SHASHAMANE, Ethiopia – The promised land of the world’s Rastafarians can be found along a narrow highway in Ethiopia’s ancient Rift Valley, a landscape of scattered trees with boles the size of houses and fields of grain that shimmer in the sunlight like a bronze haze.
The setting is beautiful — Edenic even. But as with the original Eden, it isn’t without its pitfalls.
“We’ve been waiting a long, long time to become Ethiopians,” said Desmond Martin, a Jamaican pioneer who settled here more than 30 years ago on land donated by Emperor Haile Selassie. “We love Ethiopia. Ethiopia is our holy land. But we’re still not considered to be from this place.”
Best known for their reggae music, dreadlocked hair, colorful clothes and copious marijuana smoking, the followers of the Rastafarian faith celebrate one of their major holidays Monday, the birthday of Selassie, the former Ethiopian ruler whom Rastas worship as a black messiah.
But in Shashamane, a roadside town in Ethiopia that the Rastafarians consider their Jerusalem, the festivities will likely be bittersweet.
Almost half a century after the first 12 Caribbean settlers migrated here, advancing a Rastafarian dream that the world’s African diaspora must return to the spiritual motherland, few if any Rastas have been granted citizenship.
Worse still, the pilgrims lost more than 95 percent of their imperial land grant during the 1970s, when a socialist Ethiopian regime confiscated all but 30 acres of their holdings. Throw in assorted famines, revolutions, official harassment, deep local skepticism about the divinity of Selassie and persistent suspicion of their religious “herb” smoking, and it is surprising that any still hang on.
Yet about 200 to 300 stubborn Rastafarian families from all over the globe do — an eclectic community that includes nurses from Caribbean states, clothing salesmen from Britain and artists from the United States. A few have gone into business in Shashamane, opening hotels and food shops. Others have set up tiny development organizations whose walled compounds look like those of any other aid group in Africa, except for the occasional blasts of highly danceable music and whiffs of marijuana.
The local townspeople, who like most Ethiopians tend to be culturally conservative, view the religious pilgrims with a mixture of curiosity and condescension.
“They are good people who think that Shashamane is the blessed land of the blacks,” said Taye Kebede, a Sunday school teacher at the town’s Ethiopian Orthodox church. “But we do not like their drug use. They are creating a market for marijuana, and our farmers are growing that instead of potatoes.”
Kebede also felt obliged to dispute the Rastafarians’ perception of Selassie: “We know him better than they do. He was just a king, and toward the end a very autocratic one.”
A movement is born
Born in the slums of Jamaica in the 1920s, Rastafarianism began as a black-consciousness movement that deployed Biblical prophecy against the white racism and colonialism of the times. Its early leaders advocated the return of slave descendants to Africa. When Selassie — then known as Ras Tafari Mekonen — was crowned emperor of never-colonized Ethiopia in 1930, both he and his country became spiritual inspirations to the movement.
Selassie was never comfortable with Rastafarians’ belief in his divinity, historians say. Nonetheless, in the 1950s, he granted the religion’s followers 1,250 acres of land for settlement in Shashamane, a savanna town 150 miles south of the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. Selassie was deposed by a military coup in 1974. The army murdered him the following year, though most Rastafarians believe he is immortal and hence never died.
“Those were the hardest times,” Martin, one of the settlers’ elders, recalled of the leftist junta years. “His majesty’s photos were smashed. We were spat on. I was thrown in jail.”
During the 1980s, the Rastafarian community was singled out for ostracism because of its close association with the emperor, Martin said. It shrank to fewer than 50 members. Some sold their clothes to buy food during the country’s notorious famines, he said.
Today, under a frail democratic government, life is much better.
The influx of Rasta religious seekers is growing slowly. Many are skilled workers who bring jobs and a trickle of puzzled tourists to bustling Shashamane. Thousands of visitors are expected to flock to the town for Selassie’s birthday — a Rastafarian Christmas that features rollicking reggae concerts. Rita Marley, the widow of reggae superstar Bob Marley, has joined local Rastafarian aid organizations in funding a school and clinic.
Still, for many Rastafarian homesteaders, the lack of Ethiopian citizenship and the loss of their lands continue to rankle.
Notorious for its prickly nationalism, the government is promising to study citizenship for Rastafarians who have been in the country for at least four years. The land, however, is long gone — carved up and crammed with the mud huts and tiny gardens of local Ethiopians, whose numbers are evenly divided between Muslims and Orthodox Christians.
Not a paradise
“Some people come here expecting a paradise,” said Earl “Chips” Sobers, 44, a Rastafarian road worker from the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago who migrated to Ethiopia five years ago. “It isn’t. This is lion country. You have to be a lion to live here.”
Sobers stood outside the compound of his Rastafarian denomination, the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Its gates were gaily painted in green, yellow and red — the classic shades of Rastafarianism, which also happen to be the colors of the Ethiopian flag. Local teenagers in tie-dyed shirts and dreadlocks copied from the Rastas ambled past on a road amid the usual African parade of donkey carts and women carrying bundles on their heads.
Sobers called out greetings in what he called “Jamharic” — a patois of Amharic, Ethiopia’s national language, and Jamaican-inflected English. He insisted that all use of marijuana, which Rastafarians inhale to meditate, is kept within the Rastafarians’ compounds and tabernacles. But Ethiopian youths offered joints for sale only a block away.
“We love them because they are so peaceful, but our cultures do not always agree,” said Saeda Hussein, who runs a small food shop patronized by Rastafarians.
Hussein said she did brisk business with tinned food and packaged cookies — many Rastafarians don’t relish Ethiopia’s national food of injera, a sour pancake of slightly fermented flour.
Asked whether she listened to reggae, she wagged a finger, and declared, “No, no, I am a Muslim.”
Then she giggled, and admitted she did. But only on the radio hidden under her wooden counter, and with the volume turned way down low.