
That the quest for the physically fit personality, including the emperor, was an important part of Ethiopian modernity.
What do you have planned next?
With regard to Ethiopia, I would like to know more about the Red Cross Society during the 1940s-1970s. To what extent it was a volunteer organization? How did it interact with the Boy Scouts, Girl Guides or YMCA/YWCA? With regard to relations between East Africa and South Asia, I would like to know more about the thousands of East African soldiers deployed to Ceylon (today’s Sri Lanka) during World War II. In an earlier book, I described the Swahili propaganda material directed at them. Now, I would like to see the places where they had spent years of their lives. Perhaps, people still remember these men.
KATRIN BROMBER is a senior researcher and research unit leader at Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin and Associate Professor of African Studies at the University of Vienna. Her publications include Sport across Asia: Politics, Cultures and Identities, edited with Birgit Krawietz and Joseph Maguire (2013), and articles in The International Journal of the History of Sports, Annales d’Ethiopie, Cadernos de Estudos Africanos, and Northeast African Studies.