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Department of the Languages and Cultures of Africa

Ms Sara Marzagora

BA, MA (University of Milan), MA (SOAS, University of London)


Sara Marzagora
Department of the Languages and Cultures of Africa

Graduate Teaching Assistant

Ms Sara Marzagora
Email address:
Thesis title:
Ethiopian political thought and philosophy of history (1896-1960s): pro-zämänawinnät intellectuals and the construction of alterity
Year of Study:
Internal Supervisors


After a BA and an MA in Humanities (major in Literature, minors in Contemporary History and Philosophy) at the University of Milan, I arrived at SOAS in 2010 to specialize in African Studies. My expertise area is the Horn of Africa, particularly Ethiopia, whose literature, political philosophy and intellectual history I am exploring in my PhD. More broadly, my main disciplinary interests are the history of African philosophy, political thought and cultural production. I wrote articles on the Swahili and Xhosa literary traditions, and I spent the summer of 2012 as a visiting researcher at Rhodes University (South Africa) to pursue a research project on Xhosa izibongo (praise poetry).

In winter 2013 I was selected among the doctoral participants of the ABORNE (African Borderlands Research Network) winter school in St. Louis, Senegal, where I presented a paper on the cultural construction of Ethiopia’s borders in the country’s historiography. In spring 2013 I was affiliated to the Institute of Ethiopian Studies (IES) in Addis Ababa for my PhD fieldwork on Amharic oral literature, during which I collected oral poems from the 1930s and interviewed oral performers. At the IES I also researched newspapers and magazines archives dating from the 1920s to the 1960s. I am currently the guest editor of a special issue of the Journal of African Cultural Studies on Literatures in African Languages.

PhD Research

My research analyses the political thought of selected Ethiopian intellectuals from the 1890s to the 1960s. It traces the way Ethiopian thinkers sought to theorize a uniquely Ethiopian way to modernization and an alternative development model to the one European colonial powers imposed throughout the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa. I am particularly interested in exploring how the concept of the ‘colonial’ (and the absence thereof) played a role in this debate over modernity and in the construction of Ethiopia’s nationalist narrative.

Amharic literature plays a pivotal role in my investigation. Most Ethiopian ideologues were also influential fiction writers, and their literary works are imbued with their political ideas. Literature was often used as a fictional exemplification of wider socio-political arguments over the management of the Ethiopian state. These literary works have never been employed before as historical source to trace the development of Ethiopian political philosophy – yet they prove invaluable to reconstruct the intellectual debates going on in the period under consideration.

PhD Publications

  • Guest editor, Journal of African Cultural Studies, special issue on Literatures in African languages (forthcoming).
Peer-reviewed publications:
  • “Editorial: Literatures in African Languages and the 'post-something sophistries'”. Journal of African Cultural Studies, special issue on Literatures in African Languages (forthcoming).
  • “African-language literatures and the ‘transnational turn’ in Euro-American humanities”. Journal of African Cultural Studies, special issue on Literatures in African Languages (forthcoming).
  • “The evolving social role of Amharic oral poetry in contemporary Ethiopia: azmarinnät in the 21st century”. Northeast African Studies (submitted).
  • “Re-writing history in the literature of the Ethiopian diaspora in Italy”. African Diaspora, special issue on Ethiopia (submitted).  
Other publications:
  • “Focus on Mengistu Lemma”. Africa In Words, 26 September 2013
  • “Poetry Against Apartheid. How a Xhosa art form assisted in the struggle against oppression”. Think Africa Press, 15 March 2011.
  • “Polemical Poets. Metrical innovation in Swahili poetry”. Think Africa Press, 23 February 2011.

PhD Conferences

Conference organization:
  • Panel co-convenor (with Semeneh Ayalew). Urban subjectivities, political activism and cultural landscapes in 1940s to 1970s African cities. Biannual ASAUK conference. University of Sussex, Brighton, 9-11 September 2014.
  • Panel co-convenor (with Wandile Kasibe). Museums, Art Galleries and Cultural Diplomacy in Africa. Biannual ASAUK conference. University of Sussex, Brighton, 9-11 September 2014.
  • Panel co-convenor (with Rebecca Jones). Comparing Afrophone literatures and intellectual traditions. Biannual ASAUK conference. University of Sussex, Brighton, 9-11 September 2014.Panel convenor. Title: Literatures in African Languages and Nationhood. 5th European Conference of African Studies. Lisbon, 27-29 June 2013.
  • Panel convenor. Title: The evolving social role of oral literatures in 21st century African communities. 5th European Conference of African Studies. Lisbon, 27-29 June 2013.
  • Conference co-organizer. Title: Critical Methods Beyond Eurocentrism. First annual postgraduate conference of the Centre for Cultural, Literary and Postcolonial Studies, SOAS 14 June 2013.
Conference presentations:
  • “We proceed following Japan”: The role of the Japanese model in early 20th century Ethiopian political philosophy. International Conference "African Thoughts on (Neo-) Colonial Worlds:
    Steps towards an Intellectual History of Africa", University of Vienna, 6-7 November 2014
  • Ethiopia during Lij Iyasu’s reign (1913-1916): (multi)cultural policies, intellectual production and socio-economic reforms. Workshop "Global Colonial 1914-1918". SOAS, University of London, 18 September 2014.
  • Messay Kebede and the Ethiopian philosophy of history. Asixoxe – let’s talk! The first SOAS conference on African philosophy. SOAS, University of London, 1-2 May 2014.
  • Ethiopian political thought from the 1910s to the 1960s: the reformist movement and its failure. World History Seminar. University of Cambridge, 6 February 2014.
  • Hybridizing modernity: reformism and its failure in Ethiopian political thought from Adwa to the 1960s. Horn of Africa Seminar. University of Oxford, 21 January 2014.Deceit and divination in Amharic and Swahili drama: the prophecy of national liberation in Mengistu Lemma's Anti-colonialist and Ebrahim Hussein's Kinjeketile. African Studies Seminar, University of Bayreuth, 10 December 2013.
  • Ethiopian reformist intellectuals and the attempt to theorize a hybrid modernization (1920s-1960s). International Conference on African Studies. University of Ghana at Legon, 24-26 October 2013.
  • Early 20th century Ethiopian political philosophy: theorizing a non-Western modernity. SOAS African History Seminar, 16 October 2013.
  • Ethiopian history inside-out: modernity and gender at home and in the diaspora. A literary comparison.  Conference “Literatures of the Horn of Africa: beyond the language and the territory”, Université Libre de Bruxelles, 19-20 September 2013.
  • The evolving social role of Amharic oral poetry in contemporary Ethiopia: azmari, fukkära and qärärto in the 21st century. 5th European Conference of African Studies, Lisbon, 27-29 June 2013.
  • Decentred and localised constructions of memory, nationhood and ‘home’ in Africa and its diaspora. Joint paper with Portia Owusu. First annual postgraduate conference of the Centre for Cultural Literary and Postcolonial Studies, SOAS, 14 June 2013.
  • Praise poetry (fukkära and qärärto) and oral poets (azmari) in contemporary Ethiopia. First Pan-African Conference on Visual and Performing Arts, Addis Ababa University, 24-25 May 2013.   
  • Ethiopian political philosophy and the conceptualization of the country’s “internal” and “external” boundaries. ABORNE Winter School, St. Louis (Senegal), 9-14 January 2013.
  • Overlapping regional hegemonies in the literary system of the Horn of Africa. “World literature” conference series, SOAS (London)/University of California (Santa Barbara)/INALCO (Paris)/NYU (Abu Dhabi), 13-15 December 2012.
  • The literature of the Ethiopian diaspora in Italy. Mobilizing the heritage of Amharic literature to renegotiate the historical meaning of the 1936-1941 Italian occupation. 18th International Conference of Ethiopian Studies, Dire Dawa, 29 October-2 November 2012.
  •  Narrating the Ethiopian diaspora in Italy:  the heritage of Amharic literature in a new postcolonial setting. BCLA Graduate Reception, 16 October 2012.
  • Local centres and local peripheries outside the ‘World-System’. A case study from the Horn of Africa. Conference “Marginal Cartographies”, University of Warwick, 28 April 2012.
  • Looking back to the Horn from Rome. The literary activism of Eritrean, Somali and Ethiopian writers in multicultural Italy. Conference “Welcoming strangers”. Royal Holloway University of London, 27 April 2012.
  • Inside-out Abyssinia. Tracing the divergence between internal and external discourses on Ethiopia. SOAS “Worldscapes” Conference, 10 March 2012.
  • Literary hegemonies in the Horn of Africa and Ethiopia’s role in the ‘South-South’ intellectual exchange. SOAS Africa Department Seminar Series, 1 February 2012.
  • Amharic and the rest. Multi-layered power relations in the literatures of the Horn of Africa. BCLA/SOAS Conference “Comparing Centres, Comparing Peripheries”, 19-21 January 2012.


Cultural studies theories and the study of Asia, Africa and the Middle East (Teaching Assistant)


African intellectual history, African philosophy, History of African political thought, Ethiopian history, Ethiopian literature, Literatures in African languages.