Published in March 1984 in "Barnen & Vi", the Swedish Save the Children's magazine.

The Swede Who Became an Ethiopian

By Pia Bergman

At 73 years of age, Onni Niskanen still worked for Save The Children. He had started putting together notes from his eventful life, but the memoires were never written - Onni did not have the time. He died in March. Pia Bergman, currently living in Ethiopia and close friend with Onni, writes about the Swede who became an Ethiopian.

To many of the Swedes who arrived in Ethiopia during the 1940s, it was the first time they worked abroad or maybe even travelled abroad. World War II, an efficient barrier for going out into the world, was behind them, and now the post war hard times with bad economy and rationing awaited them.

The only contact they had had, the only thing they knew about Ethiopia, was the invasion of the country by Mussolini in 1935. They knew that Sweden started a countrywide fund-raising campaign to pay for Red Cross ambulances - which later were bombed by the Italian fighter planes. Further knowledge was only available in Nordisk Familjebok (a Swedish encyclopaedia).

After the war, Emperor Haile Selassie had turned to neutral Sweden for help to rebuild his country. He did not want to be too dependant on a great power, and he had good experiences of the Swedish missionaries, who had arrived in Ethiopia already hundreds of years ago.

There was mutual interest between Ethiopia and Sweden, for the Ethio-Swedish co-operation to grow even stronger. Sweden was not involved in assisting developing countries during the 1940s, however the Ethiopian Government was granted a loan by the Swedish Government, a credit of six million Swedish Kronor (today's rate equals £513K), to be able to pay Swedish experts going to Ethiopia.

700 Swedes to Ethiopia

Many Swedes left for Ethiopia with their families, in total 600 - 700. They were well educated and hired by the Ethiopian Government to work as teachers, build up the Ethiopian Air Force, train people in telecommunication and policing, and to work within the medical services.

Onni Niskanen was working as a sports coach at Svea Livgarde (The Svea Life Guard Infantry Regiment) in Stockholm 1946, when he one day received a phone call from Viking Tamm, one of the few Swedes who worked in Ethiopia even before the Italian invasion. Tamm was now actively recruiting Swedes for the reconstruction work. He asked if Onni was willing to accept a job as sports coach to the Imperial Life Guard. The contract was for two years. Onni discussed this with his wife and they decided to take the chance. It was after all an adventure. They sold their little flat and started packing.

From "Letters home"

"…we had to bring everything, cast iron stove, matches, sanitary towels for two years … it turned into 11 cubic metres, which was sent by boat from Stockholm to Djibouti in French Somaliland. In 1946, there were not any airline companies, who flew to Addis Abeba. Carl-Gustav von Rosen (a Swedish pioneer aviator who had flown food and supplies for the Red Cross during the Italian invasion and now worked as instructor to the Ethiopian Air Force) was allocated the assignment to transport all newly recruited Swedes down to Addis Abeba in a Flying Fortress (Boeing B-17). It was an American military transporter, incredibly big and without pressure cabin. The trip took three days …

During that time, Addis was rather a small town, surrounded by forest-covered mountains, where hyenas and jackals hid during the day, only to come down into town at night to look for food. The supply of goods was very limited. We were completely reliant on the French-Ethiopian railroad between Addis and Djibouti to get something from outside Addis. When we arrived, there was a strike on the railway for six months. Our 11 cubic metres shipment was stuck in Djibouti. Everything ran out. The tyres were completely worn out, for example. My personal record going to work, which was at the other end of town, was 11 punctures.

Except for the administrator, there were only Swedish officers at the Imperial Life Guard's Cadet School. We had 121 pupils, selected from the best from the few secondary grammar schools in the country. They did not apply to get in. They had been selected, by the Emperor, for being gifted. They were fine boys. To a sports coach, they were incredibly good material to work with. They did not have any previous knowledge of sports. Well, they had probably played football, but they played barefoot. I could feel the pain in my own feet, when I saw them kick the ball so that their toes crunched.

I had to start teaching most sports from scratch, but the cadets quickly built up a good level of stamina. That showed when we arranged marathon races through Addis. Anyone could participate, and there were military personnel and civilians and police officers - but our Cadet school always won. The others did not have any instructors like the Life-Guard cadets"…

Close friend of the Emperor

Onni had a burning interest in sports. He had himself been an active sportsman, with lots of competitions in the past. When he started arranging gymnastic performances and sports competitions, he also built up a close relationship with the Imperial family. The Emperor, who kept track of what all foreigners were doing, suddenly found himself opening sports events and other functions arranged by - Onni Niskanen.

… "I kept myself in shape with a folk dancing group that some Swedes had formed. We practiced hard and had performances. After a short while, we started having outdoor parties where we danced, played darts, had target shooting, tombola and a football match between the Swedish and the English officers. The Emperor had donated a riding horse, including tack, as first prize in the tombola. We had many visitors and managed to raise 7.000 Ethiopian Dollars during a weekend. We donated the money to the Red Cross. The following year, we repeated the event, and raised 17.000 Ethiopian Dollars, which we also donated to the Red Cross" …

Part-time Red Cross employee

This organising skill and talent to raise money did not go by unnoticed. When Onni's two-year contract with the Imperial Life Guard ended, he was offered employment at the Department of Education to build up a national school sports program for the whole of Ethiopia. That was on condition that he promised to continue arranging the time-consuming fundraising parties for the Red Cross. So, he accepted the post as General Secretary for the Red Cross, on a part-time basis.

School sports were news to Ethiopia. Onni had to travel around the whole country and train gym teachers and create an interest in sports. One of his old pupils recalls: …" when Onni came to our school with his broken English, we primarily thought that he did not know a lot. Then he started showing us how to do a handstand, how to work to get good at sports and we respected him. He spent all his time with us. In a short time, he had built up our school from absolute zero level in sports, to top class. We competed against the other schools and we won!"

Onni's own shower of medals

Onni remembers that …"at home in Sweden, I had many medals lying around. Mother could not polish them all the time - so I brought them back with me the next time I visited Sweden. There were approximately 400 medals and 100 cups, which I presented at sports events here. They did not have any medals of their own in the beginning. I would imagine my old medals are spread all over Ethiopia today"…

To run a Red Cross organisation in Ethiopia was a challenge in itself. Ethiopia was a poor country. To get membership fees as a base to finance the activities was out of the question. Also, the Minister of Finance held on to the purse as hard as he could. The Government finances were stretched enough as it was, thank you! The only solution was to come up with new events to raise money. If you wanted something, you had to give something in return.

What had started out as Swedish athletics fun fairs grew to become annual Red Cross Festivals, where as many foreign Embassies as possible were persuaded to participate and help out. The administration was colossal, but there was also a substantial financial gain to be harvested and invested in the Red Cross. The Festivals became the start of the Red Cross ambulance service, the blood bank and not least, the nurses' training school, a school that was actually the first of its kind in the country.

Money was always needed. Onni found himself, during a six months period, working as Circus Manager, when the Red Cross, on the Emperor's instructions, borrowed the Great Royal Circus of India, who was currently visiting Ethiopia. They toured with the circus all over the country in order to raise funds, that is, when not handling national emergencies such as epidemics, floods, draughts and wars.

…" the Somalis had attacked Ethiopia and we came to Harrar with cars and ambulances full of medicines and clothes. Once there, we were refused to travel by the Ethiopian military and told to join in the convoy to the border. If you are going in a military convoy, you can count on being attacked, I said, but that did not change their minds. Convoy it was. Naturally, we were attacked and really badly as well. The nurses were terrified. I dug them down into the ditches and covered them with sugar bags as protection. They were just as efficient as sand bags. The military had to send for tanks from Harrar to get the convoy out of the attack. The Red Cross employees did well under the sugar bags, but my nurses got their first real test."

By that time, Onni had given up the thought of returning to his "normal" life in Sweden. He simply did not have time. He had too many responsibilities in and to Ethiopia.


Sports were always on his mind. In 1948, Onni had been selected to represent Ethiopia as a member of the Olympic Committee in London, while he was there as an observer. In 1952, he went to the Olympics in Helsinki, Finland as an Ethiopian representative. Then he had already started, on his own initiative, to coach Ethiopian athletes to take part in the next Olympic Games.

He was interrupted by his Swedish compulsory military refresher programme, which prevented him from going to the Olympics in Melbourne 1956, but to the Olympics in Rome 1960, he brought Abebe Bikila, the marathon runner. Onni had not been able to find shoes to fit Abebe Bikila's feet. Abebe got blisters on top of his feet and could not run in shoes. Onni and Abebe agreed that Abebe should run barefoot. He did - and won Africa's first gold medal in the Olympic Games.

The Rome papers wrote, "It took Mussolini's battalions to conquer Ethiopia, but only one of Haile Selassie's soldiers to conquer Rome". It was a victory of many dimensions. Onni had never doubted that Abebe should win. He transferred that confidence to other Ethiopians, who continued winning marathons all over the world, for many years.

Sweden - Ethiopia

There was an affinity between Swedes and Ethiopians that is hard to explain. Swedes, who worked in Ethiopia for some time always long to go back. "The nature, the climate, the people"…, the answers get somewhat vague when you ask why. And the Ethiopians are proud. The confidence, the identity as an old nation is palpable. Self-government and independence was there long before the Italian colonial conquering expeditions were beaten off, a hundred years ago. Ethiopia could never be colonised.

As a foreigner you are a guest - but on their terms. Onni accepted the Ethiopian terms - but was not regarded a guest. He and Carl-Gustaf von Rosen, another legend, belong to the Ethiopian nation. Everybody knows who they are and is proud of them.

There are many people who label Onni "a scout". He wished everyone well, worked hard, never thought about himself - a friendly, non-political kind of person. Others see the adventurous Onni - who took his pilot's certificate and flew back and forth in East Africa, who attended big game hunts, who drove rallies for many years, even tried running a farm - but failed bitterly.

Laughter and love

Onni had fun. Life in Ethiopia presented challenges he would never have in Sweden. There is a lot of laughter in his stories - and a lot of love for Ethiopia.

There was a general joy and love for what they were doing, among the first Swedish generation of "development workers". They still sigh over it nostalgically. It was a pioneering period. Onni was there then and he stayed on. He worked in difficult, unusual areas. For twelve years, he was the Manager for ALERT, the hospital for lepers, and tried to break up all the taboos around leprosy. It went rather well. At the same time, he used all his international contacts to raise funds for the Save the Children's child and maternity care. That went well, too.

He had still not retired at 73 years of age. He worked part-time as counsellor to the Save the Children Foundation in Ethiopia. He had little by little started putting together his memory notes about his adventurous life. Faith gave him the opportunity to express all his talents, his love for work and his originality, his love for sports and for people. But there never were any memoirs written down. He probably never found the time.