Senior Voices: Learning Italian
By Henri de Wet
Sep 6, 2014
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Editor's note: This is the first installment of a series called Senior Voices curated by retired educator and author Jerry Lincecum.

During World War II, the British Armed Forces captured the territories of Italian Somaliland (now called Somalia), Abyssinia (now called Ethiopia), and Eritrea from Italy. These “Horn of Africa” territories were part of the Italian colonial system on which Mussolini did not put any emphasis. He conscripted all Italian men in these territories into what became a badly trained, “rag-tag” force with hardly any serious weapons.

In 1941, British forces easily over-ran the three territories, and the hordes of prisoners of war they took embarrassed them. Churchill did not want to occupy what he saw as a desolate and useless part of the globe. He also did not want a string of Italian POW camps in Britain. The answer was easy. He shipped these thousands of Italians off to British Empire countries around the world.

In my African home country, Rhodesia, we received our share of Italian POWs. Our authorities quickly built a large camp about fifty miles from our farm at a small country town. They housed these hapless prisoners in a specially designed minimum-security barbed wire facility. The logic was that the inmates would hardly try to escape since they were thousands of miles from Italy or the nearest Italian war front.

That logic proved to be correct. Over the next four years, a few inmates tried but failed miserably to get very far in a country where they could not speak any of the many languages. They soon returned to camp after a foolish short tour of the countryside. After about a year of holding prisoners behind barbed wire, our authorities allowed a few good conduct prisoners out to live and work on surrounding farms.

The practice worked so well it soon expanded to adjacent areas. That is how my Mom and Dad became surrogate wardens to a pair of POWs. The two men were Nino, a huge, muscular and friendly young man, and Nicola, a short, stocky but sometimes cheerless older man.

Nino was a married man and the father of a small boy of three when he became a POW. He had no idea what had happened to his family since the British did not incarcerate families. Nicola did not have that problem. His wife had walked out on him and returned to Italy shortly before the war started.

My dad, the commanding officer of our local civil defense group, acted like the typically correct custodial officer. He carefully laid out a whole set of ground rules which I doubt the two Italians understood. Communicating with them was a challenge since they knew very little English and we knew absolutely no Italian.

My mom, on the other hand, acted the more compassionate type prison guard. She decided at the outset that these two people, so far from their homes and families, would receive her respect. Her reasoning was she would treat them well with the hope that her son, my oldest brother Jack, a fighter pilot in the Royal Air Force, would also receive similar treatment if he ever fell into enemy hands.

She put them in our spare bedroom and decreed that they eat at table with the family. Both Nino and Nicola warmed to her approach and immediately called her “Mama” whenever they spoke with her.

It did not take long before a mixture of English, Italian and African words, together with many hand signals made it easy to converse with our two Italians. The hand signals, of course, are a big ingredient of any Italian communication but the practice rubbed off on my Mom. She learned it so well that for years afterwards we always teased her about it. Her very demonstrative method of talking more with her hands than with her mouth persisted until her death in 1976. Watching her talk with someone on the telephone became one of the joys of life in our house.

Henri de Wet, who now lives in Whitewright, was born, raised and schooled in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). For more of his writing, visit his website: