African Culture: A Look Into The History Of Shashamane, Ethiopia’s Rastafari Community

by Duke Magazine

A child was born in a community in eastern Ethiopia in July 1892. In Amharic, he was given the name Lij Tafari, which means “a child of royal birth who is respected or feared” (dreaded). He was given the title Ras, which means prince or leader, as a regent in the Ethiopian government. He was given a new name, this time a regal one, when he was made Emperor in 1930: Haile Selassie, which means “Power of the Trinity.”

His coronation also sparked a new spiritual movement, which began in Jamaica but is now practiced all over the world, and is signified by his birth name. Many people refer to the movement as “Rastafarianism,” although its adherents prefer to refer to themselves as “Rastafari” or simply “Rasta.” Selassie’s adoration is strongly linked to Rastafarian philosophy, which considers Ethiopia to be Zion – the promised destination for Black people.

Marcus Garvey of Jamaica led the Back to Africa movement in the 1920s, urging descendants of slaves brought to the Americas from Africa to return to their homelands. Garvey also predicted that a Black man will one day rule Africa. When Haile Selassie I became Emperor of Ethiopia in 1930, this came to pass.

For Rastafarians, Ethiopia would be regarded as a hallowed land, with the Black king Selassie reinforcing this view by his actions. From his address at the League of Nations, which subsequently became the foundation for Bob Marley’s famous song “War,” to his involvement in the founding of the Organization for African Unity, Selassie would inspire countless Rastas over the years.

Then, in 1948, he favored the Rastafarian group by reserving property at Shashamane for Rastas and others from the Diaspora to return. He paid multiple visits to their colony before the coup that terminated his reign and dramatically limited the amount of land given to the repatriates.

Shashamane, however, is the place to be for anyone interested in Rastafarianism in Ethiopia. The settlement, which is around 155 miles south of Addis Ababa, is nevertheless popular with travelers from all over the world because of its Rastafarian population, even though there aren’t as many Rastafarians there now as there once were.

Rastafarians were not Selassie’s main goal when he granted land in Shashamane to descendants of slaves who wanted to return to their origins, but they ended up being the largest group of people who moved to the hamlet from Jamaica and other nations. According to a report by DW, the first Rastafarian movement into Shashamane took place in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Following the Ethiopian Civil War in the early 1990s, the second group of Rastafarians arrived from Jamaica. Following that, many more Rastafarians, mainly in Shashamane, moved to Ethiopia. In 1978, Bob Marley paid a visit to the town, describing it as his spiritual home.

Rastafarians spiritualized their cause by locating it in Ethiopia, where they saw Selassie as the Messiah. In 1966, Selassie paid a personal visit to Jamaica to encourage Rastafarians to relocate to Shashamane. Rastafarians in Shashamane numbered around 2,000 in the late 1990s. Only a few hundred people remain in Shashamane now, while many more have moved to the capital Addis Ababa or another country in search of a job.

Aside from financial challenges, most Rastafarians who have departed have found it difficult to integrate into the Ethiopian community. Things changed later when the government began issuing national resident certificates to Rastafarians who had been in Ethiopia for more than ten years. These cards allowed them to legally live and work in Ethiopia, travel to see their families in other countries and return whenever they wanted, and, most importantly, blend with Ethiopians.

However, the cards only grant Rastafarians the title of “Foreign National of Ethiopian Origin,” which has displeased some of them, according to DW. Some Ethiopians have petitioned for citizenship because they are dissatisfied with their status as foreign nationals.

Ras Paul, who arrived in Shashamane from the United Kingdom more than two decades ago, told DW in 2019 that despite his desire to integrate more with Ethiopians, “it’s quite stressful” due to the country’s political troubles and political emphasis on the land grant amid attacks on Rastafarians.

Nonetheless, the majority of Ethiopians are ecstatic to have Rastafarians in their midst, who see their country as the Holy Land.

The Banana Art Gallery is one of the most fascinating tourist attractions in Shashamane. Ras Hailu, a Rasta from the Caribbean, frequently runs the gallery, which offers artwork made solely of banana leaves. Then there’s the Zion Train Lodge, which offers bamboo hut lodging in a tranquil location. Wondo Genet, a vacation hamlet 16 kilometers southeast of Shashamane, offers wonderful trekking options.

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