Monday, July 9, 2018

The Search for Elia

Annamaria on Monday


The first step in this quest belongs to Old Africa Magazine.   A few years ago, as a new subscriber delving into back issues, I came across—in Number 12—a photo of a rock wall in Longido, Tanzania.

An inscription chiseled into that stone presented an intriguing mystery: why were those words there and who had taken the trouble to turn that wall into a monument?  On the most basic level: what did the words mean?

Old Africa offered a prize to anyone who could decipher the inscription.  The letters were reproduced on the magazine’s page:


Below were some equally unclear numbers:

26 3 43


But the meaning of the words was plain to anyone who reads Italian.  Or so I thought. “Benvenuta” means “welcome” to a female.  But that did not go with “Elia,” which is a man’s name in Italy.  So the inscription must actually begin “BENVENUTO.”  A close look at the photo confirmed that the O/A was not exactly clear. 

“Nato” means “born” in the masculine.  Paratico is a town in Italy in the Provincia of Brescia.  What looked like a W, in Italian stands for doppio V—double V.  In this context it means “Viva.” Re is Italian for “king.”

So I read “Welcome, Elia, born 7 February 1912 in Paratico, Bresica Long Live Italy Long Live the King.”  

The carved words seemed to be a birth announcement.  I sent my translation to Shel Arensen, Old Africa’s editor.  He published my letter.  That was that.

But questions about baby Elia haunted me.  Who had put his name and date of birth there?  And why?

The first glimmer of the real truth came in a comment on a blog I wrote here on MIE on the subject.   A reader named Lorenzo Colombo suggested that in addition to meaning “welcome,” Benvenuto is a relatively common Italian surname.  He suggested that the baby born in 1912 was named Elia Benvenuto.  And further posited that the numbers at the bottom indicated the date the inscription was made: 26 March 1943, which would coincide with a time when Italian soldiers were being held prisoner in Tanzania.

With these possible interpretations, an absolute compulsion gripped me.  I had to get to the bottom of this.

On-line post: Mysterious in inscription on a rock in Tanzania
An American writer asks Brescians for help.

After of few vain attempts to find the truth through the keepers of birth records in Paratico, a path to the answer finally dawned on me.  This mystery might very well intrigue a journalist in Brescia, who might publish my question, which could lead to someone still living in the area who knew the person I had begun to think of as my Elia.  So, while in Italy this past June, I searched the net for such a publication and wrote a query to  Twenty minutes later I had an answer from Andrea Tortelli, a journalist in Brescia, who immediately became as fascinated by the story as I.  He told me that Benvenuti (with an I) was a common surname in Paratico. He then took the baton, and we were off on a swift race to the finish line.

Solved: the mystery of the rock in Tanzania: here is
the story of Elia, the Stonecutter-Soldier

Andrea's piece in the online newspaper found and engaged an Internet chat group called Sei di Paratico se… (You are from Paratico if…). Within hours, we knew that Elia’s two daughters still lived in Paratico.  Andrea interviewed one of them.  Within a couple of days, we had a photo of the man himself—which Elia’s son-in-law scanned and sent to us.  Here he is in a photo taken in Africa, while Elia served in the King's Army Corps, Colonial Somali Troops:

Elia Benvenuti, born in Paratico, Brescia, 2 July 1912

Elia Benvenuti was born in Paratico, in the province of Brescia, on 2 July 1912.  (His inscription shows his birth date in the English, rather than the Italian format, likely because he knew it would be read by English people.)

At age twenty, he asked his mother to sign permission for him to join the military a year before he reached legal maturity.  He was posted to Africa in 1932 and served in Eretria, Somalia, and Kenya.  At some point after the outbreak of World War Two, he was taken prisoner by the British and sent to Tanzania.  Undoubtedly, he made the inscription while there.

Sometime afterwards, he was transported to Great Britain and eventually repatriated. Back in Italy, he became a stonecutter in the local sandstone quarry—as were most of the men in the area in the early and mid-Twentieth Century.   He married and had two daughters.  He died prematurely in 1963 of a heart attack, which his family believe was brought on by the ravages of war, his work, and many, too many cigarettes.

The story as it appeared in the local print newspaper

His daughter Ilde describes him as a special person—sociable, outgoing, and adventurous.  “Paratico was too small for him,” she said.  “He loved Africa and always hoped to return.  But he had bad memories of his treatment by the English.”  He often told his family amusing, and sometimes disturbing war stories. Once, he was trying to make a roadside repair of his motorcycle.  He had disassembled the nonfunctioning gearbox when an ostrich came along and ate some of the pieces.   There was a time when he was lost in the desert for three days.  Toward the end of that trial, distressed and fearful that he would not be rescued, he kept his pistol loaded and ready in case he needed to shoot himself rather than suffer a horrible death.

Fortunately, his fellow soldiers found him in time.  And so today Benvenuti's story lives through his daughters and grandchildren. 

He never told his family about the inscription he left behind, but his daughters say that it was in his character to do such a thing.  That he wrote “VV RE” was also in keeping with his sentiments—expressing loyalty to the King, not to fascism.  His daughters were stupefied and completely delighted to learn for the first time that their father had left his mark on a wall in such an exotic place.

“Who would have thought?” Ilde Benevenuti said.  “On first seeing the inscription I thought my father was a bit meglomanic to carve his name in stone.  I don’t know why he did it, but he truly loved Africa and must have wanted to leave his imprint in the heart of the continent.  Certainly my father was a romantic character.  He would be charmed by the all the attention he is getting now, with the news of the rock in Tanzania.”


I am deeply grateful to  Andrea Tortelli of Brescia and Nicoletta Pini of Florence for their essential part in this quest.

For me, solving the mystery takes nothing away from the romance of that lone Italian prisoner who chiseled his existence into stone and left his own monument for us to wonder over and contemplate seventy-five years after he carved it and more than a century after his birth.

VV Elia!

Up coming events for Annamaria: 

July 10: 7PM
The Chappaqua Library
195 S Greeley Ave
Chappaqua, NY 105146

July 19: 6:30PM
171 Main St.
Manasquan, NJ 08736

July 21st at 2:30PM 
Desmond-Fish Library 
Route 9D at Route 403
Garrison, New York 10524 


  1. What a great story, Annamaria. And we can see the mind of the historical novelist at work...

    1. Michael, I think you are right. The main trait of historical novelists might be that we are compulsive looker-uppers. This question gripped me and would not let go until I found the answer.

    2. Shouldn't that be "lookers-upper"??? :-)

    3. Maybe, EvKa, but then maybe it should be lookers-up. Er, I am not sure that works any better. I am an inveterate maker-up of words. Oops, here we go again.

    4. "Lookers-up" sounds like something a person might get arrested for...

    5. I look up to you as a person who makes me laugh out loud. (In addition, of course, to our relative heights.)

  2. I think the appropriate accolade is VV Annamaria!

    1. Thank you, my brother. And VV MIE! Which attracted comments that intensified my curiosity. It has been enormous fun for me and also for the Italians involved. There was not a dime earned by all the effort. The payoff was in joy—something magical. The opposite of money: the more you spread it around the more you have.

    2. Thank you, EvKa. It amazes me to get such a response for doing something so enjoyable.

  3. Replies
    1. Thank YOU, Lorenzo. It was those links to the Querinale that really fired me up to find Elia. As I said above to Jeff, it brought a lot of joy. I wish you could have heard Ilde Benevenuti’s voice when she and I spoke. Her father died when she was quite young. We brought him back to her. What a privilege.

  4. I agree: W Annamaria! It's the passion that drives you toward your characters and your stories that is contagious and allowed me to be part of a very exciting discovery!

    1. Nicoletta, senza di te la mia vita non sarebbe così interessante! E bella! I would never have been able to work out any of this without the Italian you taught me. And the Italian life I now get to lead.

  5. What a wonderful article! And I love that you're such a dogged sleuth in the real world as well as on the page!!