SHASHEMENE, Ethiopia, Apr 30 – A ceremonial fire burns as dreadlocked Rastafarians sway to drum beats, chanting “Haile I! Selassie I!” in praise of the former Ethiopian emperor whom they uphold as God incarnate.
Marijuana smoke rises from the crowd, decked out in their trademark red, gold and green — also the colours as the Ethiopian flag — as they celebrate the 46th anniversary this month of Haile Selassie’s visit to Jamaica.
That trip prompted an influx of Jamaican Rastafarians to the Horn of Africa state, which they believe is their promised land.
But some feel Ethiopia has not measured up — and now want change.
“After the visit of Haile Selassie in 1966 in the Caribbean, the Jamaican Rastafarians started to pour in” to Ethiopia, said researcher Giulia Bonacci at the French Centre for Ethiopian Studies in the capital Addis Ababa.
When the movement emerged in the 1930s among descendants of African slaves in Jamaica, it adopted Haile Selassie as the messiah, at a time when he stood out as the only independent black monarch in Africa.
They even took their name from his pre-regnal title — “Ras” for “head” and his birth name “Tafari”.
A supporter of decolonization and cooperation among African states when they were still largely under European control, Haile Selassie set aside land south of the capital in the 1950s to welcome back the African diaspora.
The 500-hectare (1,200-acre) plot in Shashemene, 250 kilometres (155 miles) from Addis Ababa, was offered to descendents of slaves who wanted to return “home”.
It is one of Africa’s few Rastafarian communities and residents hold fast to their cultural mainstays: dreadlocks, vegetarian diets, reggae music and marijuana smoking.
But life changed in 1974 when Haile Selassie was overthrown in a coup led by Mengistu Haile Mariam whose Marxist-Leninist regime confiscated the Shashemene plot, prompting most Rastas to flee its authoritarian rule.
Though 40 hectares have been returned to the community since Meles Zenawi, now prime minister, took power in 1991, the 600 or so Rastas from the Caribbean, North America and Europe living there today are “tolerated” by the government, holding neither citizenship nor any legal right to the land.
— ‘We have a right to the land’ —
“There is an absence of a clear policy of the Ethiopian government towards the community, which leaves a lot of its members in limbo and facing difficult legal issues,” said Bonacci, who has written a book about Rastafarians settling in Ethiopia.
Kestekle Ab, 82, who moved from Jamaica 11 years ago, said authorities recently told him to relocate to make room for construction of a new road.
He arrived when Shashemene was a sparsely populated rural area. Today it is a bustling city of about 120,000. Donkey carts are outnumbered by three-wheeled motorised rickshaws that flit about streets lined with crooked wooden stalls selling single cigarettes, warm juice and biscuits.
“I won’t have a home, my home is in the middle of the road. So where am I going to stay?” he asked, sitting in his cramped, airless clay hut decorated with a fading portrait of Haile Selassie and a Rasta flag peeling from the wall.
“We have a right to the land,” he said.
“It’s not threatened, it’s being taken away,” Ras Kabena, 58, said angrily as he poked kernels from corn cobs to plant ahead of the rainy season.
Kabena, who moved from the Dominican Republic two decades ago, runs a natural health clinic on the grounds of a Rasta church but said authorities are encroaching on the fields where he grows food and medicinal herbs.
Rastafarians say it was the “divinity” of the land that drew them to Ethiopia, which is mentioned in the Bible more than 30 times and is believed to be the birthplace of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.
“This is the promised land, this is where God is born,” said Ab.
Yet the Rastas’ vague status makes it difficult to set up business and access services open to nationals.
“I’m in Africa and I’m illegal in regards to status. I don’t feel illegal because I’m returning home, but when you’re talking about the letter of the law, yes, in fact, it’s reality,” said Carol Rocke, 56, who runs a Caribbean restaurant.
When she was “ordained by God” to come to Ethiopia from Trinidad six years ago, she applied for a business licence but was only allowed to operate as a foreign investor, limiting her business to the region around Shashemene.
Paul Phang, 55, a Jamaican-born Rasta priest who sits on Shashemene city council, insists the government has been increasingly supportive.
In 2006, the regional president “said the land that had been given to the black people of the West — no more of it should be molested, it should be honoured as a historical heritage for the diaspora community,” Phang said.
But Rocke feels authorities are dragging their heels. “They have not been active enough, it’s like they don’t know how to deal with us,” she said.
The Rastafarians now want clarification, and sent a petition to parliament three months ago urging the government to grant them legal status and legal title to their land. As yet they have not heard back.
“We have been here over 50 years. That means we have been integrated into the Ethiopian society, into the Ethiopian culture. Some of us have Ethiopian husbands, some of us have Ethiopian wives,” Rocke said.
But “our roots have been stanched, we have not been able to develop as a people.”