In July 1892, a child was born in a village in eastern Ethiopia. He was named Lij Tafari in Amharic, which translates to mean a child of royal birth who is respected or feared (dreaded). As a regent in the Ethiopian government, he took on the title Ras, meaning prince or chief. When he was crowned Emperor in 1930, he received another new name, this time a royal one: Haile Selassie, meaning “Power of the Trinity.”
His coronation also gave rise to a new spiritual movement symbolized by his birth name, which began in Jamaica but is now practiced all over the globe. Many people call it “Rastafarianism”, however, the followers of the movement typically call themselves “Rastafari” or simply “Rasta.” The veneration of Selassie is closely connected with the Rasta ideology that considers Ethiopia to be Zion — the promised land for Black people.
In the 1920s, Jamaica’s Marcus Garvey led a Back to Africa movement which urged the descendants of slaves who had been taken to the Americas from Africa to come back to their routes. Garvey also indicated that a Black man would become king in Africa someday. This came to pass with Haile Selassie I becoming emperor of Ethiopia in 1930.
Ethiopia would be seen as a sacred place for Rastas, with the Black king Selassie strengthening this belief through his actions. Selassie would inspire many Rastas through the years, from the speech at the League of Nations which later became the basis for Bob Marley’s hit song “War” to his involvement in creating the Organization for African Unity.
Then in 1948, he showed special favor to the Rasta community when he set aside land at Shashamane for Rastas and others in the Diaspora to repatriate. He visited their settlement several times until the coup that ended his reign and drastically reduced the land granted to these repatriates.
Still, for anyone in Ethiopia who is interested in Rastafarianism, Shashamane is the place to be. Located around 155 miles south of Addis Ababa, the village remains popular among tourists from across the world thanks to its Rastafarian community even though the Rastafarians there today are not as many as they used to be.
When Selassie donated land in Shashamane to descendants of slaves to come back to their roots, Rastafarians were not his only target, but they ended up being the largest group of people to move from Jamaica and other countries to the village. The first movement of Rastafarians into Shashamane took place during the late 60s and the mid-70s, according to a report by DW. The second group of Rastafarians arrived from Jamaica in the early 1990s, following the Ethiopian Civil War. After, many more Rastafarians moved to Ethiopia, particularly Shashamane. Bob Marley even visited the village in 1978 and described it as his spiritual home.
Indeed, Rastafarians spiritualized their movement to Ethiopia as they viewed Selassie as the Messiah. Selassie also visited Jamaica himself in 1966 to encourage the Rastafarians to move to Shashamane. In the late 1990s, Rastafarians in Shashamane were about 2,000. Today, there are only a few hundred people still living in Shashamane as others have left to find work in the capital Addis Ababa, or moved to another country.
Besides economic difficulties, most of the Rastafarians who have left found it hard to blend with the local Ethiopian community. Things changed recently when Rastafarians who have been living in Ethiopia for over 10 years started receiving national residence cards from the government. The allocation of these cards gave them the right to legally live and work in Ethiopia, travel to see their families in other countries, and come back when they want to, and above all, to integrate with locals.
But the cards only give Rastafarians the status of “Foreign National of Ethiopian Origin” and so some of them were not pleased, DW reported. Not satisfied with being foreign nationals, some have applied for Ethiopian citizenship. Ras Paul, who arrived in Shashamane from the UK more than two decades ago, told DW in 2019 that even though he wishes to blend more with Ethiopians, “it’s very tense” because of the political problems of the country and the political emphasis on the land grant amid attacks on Rastafarians.
Still, a majority of Ethiopians are elated to have Rastafarians around who see their country as the Holy Land. The Banana Art Gallery has been one of the most amazing places for tourists to visit in Shashamane. The gallery sells artwork made entirely from banana leaves and it is often operated by Ras Hailu, a Rasta originally from the Caribbean. Then there is the Zion Train Lodge, which provides accommodation in bamboo huts in a relaxing setting. A resort town 16km southeast of Shashamane, Wondo Genet, also provides beautiful hiking opportunities.