The Rastafari culture is popularly associated with the explosion of reggae music during the 60’s and 70’s throughout the West. Less popularly associated, however, is the Rastafari struggle for recognition, rights, and the preservation of their culture in what they believe to be their homeland – Ethiopia.
The African diaspora runs deeply through Rastafari culture, which sees Ethiopia as Zion, and Ethiopia’s last Emperor, Haile Selassie I, as God. They believe that the Emperor Selassie (pictured above), who ruled Ethiopia from 1930 – 1974, is a descendant of King Solomon and Jesus Christ.
In fact, the name Rastafari comes from Selassie’s pre-coronation name – Ras (meaning ‘head’) Tafari Makonnen. The core Rastafari belief is their repatriation back to Africa. This was first granted by Selassie, who declared that all in the black community living in exile caused by colonization and the Western slave trade, return to the Promised Land, that was his Ethiopia.
Many Rastafari made their pilgrimage to Ethiopia from the Caribbean and elsewhere, settling in the small southern town of Shashamane. The 200 hectares of land which was the original Shashemane, about 250 kilometers south of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, was granted to all Africans living in exile in the 1948 Shashamene-Malkoda Land Grant overseen by Selassie.
As Emperor, Selassie was a major supporter of pan-Africanism and modernizing the country. He was instrumental in the country’s incorporation with the United Nations and the declaration of the capital, Addis Ababa, as the major hub for the Organization of African Unity, which later became the African Union.
This period of Ethiopian modernization ended in the late 1970s, approximately forty years after Selassie’s coronation in 1930. The communist military officer and leader of the Derg, Mengistu Haile Mariam, overthrew Selassie’s monarchy, imprisoning him and then killing him in 1974. Subsequently, the new military junta confiscated the Shashamane land plot, forcing many of the Rastafari there to leave.
Some would return when Mengistu’s government was removed in 1991, but their small number – approximately one million worldwide – has seen the dismantling of the Rastafarian voice and political cries for recognition in Ethiopia continually under played and under reported.
The current Shashamane land plot has been reduced to around five square hectares, a dramatically reduced fraction of its original size. The approximately 500 remaining Rastafaris who continue to live on this land fight a constant battle for property rights, educational opportunities and employment. They have no identification that is recognized by Ethiopia, making work and legitimate housing almost impossible. This communal desire to live out their lives in their Promised Land has seen many of their Caribbean passports expire, effectively rendering the Ethiopian Rastafaris stateless.
The Rastafari living in Shashamane continue to fight for recognition, rights, and to preserve their culture in Ethiopia. You can find out more about the movement, and how to support them, through the U.S.-based community development foundation, The Shashamane Settlement, here.