In the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, just beyond the front door to the home of 88-year-old British historian Richard Pankhurst, hangs a black and white photo of his mother, Sylvia. The famous suffragette is wearing an elaborate Edwardian dress with sleeves to her wrists, beneath a simple heading: "Votes for Women".

On a wall in the sitting room hangs a tapestry that reveals a side to Sylvia Pankhurst - daughter of suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst - that is less well known than her struggle during the early 1900s to get British women the vote. Based on a photo taken by an eight-year-old Richard with a box-shaped Brownie camera on a trip to the English city of Bath in June 1935, the tapestry depicts his mother walking down a gravel path through an expansive garden accompanied by Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, who had been exiled in England after his country became subsumed into Africa Orientale Italiana, Benito Mussolini's African empire.

Before I can ask how his mother came to have such a strong bond with this often overlooked corner of the African continent, Pankhurst interjects, "The most important question is whether you want tea or coffee."

After fresh, pungent Ethiopian coffee and biscuits, Pankhurst explains how his mother had gone to Italy to study art in Venice. There she witnessed the brutality of the fascist regime - and fell in love and moved in with an Italian anarchist, who would become Richard's father. The experience led her to become a vocal pacifist, anti-fascist and anti-colonialist activist in the 1920s and 1930s. When Italy began increasing its military presence in East Africa, she proved to be one of Ethiopia's most vocal supporters, writing to newspapers in defence of the nation's sovereignty.

The eventual invasion, in 1935, and failure of the League of Nations to intercede only spurred her on, as witnessed by her then teenage son.

"I grew up in London surrounded by Ethiopian exiles visiting my mother, who was always busy organising meetings and fundraising for the Ethiopian cause," Pankhurst says. His friends included the children of Hakim Workneh, the Ethiopian ambassador to Britain.

When Sylvia felt the press were losing interest in Ethiopia's plight, distracted by other world events such as the Spanish civil war, she took matters into her own hands and founded a newspaper. The New Times and Ethiopia News was based in Woodford, London, where the family lived. Following their country's liberation, in 1941, Ethiopians - encouraged by the emperor to study in Britain - continued to visit Woodford.

Pankhurst first travelled to Ethiopia in the early 1950s, joining his mother on her second trip and taking a British Overseas Airways Corporation flight to Frankfurt and then onto Athens, where they changed to the newly created Ethiopian Airlines.

"It was my first introduction to the third world and poverty," says Pankhurst, though he saw another, more decorous side of Ethiopia. "Many of the Ethiopians we befriended in London were now in government."

In 1956, Sylvia decided to permanently move to Ethiopia. Her son, who had finished his studies, accompanied her. Sylvia strongly objected to the continuing British administration of Ethiopia's southeastern Ogaden region. She had long been a thorn in the side of the British establishment, so much so that British intelligence services kept an eye on her.

"Busybody Miss Pankhurst," the Foreign Office men called her in their internal correspondence. Pankhurst remembers his mother saying she would continue to lobby until the British left. That happened in 1954 - but Sylvia remained determined to ensure Ethiopia was better represented to a world she felt continued to misunderstand it, culminating in the move. She turned The New Times and Ethiopia News into a popular monthly, the Ethiopia Observer, based in Addis Ababa.

Long past were the days of Sylvia, who had moved to Ethiopia at the age of 73, standing up to police officers during suffragette protests, or making impassioned speeches in London's Trafalgar Square, railing against British policy in India. Pictures of her researching stories for the Ethiopia Observer - for which she travelled around the country, visiting schools, hospitals and development projects - show her patiently listening with a notebook in hand.

"Sylvia devoted each issue to a particular subject that showed how Ethiopia was developing and wasn't the barbarous country some thought," says Rita Pankhurst, Richard's wife, who came to Ethiopia as his girlfriend before the pair married there.

News copy was airmailed to Manchester, then proofs were flown back to Addis Ababa to be checked and returned to Manchester, with any adjustments, for printing. Such labours didn't put Sylvia off. When it was suggested that one trip involving hours in a Land Rover on poorly maintained roads might prove too strenuous for her, Rita recalls Sylvia's reply: "Do you think I have come to the end of my active life?"

In addition to her role as foreign correspondent, she supported Ethiopia's first teaching hospital, the Tsehai, which she helped found, and a charitable group that helped rehabilitate beggars.

Sylvia died of a heart attack in Addis Ababa in 1960, at the age of 78, her health irrevocably impaired by numerous hunger and sleep strikes during her suffragette campaigns of the early 20th century.

"She told me that sleep strikes were most effective for making you so ill you had to be released from prison," says Rita.

Sylvia received a state funeral, at which Haile Selassie named her an honorary Ethiopian, and was buried in front of Addis Ababa's Trinity Cathedral - the only non-Ethiopian among the graves of patriots of the Italian war. Visiting the graveyard, I am struck by the almost poetic incongruity of the simple gravestone etching, which tells of a life that started in Manchester and ended in Addis Ababa.

Beyond her grave today is a city and country that have changed beyond what even her wildest imagination could have foreseen: Addis Ababa is now a rambunctious, cosmopolitan city of nearly five million souls that blends Ethiopia's unique ancient culture with a hungry modernist drive, and which leads one of the world's fastest growing economies. When Sylvia died, however, the nation was an abstraction beyond its borders, and so her son continued what his mother had started: revealing to the world an unknown Ethiopia. This included founding the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, housed in one of Haile Selassie's former palaces and now located in the grounds of Addis Ababa University.

"I am most proud of the books and articles I have written about Ethiopia," Pankhurst says of authoring and co-authoring 20 titles about the country. "When I came here there was no economic history of the country - I created the subject."

He is also proud of having led the campaign for the 2005 return of a giant obelisk taken by the Italians to Rome from the northern Ethiopian city of Axum. Pankhurst hasn't succeeded, however, in restoring to Ethiopia the 349 manuscripts that are currently residing in London's British Library.

In 1868, a British force of 32,000 led by General Robert Napier went to rescue a small group of Britons imprisoned by Ethiopian emperor Tewodros II. The denouement came at the top of Magdala Hill, in Ethiopia's Amhara region, where, with the British victorious in the valleys, Tewodros bit down on a pistol and pulled the trigger. Before his death, Tewodros had the country scoured for the finest manuscripts, which he collected in Magdala, to be housed in a grand church he planned to build. After Tewodros' defeat, a two-day auction of the spoils of war among the victorious troops resulted in 50 elephants bearing hundreds of manuscripts to the African coast and thence to Britain.

"It is not widely known what happened," Pankhurst says. "The soldiers were able to pick the best of the best that Ethiopia had to offer."

"They are so lavish as they were made for kings," says Ilana Tahan, lead curator of Hebrew and Christian Orient studies at the British Library, as she turns pages and explains the skills that went into producing the manuscripts.

For the pieces to return to Ethiopia, new legislation would have to be passed by the British parliament, says Katie Eagleton, head of the Asian and African Collection at the library. At the end of my viewing session, the manuscripts are carefully boxed up and wheeled back to a secure basement - where they will remain.

Rita notes that, much like his mother, Pankhurst cannot tolerate any perceived injustice towards Ethiopia after seemingly endless foreign criticism of the country over the years.

For his part, when it comes to his mother's adopted homeland - the nation to which he has dedicated his life and career - he says simply, "I am interested in the country."