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Rastas finally at home in their Zion

The spiritual homeland of Rastafarianism is in Shashamane, a small, nondescript town about 200km south of Addis Ababa. The only clue to its religious significance is the number of walls painted in red, yellow and green — and the fact that it is one of the few places in Ethiopia where cannabis is readily available.

It was here that the Rastafari community was given 200 hectares of land by Ras Tafari himself, aka Emperor Haile Selassie, who was in equal parts bemused and flattered to learn of his deification by the young religion in faraway Jamaica.

From the 1960s, a small but steady stream of settlers from Jamaica and other Caribbean islands undertook the journey to their new promised land in Ethiopia. Although Bob Marley, the most famous Rasta of them all, never made it to Shashamane, this is the place he was singing about whenever he sang about Zion.

In 2005, Bob Marley’s wife, Rita, announced plans to exhume the reggae star’s remains and rebury him in Shashamane. “He has a right for his remains to be where he would love them to be. This was his mission. Ethiopia is his spiritual resting place,” she said, although the corporeal relocation has yet to happen.

At its peak, the Rastafari community in the town boasted about 2 000 members. Today, however, there are only a few hundred left, with a few hundred more now living in Addis Ababa, and migration from the Caribbean has stopped.

The promised land wasn’t all it was promised to be.

After Selassie was overthrown in 1974, much of the Rastas’ land was taken from them by the new government. Members of the community have also faced issues in obtaining the documentation necessary to work in Ethiopia, and are disqualified from most social services.

That is about to change after Ethiopia announced that it would grant national identity cards to Ethiopia’s Rastafaris.

“These individuals have long been unable to enter and leave the country easily,” said foreign ministry spokesperson Meles Alem. “In the case of Rastafarians, we have three generations of people residing here that have blended well with our citizens. But, sadly, they were neither Caribbean nor Ethiopians, so were somehow stateless. This national ID will address this problem.”

Members of Ethiopia’s Jewish community and select foreign nationals deemed to have made a contribution to Ethiopia will also be eligible for the new ID, which is still a step down from full citizenship.

Ras King, a prominent member of the Rastafarian community who has been in Ethiopia since 1982, welcomed the news. “We are overjoyed,” he said, speaking to AP. “We are extremely happy because this has fulfilled our confidence in our forefathers’ vision for a united Africa and black people from the West.”

Rastafarianism was born in response to the slave trade and began in Jamaica in 1935, just five years after the crowning of Selassie as emperor. He was seen as the fulfilment of civil rights activist Marcus Garvey’s prophecy that “a black king” would be crowned in Africa, and “he shall be your Redeemer”.

The religion was popularised by its association with reggae music but is frequently misunderstood by college students the world over, who mistake its emphasis on the spiritual properties of “herb” as an excuse to wear oversized beanies and smoke too much cannabis.

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Simon Allison
Simon Allison
Simon Allison is the Africa editor of the Mail & Guardian, and the founding editor-in-chief of The Continent. He is a 2021 Young Africa Leadership Initiative fellow.

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