For decades the Rastafarian community, in their spiritual home here, had not been taken seriously and Ethiopians have even termed them as ludicrous.
But all that is set to change with the efforts of a Rastafarian non-governmental organisation (NGO) in promoting alternative farming techniques and youth development programmes.
“We want to break the perception that we Rastas just sing reggae music and smoke herb (marijuana) all day. We are serious development workers,” says Ras Kabinda, a convenor of the Ethiopian World Federation.
“Now is the time for nation-building. We have to stop all the idle talk and get things moving,” adds the Dominican-born Kabinda who moved to Ethiopia in 1992.
“It’s one thing to talk about Africa and fantasise about it but when you come home and see the conditions of the youth here you realise you have serious work. We need to have serious training programes for them,” he stresses.
Shashemene, about 220 kilometres south of Addis Ababa, is the spiritual home of the Rastafarians, or Rastas, and there are about 100 families settled there. The late Ethiopian emperor, Haile-Selassie, granted some land in Shashemene, a market town of about 60,000 people, to these devotees in 1948 to satisfy their desire to return to Africa and have a place to settle.
Haile-Selassie’s dynasty, according to legend, can be traced back to the Biblical times of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Rastafarians believe Haile-Selassie, or Ras Tafari, was the long-awaited Messiah from the House of David, as prophesised in the Old Testament, who would gather them from their lands where they were oppressed and bring them to Ethiopia, which they considered as home.
The Ethiopian World Federation currently runs two schools in the Shashemene community – one for primary students and the other at junior secondary level.
There are plans for a demonstration farm on a 500-hectare land. Also in the pipeline is a computer centre for about 200 students under the auspices of the Haile-Selassie Institute of Higher Learning, a branch of the Federation.
“We’re trying to get the government to grant us 500 hectares of land. We want to demonstrate to Ethiopian farmers that there are alternative ways of doing things,” says Kabinda.
“We want to set up demonstration farms and work with the youth – the raw materials are already there and we want to transform the farms into food-centres,” he adds.
The project has the blessing of the Shashemene Municipality and the organisation is now waiting for a response from the federal government.
Information technology, according to Kabinda, is also one of the priorities of the Ethiopian World Federation.
“We found a donor willing to bring in 200 computers and we’re talking to the Ministry of Education to facilitate the paperwork,” he says.
Adds Kabinda: “There are very few opportunities for the youth here. They have no means of expressing their ingenuity and creativity.”
Rastafarianism, often associated with the poorer black population in Jamaica and the rest of the Caribbean and West Indies, is not just a religion but also a way of life. Rastafarians believe they have a strong obligation to speak out against poverty, oppression and inequality. The dreadlocks on a Rastafarian’s head symbolises rebellion of the system and the “proper” way to wear hair.
Marijuana is used by Rastafarians for spiritual and medicinal purposes and they are vegetarians, only eating natural food cooked without salt, preservatives or condiments. Alcohol is taboo, and so are coffee, milk and soft drinks.
Unfortunately, the ways of Rastafarians have been misunderstood in Ethiopia and many of the younger generation of Rastas have been forced to cut their dreadlocks in order to ward off stares and giggles.
But the Ethiopian World Federation’s Ras Kabinda believes the time has come for Ethiopians to learn from the Rastafarians.
“The country cannot be every year having a famine. There must be something wrong and there must be a cause and that cause must be identified and overcome,” he points out.
The Ethiopian World Federation is advising farmers, through its agricultural projects, to stop practicing the mono-crop system of farming and inter-crop their plots of land with vegetables, fruits and legumes.
“People here only know the mono-crop system – if you walk through the village you’ll see nobody planting vegetables in their garden – not even one fruit tree,” says Kabinda.
“So we’re trying to emphasise to them that they need to plant vegetables like cabbages and carrots and fruit trees because the children need those vitamins and minerals in vegetables and fruits for their brains to fully develop,” he stresses.
The organisation is also stressing to farmers the benefits of growing legumes like pigeon-peas.
“Pigeon-peas are a good source of food even in the dry season. In Ethiopia, nothing grows in the dry season but if you plant pigeon peas and interperse it among the land, these legumes will enrich the soil with nitrogen and give four crops a year at the same time,” says Kabinda.
Kabinda also hit out at the heavy use of chemical fertilisers and herbicides by Ethiopian farmers.
“Chemicalisation of agriculture is a drain on the economy because you’re buying imported fertiliser and the fertiliser has a leaching effect on the soil,” says the Rastafarian. “That means it degrades the quality of the soil and in 10 to 15 years, the soil fertility will be zero. This is not a sustainable method.”
“Ethiopia has hundreds of thousands of cattle and there’s enough animal manure that can be used to replenish the soil. Why can’t these common sense methods be promoted?” he asks.
Kabinda says Ethiopian farmers need to seek out their traditional farming methods, before the introduction of high-yield varieties and chemical fertilisers to the country, for answers to their present predicaments.
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“We need to sit down and study the situation, as Africans, what the methodology our people used to use since time immemorial that used to give us maximum yield,” Kabinda says. “We have to question why we are using chemicals and high-yield varieties when there are obviously side-effects.”
“As Rastamen we are pro-Ethiopian. We don’t want to see our brothers and sisters in poverty. We don’t want to see hungry babies. It’s not the way of our people at all. We want to see everybody on an equal footing.”