1948-1950: Land was granted in Shashemene to the black people of the world (Ethiopian World Federation members).
1954: The first Ethiopian World Federation (EWF) members from Montserrat settled on the Land Grant.
1955: Mayme Richardson, Ethiopian World Federation international organizer, came to Jamaica to publicize the Land Grant and seek membership.
1964: The first Rastafari Ethiopian World Federation member from the U.S. settled in Shashemene.
1965: Jamaican Rastafari Noel Dyer walked from the U.K. to Ethiopia.
1968: Jamaican Rastafari (Ethiopian World Federation members and non-members) arrived in small groups in Shashemene.
1970: The Shashemene Land Grant was divided among twelve families.
1972: The first settler from The Twelve Tribes of Israel settled in Shashemene.
1974: The Ethiopian revolution brought a military junta to power.
1975: All rural lands were nationalized, including the Shashemene Land Grant.
1986: Land was granted back to eighteen families in Shashemene.
1992: A celebration of Centenary of His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I (HIM) in Ethiopia took place and arrivals resumed.
2007: A celebration of the Ethiopian millennium took place, and the number of arrivals and settlements in Ethiopia peaked.
2018: The Rastafari in Ethiopia received resident identification credentials (foreign nationals of Ethiopian origin).
Shashemene is the name of a southern market town in the Rift Valley in Ethiopia; it is situated 250km from capital city Addis Ababa. Today it is on the southernmost tip of the regional federal state of Oromia. This secondary town has witnessed steady growth since the 1950s and counted at least 150,000 inhabitants in 2020, many of whom were migrants from various regions in Ethiopia. Shashemene, however, is known worldwide because of several hundred Rastafari who “fulfilled prophecy” and live there. They settled on land granted by the Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie I, and they form a unique community of “returnees” to the African continent. As a consequence, the name Shashemene is often used, in Ethiopia and internationally, to designate this community and the symbolic centre of the Rastafari movement. It is sung as such by reggae artists, for example, Sydney Salmon’s Shashemene on my mind (Salmon 2000).
The Emperor of Ethiopia granted land in Shashemene to thank the “Black people of the world,” members of the Ethiopian World Federation (EWF), for their moral and financial support during the war with Italy (1935-1941). The EWF was founded in New York in 1937 by Ethiopian Melaku Beyan in order to sensitize public opinion and to centralize support for the cause of Ethiopia. As a token of appreciation five gashas of land, or 200 hectares, were granted to the members of the EWF. The oral tradition of the Rastafari movement gives 1948 as the year of the Land Grant, while archival research points to 1950. This land was in a rural environment in the 1960s, but it is now to be found within town limits and administration. It is known locally as “Jamaica sefer” or Jamaican neighbourhood.
For various reasons related to the political dynamics shaping the Back to Africa claims among the African diaspora in the Americas, settlement in Shashemene started slowly. It began with first settlers Helen and James Piper, [Image at right] Black Jews and Garveyites originally from Montserrat, arriving from the U.S. in Ethiopia in 1948, and in Shashemene in about 1954. They established their farm and a school, and developed social ties with surrounding Ethiopians. They were followed by a handful of African Americans of various denominations, including pharmacist Gladstone Robinson, the first Rastafari from the U.S. in 1964, and Baptist Rev. William Hillman from Georgia U.S. in 1965. Other African American and African Caribbean residents in Ethiopia were sporadic visitors, and the early Shashemene settlers did go occasionally to Addis Ababa, then a full day journey away.
The spectacular journey of Noel Dyer, a migrant Jamaican Rastafari who left the U.K. in 1964 and walked to Shashemene, illustrates the faith and the passion with which Rastafari have engaged with Ethiopia and Shashemene in particular. A couple years after the 1966 landmark state visit of Emperor Haile Selassie I [Image at right] in the Caribbean, groups of Rastafari from Jamaica started arriving in Shashemene. Some were members of the EWF while others were not. They were a couple family units, a few single sistren, and a majority of brethren, painters, builders, masons, carpenters and bakers. The Rastafari petitioned the Ethiopian Crown on various occasions and were granted support, mainly in terms of employment and access to land. In July 1970, the Shashemene Land Grant was divided nominally among twelve persons or households, while more people were arriving in the country, including the first members sent by the Twelve Tribes of Israel. This organization, an offshoot of the EWF with a distinctive theology, was founded in 1968 in Jamaica by Vernon Carrington (Prophet Gad). It focused on repatriation to Ethiopia, and it was closely associated with the growth of reggae music. In 1969, both the Prime minister of Jamaica, Hugh Shearer, and opposition leader, Michael Manley, visited Ethiopia, and Rastafari’s presence and culture were instrumentalized in view of the 1972 elections in Jamaica, eventually won by the socialist opposition.
The small but growing community living on the Shashemene Land Grant was harshly impacted by the revolution taking hold of Ethiopia and dethroning Haile Selassie I in September 1974. Despite coming from impoverished background in Jamaica, the Rastafari settlers were identified as beneficiaries of the Crown in Ethiopia, and as such were directly threatened by the violent change of regime. By March 1975, the military junta ruling Ethiopia (called the Derg) nationalised all rural land in the country, including the Shashemene Land Grant. The Pan African motive of this grant did not hold in front of social change in Ethiopia. Rastafari residents lost most of the land, secured only a few of their houses, and many decided to leave the country. Only a handful of young members from the Twelve Tribes of Israel arrived in the late 1970s. They survived in a context of civil war, curfew, and food ratio, with very few visitors, including Bob Marley in December 1978. Following various petitions to the government, some land in Shashemene was eventually granted in 1986 to eighteen families in order to ease their living conditions.
Following another change of regime in 1991, an international coalition of Rastafari organized in Ethiopia a three-week long celebration of the centenary of Haile Selassie’s birthday (1892). With Shashemene anew on the diasporic agenda, diasporic arrivals resumed with peaks in 2000 and in 2007, the millennium year in the Gregorian and in the Julian calendar (the latter in use in Ethiopia). A striking feature of these decades was the increasing diversity of the “returnees” to Shashemene, who did not come only from Jamaica, but from the many places where the Rastafari movement had bloomed. The EWF had been revitalized in the U.K. during the 1980s, and the Twelve Tribes of Israel had developed a dozen international branches. Thus, Rastafari from all the Caribbean islands, and from the Western metropolises (U.S., U.K., Canada) started arriving in Shashemene. In addition, two of the historic “houses” of Rastafari in Jamaica, The Theocratic Order of Nyahbinghi and the Ethiopia Africa Black International Congress (EABIC, also known as Bobo Ashanti), sent members to reside in Shashemene.
If Shashemene represents a form of enclave, [Image at right] it is one with porous social and spatial borders. With Rastafari of about fifteen nationalities and many Ethiopian-mixed households, it is a cosmopolitan community that entertains strong links with family members abroad and fellow Rastafari worldwide. The habitat of the neighbourhood is mixed, Rastafari and Ethiopians live in the same streets, and of course, the population of Ethiopians grows much faster than the pace of settlement by Rastafari. Rastafari in Shashemene do not represent a separate territory from their surrounding, they are tightly knit in the local fabric, that remains under the control of the Ethiopian administration and people.
The first settlers on the Shashemene Land Grant were Black Jews from the U.S., and oral history has it that Black Muslims came as well in the late 1950s. One of the early settlers was a Baptist minister, from the U.S. as well. These various religious affiliations illustrate the oecumenical character of the EWF in its early days. This was a particularly striking character of the EWF in the U.S. and up to the late 1950s, until International Organizer Mayme Richardson came from New York to Jamaica in 1955 seeking to renew the membership of the EWF. By then, Jamaican Rastafari who had previously struggled to enter into the EWF were empowered and developed their own local branches of the EWF in Kingston. The first groups of Jamaican Rastafari to settle in Shashemene came from these branches. They were followed by members of The Twelve Tribes of Israel who still represent a numerical majority on the Shashemene Land Grant. Thereafter, Rastafari representing various “houses” (like The Theocratic Order of Nyahbinghi and the Ethiopia Africa Black International Congress) settled, as well as non-affiliated Rastafari.
Today, the Shashemene community is a Rastafari community, made up of various denominations and affiliations, therefore displaying a variety of doctrines and beliefs that reflect the international Rastafari movement. Still, all commit to hailing the King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion of Juda, Emperor Haile Selassie I; and they show deep love for Ethiopia as well as a strong claim to Redemption through Repatriation to Africa. Symbolically, they consider Africa as Zion (a Holy land where God resides), [Image at right] which stands in opposition to Western spaces, values and institutions called Babylon (a place of exile and depravation). More than any other community, Rastafari have a specific claim to Shashemene: land was granted by Haile Selassie I, their God and King, the central figure of their cosmology and worldview. As a result, they feel therefore particularly concerned and entitled to it.
The Rastafari calendar is celebrated in Shashemene, and two dates in particular draw both local and international crowds to the community: July 23, the Earthday (birthday) of Emperor Haile Selassie I, and November 2, the Coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie I. Other significant dates include Empress Menen Asfaw Earthday (April 3), Marcus Garvey Earthday (August 17), as well as Ethiopian Christmas (January 7) or New Year (September 11). Some Rastafari, in particular the Bobo (EABIC), observe the Sabbath.
The main place of worship is the Nyahbinghi Tabernacle, [Image at right] a sacred circular space, where the drums of Rastafari are beaten, and the Fire Key lighted. Depending on the presence and engagement of residents, weekly or monthly ritual gatherings take place, in addition to the main celebrations of the Rastafari calendar. The Bobo hold their own ritual services, in the Bobo camp that had various locations in time.
Regular meetings, music and entertainment take place regularly in the Twelve Tribes of Israel HQ and in the EWF HQ. On specific occasions, like the July 23 celebration, the day could start with celebration in the Tabernacle and finish late in the night with a sound system or a reggae concert in the Twelve Tribes HQ. On that particular date, a motorcade was organized with drums, flags and families climbing in colourful trucks that would drive slowly from the neighbourhood to the centre of Shashemene town and back, thus displaying Rastafari’s presence and aesthetics to the wider Ethiopian population.
The formal representation of the Shashemene community has always been a matter of contention. Various factions of the EWF have long opposed each other, and while EWF has a historical legitimacy on the Land Grant, Twelve Tribes members have been a numerical majority since the 1970s. As of today, most dialogues and procedures vis-à-vis the Ethiopian local and national governments follow two channels, one through the EWF, which is now revitalized with a strong leadership, and the other one through the Twelve Tribes of Israel.
There are in addition a number of community associations. The oldest one is the Jamaica Rastafari Development Community (JRDC), which has functioned since the early 2000s. It brings together the various Rastafari houses in Shashemene, except the EWF, and runs a primary and secondary school. Other organizations were short-lived; but some are enduring, like Ancient of Days, that focuses on Elder’s care, and Positive Action Charity Organization, which runs the Yawenta School. Furthermore, a number of organizations abroad support local initiatives, like the Shashemene Foundation and IDOR in the U.S., Sick Be Nourished in the U.K., and Yawenta France, thus inscribing Shashemene both locally and in a wide diasporic space.
The Shashemene community faces a number of challenges. Some are internal challenges, related to the building of a community of people coming from various backgrounds and bound by faith and experience. [Image at right] Most challenges though are related to the Ethiopian environment: economic survival and local social integration are major issues. Many returnees develop various businesses, and have valuable skills to implement, but cash and capital for investment are often hard to come by. Further, while job opportunities are scarce, the price of labour is always considerably under international standards. This community has survived a revolution (1974), civil war and a violent change of regime (1991). It never engaged actively in Ethiopian national politics, but it is often associated with the Ethiopian Crown, and as such it meets the animosity of Oromo nationalists who consider former Emperors Menelik and Haile Selassie as colonialists. Shashemene, as a major town of southern Oromia, sees recurrent eruptions of violence motivated by larger political and ethnic tensions. These outbursts of violence do not target the Rastafari community directly, but it remains a small and vulnerable community and an easy prey to arbitrary land spoliation and local practices of corruption.
The 2017 announcement by the Ethiopian government that the Rastafari living in Ethiopia would be granted formal rights to residence was implemented in the following couple of years, marking a major step in the legal integration of Rastafari residents in Ethiopia. For the Rastafari and their children, after decades without papers and without rights to either residence or access to Ethiopian citizenship, this formal recognition came with a sigh of relief. Despite this important gesture, the larger international picture of “returnees” from the old African Diaspora to Africa remains an unaddressed human rights issue. That issue is located at the core of the contemporary discussion of and struggle for reparations for slavery.
Image #1: Helen Piper, Gladstone Robinson, and James Piper in front of the Pipers’ house in Shashemene, ca. 1965. Private archives, G. Robinson.
Image #2: Emperor Haile Selassie I.
Image #3: Welcome sign at the entrance to the Shashemene town.
Image #4: Wall painting of a Rastaman in Ethiopian-inspired iconography.
Image #5: The Nyahbinghi Tabernacle in Shashemene.
Image #6: A Shashemene community gathering.
Community gathering in the tabernacle
** Unless otherwise noted, the content of this profile is drawn from Giulia Bonacci, Exodus! Heirs and Pioneers, Rastafari Return to Ethiopia, University of the West Indies Press (2015).
Aarons, David. 2020. “From Babylon to Ethiopia: Continuities and Variations of Utopianism in Rastafari Reggae Music.” Popular Music and Society. Accessed from https://doi.org/10.1080/03007766.2020.1795480 on 15 December 2020.
Bonacci, Giulia. 2018. “‘It Would Have Pleased the Great Spirit of Mr. Garvey’: Helen and James Piper and the Return to Ethiopia.” International Journal of African Historical Studies 5: 293–31.
Bonacci, Giulia. 2016. “The Return to Ethiopia of the Twelve Tribes of Israel.” New West Indian Guide 90:1–27.
Bonacci, Giulia. 2015. Exodus! Heirs and Pioneers, Rastafari Return to Ethiopia. Kingston, Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press.
Bonacci, Giulia. 2013. “The Ethiopian World Federation: A Pan-African Organization among the Rastafari in Jamaica.” Caribbean Quarterly 59:73–95.
Christian, Ijahnya. 2018. “No Migration, Repatriation. Spiritual visionings and political limitations of Rastafari repatriation.” Pp. 316-32 in Routledge Handbook of Postcolonial Politics, edited by Olivia U. Rutazibwa and Robbie Shilliam. London: Routledge.
Gomes, Shelene. 2018. “Counter-Narratives of Belonging: Rastafari in the Promised Land.” The Global South 12:112-28.
MacLeod, Erin. 2014. Visions of Zion: Ethiopians and Rastafari in the Search for the Promised Land. New York: New York University Press.
Niaah, Jahlani. 2012. “The Rastafari Presence in Ethiopia: A Contemporary Perspective.” Pp. 66-88 in Rastafari in the New Millennium, edited by Michael Barnett. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.
Salmon, Sydney. Shashemene on my mind. Accessed from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YdvnENC_u0E on 15 December 2020.
19 December 2020