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Monday, 5 November, 2001, 17:07 GMT
The town that Rastafarians built
The community want citizenship and their land returned
By Nita Bhalla in southern Ethiopia

Rastafarians in Ethiopia have been celebrating the anniversary of the coronation of Ethiopia's last Emperor, Haile Selassie, some 71 years ago.

Nowhere is this more the case than among a community of Rastafarians, who have settled in the small southern Ethiopian town of Shashamene.

We plan to make Shashamene a model city, with good infrastructure and telecommunications. It will rise above all other African cities

Pharmacist Gladstone Johnson Sr

The Rastafarians, who are mainly from Jamaica, started migrating to Ethiopia 38 years ago, when Haile Selassie, whom they consider to be God incarnate, gave them 500 hectares of land on which to settle.

Since the first 12 Jamaican settlers in 1963, the community has grown to over 200 families.

Room for more

Papa Rocky, a 74 year old Rastafarian elder from Jamaica believes western countries should help repatriate all those who might wish to return to their native land, but do not have the means to do so.

Rastafarian building
A museum dedicated to Haile Selassie has been built

"I am lucky to have saved the money to eventually come here, but back home millions just don't have the money to return. The West may have removed the shackles and chains, but they still keep us bound by economic slavery," he says.

The Rastafarian community insist that a mass exodus of Jamaicans to Ethiopia would not be a burden, despite the poverty and economic difficulties faced here.

Some of them are skilled tradesmen such as carpenters and builders.

All they do is smoke marijuana... We like them as they integrate and there is a lot of inter-marriage, but the marijuana has to stop

Mechanic Adbul Onduka

Others are shop owners and they say that over the decades they have played an important role in the development of Shashamene.

"We have the know-how to develop the whole place as we have endured slavery, so we have good knowledge," says 72-year-old Pharmacist Gladstone Johnson Sr, one of the first settlers in Shashamene, says they are here to help.

"We plan to make Shashamene a model city, with good infrastructure and telecommunications. It will rise above all other African cities", he adds.


But Ethiopians living in Shashamene are sceptical.

Haile Selassie
Haile Selassie: Despot or deity?
"The Rastas are nice people and very friendly. They teach us English and give us employment, but they have done little for the development of the town," said one Ethiopian teacher, who wished to remain anonymous.

"All they do is smoke marijuana, which the Ethiopian farmers here grow for them. Some in the town don't like this, as our children have also started to use this drug. We like them as they integrate and there is a lot of inter-marriage, but the marijuana has to stop," says 27-year-old mechanic Adbul Onduka.

Others in the town find the beliefs of the Rastafarian faith at loggerheads with the local faiths of Islam and Orthodox Christianity.

The Rastafarian faith views Emperor Haile Selassie as the Messiah of the African people, but most Ethiopians disagree.

"He was a good leader but he did oppress the masses and it was a feudal system under his rule. He is not a god. He was a mere mortal," said one Ethiopian in Shashamene.

The Rastafarians say they plan "to educate" the Ethiopian people about their last Emperor.

"We have established a library and museum in Shashamene, dedicated to our King of Kings, our Lion of Judah. The Ethiopians can come and learn about the Emperor," says Papa Rocky.

"Ethiopians have to stop looking to the sky for a white blue eyed Messiah, Haile Selassie is the real Messiah," says Papa Rocky.


But the biggest problem the Rastafari community face is with the Ethiopian government.

Even though they were originally given 500 hectares, the Rastafarians complain that in the aftermath of the overthrow of the Emperor by the Marxist military leader, Mengistu Haile Mariam, most of the land was confiscated and they have now been left with only 11 hectares.

In a letter addressed to the Organisation of African Unity earlier this year, the Rastafari community complained that local people have occupied and settled on much of the land given to them.

Their letter also bemoans their lack of legal status and citizenship.

Gladstone Johnston Sr says that they had expected better treatment when they left their lives in the West.

"We left the West and came to Ethiopia with the intention of being accepted as Africans with the rights to African citizenship. We therefore desire to have full legal status and to be recognised as citizens, with all the privileges and rights to work and travel freely as Ethiopians," he says.

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