Form the early 1960’s the many of the Jamaican Rastafarian community the 1960’s, believe that Haile Selassie is the new Messiah, because they believe that both Jesus and Haile Selassie were descendants from the royal line of King David, and the Biblical figures King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The Rastafarians identify themselves with the ancient Israelites—God’s chosen people in the Old Testament—and believe that black Africans or Rastas are either the descendants or reincarnations of this ancient people. Rastas view the biblical place of “Zion” as their utopia or City of God, a term they used in reference to either Ethiopia or to Africa as an whole.
It’s been 52 years since Haile Selassie, the last emperor of Ethiopia, granted hundreds of hectares of rural land to a newly burgeoning religion whose followers had begun worshipping him as a Messiah. The first Rastafarians arrived in the decades after 1948 when the area in Shashamane, southern Ethiopia, was bequeathed to them.
More than half a century and two Ethiopian revolutions later, repatriation — returning to the continent their ancestors were forced to leave as slaves — is still recognized as deeply important by Rastafarians across the world. For those who make the journey across the globe to begin a new life in the country considered their Zion. Estimates of the number of Rastafarians in Ethiopia range from hundreds to 1,000, and they reside mostly in the capital Addis Ababa or in Shashamane, a town 250 kilometers (155 miles) south of the capital.
Haile Selassie was overthrown in a coup in 1974. The military group that seized power, a military committee, known popularly as the Derg or “committee,” tried to systematically erase the Emperor from Ethiopian history.
Although Haile Selassie had been a champion of modernization, Ethiopians under his rule were still largely poor, illiterate and landless. A drought, the international oil crisis, and discontent in the military ranks, combined to create conditions ripe for a coup. When he died a year later, the Derg claimed it was due to complications from a prostate operation, but many suspected foul play.
The Derg, which adopted communist ideologies, eventually controlled Ethiopia with bloody terror. But it could not have known the power of reggae music, the weapon that Rastafarians would wield to keep Haile Selassie relevant and his memory alive.
When the Emperor died on August 27th 1975, journalists reportedly rushed to confront Bob Marley with the death of his deity. His response was “Jah Live,” a single released shortly thereafter: “Fools sayin’ in their heart, Rasta your God is dead… Jah Live!”
In a way, Rastafarians and reggae music have made Haile Selassie and his imperial flag shorthand for black liberation and the cause of liberation in general.
Ethiopia these days is very much a country on the move. Once synonymous with famine (think Live Aid), it now has one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa. People in the capital told me that the Rasta settlement in Shashemane was today a bit of a tourist attraction for middle-class Ethiopians. Ethiopia has been through a lot of changes in the last 40 years.
Shashemane’s main road is a major highway lined on both sides with wooden stalls and bars. Scooter taxis, with dreadlocked drivers, were parked at all angles. There is a small museum, signs for lodges and juice restaurants, and various temples for worship. a friendly and happy place. People smile and warmly greet you in Jamaican patois. There isn’t an abundance of Rastas or tourists visible, making the vibe very quiet, in a very small town. The most of the action is on the many dirt lanes that run off into the jungle.
It is evident that the Exodus, the “movement of Jah people,” as Bob Marley put it, never really came to pass in Zion, despite all that singing and proselytising. Best estimates put the Rasta settler population in the 400 to 700 range, down from a peak of more than 1,000 before 1974, and there are few new arrivals.
The Rastas who went and stayed seem happy with their choice. They have built a very tight-knit, peaceful, and spiritual community, albeit with a few rough touts trying to peddle ganja. Their land is rich, they live in natural beauty, and the people look healthy and satisfied. They have a school and even a Web site (shashamane.org). As for ganja, that Rastafarian staple, although it is illegal in Ethiopia, it seems to be quietly tolerated in Shashemane.
More than a million people have emigrated to the United States from the Caribbean, in contrast to the few thousand that ever made it to Ethiopia. But the settlers of Shashemane seem to have few regrets.