Rita Pankhurst, life-long friend of Ethiopia, laid to rest

11 Jun 2019

The academic and activist Rita Pankhurst passed away on 30th May at her home in Addis Ababa, aged 92.

Her funeral was held on 4th June in Kiddist Selassie Menbere Tsebaot Church cemetery, Trinity Cathedral, where Rita’s late husband Richard Pankhurst OBE (1927-2017), and her mother-in-law Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960), are also buried.

In recognition of their life-long support for Ethiopia, Richard, Rita and Sylvia were awarded honorary citizenship of Ethiopia and are buried at the Cathedral site as it is reserved for prominent Ethiopian patriots and important figures who have contributed greatly to Ethiopia.

Rita Eldon came to Ethiopia in 1956 and married historian Richard Pankhurst a year later. Richard was a notable historian who for 70 years helped shape Ethiopian historiography with publications and articles on almost every aspect of Ethiopia’s past.

A formidable scholar and activist in her own right, Rita worked as a librarian in the National Library of Ethiopia from 1956 to 1962 before becoming Director of the University Library of the then Haile Selassie I University, from 1964 to 1975. As librarian she was largely responsible for providing the basis for the education of the students of what was then the country’s only University for many years. Most of those now in government, business and academia owe much to her efforts as a librarian and to her support for numerous voluntary and non-government organizations, including her notable advocacy for women’s rights. She published a number of articles on the role of women in Ethiopia.

Richard and Rita Pankhurst. © V. Irene Cockroft

Richard and Rita were ardent campaigners for justice concerning cultural artefacts taken from Ethiopia. During summer visits to London they both attended demonstrations, most notably outside the Italian embassy where, on several occasions, they called for the return of the Axum obelisk, taken by Mussolini’s troops during the Italian occupation in the 1930s. The obelisk was finally returned to Axum in 2005.

Living in England in 1976, Rita was director of the Library Services of the City of London Polytechnic, until she returned to Ethiopia in 1987. Rita was instrumental in acquiring the Fawcett Library which contained women’s suffrage campaign records. The Fawcett collection served as the nucleus for the internationally renowned Women’s Library, now in the custodianship of the London School of Economics.

After her return to Ethiopia in 1987, Rita edited academic books and university theses and was active in the civic life of Addis Ababa as well as devoting much energy to her advocacy for women’s rights, and to voluntary work, including the United World Colleges–Ethiopia, the Society of Friends of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, the Ethiopian Gemini Trust and other bodies.

Rita leaves daughter Helen, son Alula, and grandchildren.

May Her Soul Rest in Eternal Peace.

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