Rastafarians flock to their 'Mecca'

Despite financial hardships, Jamaican faithful still make a pilgrimage to Africa

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Four weeks ago, a young African-American gave up his job in a supermarket, withdrew his savings from the bank, and booked a flight to Ethiopia.

Tree, as he now wants to be called - "new life, new name," he says - packed his bags and headed for a small village in southern Ethiopia to join a small community of Rastafarians - whose faith he adheres to.

"America makes no sense to me," says the young man from Washington D.C. - or Washington "D-Blind" as he prefers to call it. "The only thing it has to offer is luxury, and that offers nothing to the spirit."

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Tree is just the latest in a long line of Rastafarians who have made their pilgrimage to the "Rastafarian Mecca" - Ethiopia. And by doing so he has fulfilled a 10-year-old dream that one day he would return to his African roots.

His savings were enough to get him to Ethiopia, and he hopes enough to buy himself a small plot of land in Shashemene - the Rastafarian village that he now calls home.

'Back to Africa' movement

But there are now growing signs that the enthusiasm of the followers of the "Back to Africa" movement that enticed Tree to leave Washington for Shashemene, is waning.

The community of Rastafarians who call Shashemene home stood at more than 200 less than two years ago - today there are less than 40 of them.

They struggle to make a livelihood in one of the world's poorest countries; few of them have any meaningful employment and most depend on money transfers from relatives abroad and the food that they grow on their small plots of land for survival.

Hundreds of acres of land were donated to Africans in the diaspora - who wished to return to where their ancestors were taken from as slaves - by the former Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie in 1955.

Most of the people who heeded Haile Selassie's call were members of the Rastafarian faith - a unique interpretation of Christian Orthodoxy, which 25 years previously had identified Emperor Haile Selassie as the new Messiah.

Isaiah Kelly's sweeping dreadlocks - which when unleashed tumble down well below his waist - and the knotted wisps of his beard have turned grey, but the spiritual aesthetic of the simple word "home" has, he says, added a spring to his awkward step.

A Jamaican of African descent, Mr. Kelly is a Rastafarian of 45 years standing.

"It is a must that all black people should repatriate back to Africa," says Kelly. "This is where we were taken from as slaves, and this is where we belong. It is our home."

For Rastafarians like Kelly, their homes in the West are the contemporary Babylon - which in biblical terms represented enslavement of the Jews. And Ethiopia, the birthplace of their God Haile Selassie, is the Holy Land.

Starting a new life in Ethiopia represents the fulfillment of their religious beliefs.

Next door to Kelly - in a small, two-room shack painted red, yellow, and green - lives Adolphus Sewell.

Wandering around his perfectly kept garden, scored by neat lines of budding fruits and vegetables, Mr. Sewell, or "Dread" as he is known, says he came to Shashemene for a three-week holiday three years ago and never left.

"This is the only place that as a black man I have felt free. That is what drew me to this place, and that is why I stayed."

It's hard to know exactly what Sewell expected when he came to Ethiopia, but it's clear that the reality of life in a desperately poor country does not quite live up to the way it was in the dream.

He has been robbed six times since he came to live in Shashemene - 150 miles south of the capital, Addis Ababa - and admits that there have been plenty of times when he has considered going back to London, where he lived for 22 years before coming to Ethiopia.

A hard decision

"I was taught in school that we are not European, and that we are not Jamaican - that we were slaves from Africa. That's why I came back."

Most of Shashemene's resident Rastafarians live a simple subsistence lifestyle, growing the food they need on the small but fertile strips of land they own. They attend daily church services and spend much of the day smoking marijuana, which is part of their religion.

According to Mr. Kelly, marijuana, or "herb" as Rastafarians call it, is a sacred weed which God commanded them to use as a means for achieving closeness to God.

"If you are meditating and doing good, the herb will develop that goodness within you. It will help you develop your relationship with God."

He says that poverty and bureaucracy are the only reasons that there are not more Rastafarians at Shashemene.

"There were two obstacles to me coming here," he says. "One is called 'visa,' and the other is called 'passport.' " Another stumbling block is money. "We were taken from Africa without money, passports, or visas, why should we need these things to come back again?"

But what the Rastafarians of Shashemene learn soon after they arrive here is that money is a fact of life in Ethiopia as much as it is in their previous homes.

"I have to find a way to make money when I'm here," says Tree. "I didn't expect there to be so much poverty."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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