Rastafarians, in Ethiopia almost 70 years, are still regarded as outcasts in a land promised to them by their God, Emperor Haile Sellassie.
Black activist and Rastafarian Elder, Ras Kabinda Habre Sellassie is one of the few Rastafarian, devotees to remain in Ethiopia despite the official retracting of the Land Grant by the Ethiopian administration. Since Emperor Haile Sellassie I (1894-1975) was deposed in 1974, and subsequently died while under house arrest the following year, this north-eastern African kingdom has been ruled by a revolutionary council, then a democratically elected government who both viewed Rastafarians with scorn because of their devotion to the deceased Emperor.
No one could have predicted following the coronation of a 36-year-old, Ethiopian Crown Prince, Ras Tafari Makonnen as Emperor Haile Sellassie I in Addis Ababa on November 2nd 1930, that by 2010 this event would inspire a world-wide movement that venerated him as The Almighty God.
In a 1928 speech, Marcus Garvey (1887-1940), Jamaican Pan-Africanist and promoter of a back-to-Africa movement, urged his followers to “look to Africa when a black king will be crowned, and when you see that the day of deliverance will be near.” His was a sentiment shared by black preacher Leonard Howell(1898-1981) who is known as the first Rasta. And so it was, in 1930, that the Rastafarian movement was born, its followers identified by their shaggy dreadlocks, sacred use of marijuana and insistent demands for repatriation.
As his ancestors had done for centuries before him, the Emperor was bestowed with the biblical titles: ‘King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and Conquering Lion of Judah.’ His ancestors had always claimed that their lineage could be traced back to the union of King Solomon and Queen of Sheba, and that he was the 225th in an unbroken line of successive monarchs. This was enough to convince Garvey and Howell and their followers in the city of Kingston, Jamaica, that the seven seals of the book of Revelation had been opened, and that redemption was near for a people who had been under the yoke of slavery for nearly 400 years.
The first settlers
In 1948 the benevolent Emperor donated 500 hectares of his personal estate in Ethiopia to the Rastafarians, members of the Ethiopian World Federation Inc and black people in the Caribbean and the USA in general. This was his way of saying thank you for their moral and financial support for Ethiopian monarchy and his troops during the Second Italo–Abyssinian War of October 1935 to May 1941. The promised land was in the region of Shashemane, “ a thriving market town” 150 miles south of Addis Ababa.
The first settlers to take up the offer of the Emperor and repatriate to Ethiopia were: Mr James Piper and his wife in 1955 who were nationals of the Eastern Caribbean island of Montserrat, followed by Dr. Gladstone Robinson from the United States of America in 1964. According to the record, Papa Noel Dyer arrived from the Bahamas in 1965. The exodus to the promised land was boosted following a visit to Jamaica by His Imperial Majesty in 1966, which saw the population soar to 2000 in its heyday.
Following the revolution, however, under a program of nationalisation, the revolutionary council reclaimed all but 11 hectares of the land grant which was to a large extent underdeveloped and underused by the Rastafarians. After this, Rastafarians were treated with disrespect and numbers soon dwindled to 300. The Rastafarians, who prior to the events leading up to the overthrow of the Emperor were regarded as a curiosity by Ethiopians, were now unwelcome guests – one Rastafarian even said he was spat upon.
Although Ethiopia is now governed by a democratic government, many of the policies, particularly the attitude of the Mengistu Haile Mariam regime towards the Emperor are still maintained even though, the dictator was ousted by a counter coup in 1991. The royal standard of the Lion of Judah has been removed from the nation flag. Mention of the role Emperor Haile Sellassie and Empress Menen had in shaping modern Ethiopia are all but erased from the official school syllabus, says Ras Kabinda.
Ras Kabinda, who first visited Ethiopia in 1989, and in 1992, has made Shashemane his home permanently, and has been involved in agricultural development and the building of additional classrooms for nearby schools. He is also actively involved in teaching Ethiopian farmers alternative farming methods such as integrated farming.
Part of the problem, Ras Kabinda cites, is the failure of some organisations to make good their promises for the development of acquired lands. He noted also that the import duty on vehicles for development purposes is almost 100 percent, and to obtain investor status one needs to give the government one million Birr (Ethiopian currency) or £48,056.50 British Pounds to obtain duty free concessions. In addition, Ras Kabinda calls on reggae artistes to make good their pledges to financially assist the brethren. “The pledges are not forthcoming, despite representation to the Ethiopian Government on their behalf,” according to Kabinda..
“It’s a struggle out here right now, “ Ras Kabinda told this author, when I met him in London earlier this year, “as legislation is being implemented that will greatly curtail the lands under I and I control. Limiting I to only 500 square metres per person.” Kabinda told me that previously, when he arrived in Shashemane he had an abundance of land to cultivate. His years in the Dominican forests had greatly prepared him for toiling the soil. “Presently,” he says, “I own 3,500 square metres which I plant with various vegetables and fruits so as to maintain a certain level of self-sufficiency…I have lived on these lands for twenty years, now it is seriously threatened by new urbanisation legislation.”
Ras Kabinda explained that the area where the Land grant was given back in 1948 was considered rural lands, but with the expansion of the town, Shashemane now seeks more lands for urban development. “Over the past two weeks, “the Rastaman continues, “I have been fighting an attempt by certain local authorities to breakdown I house on the grounds that it is in the path of an intended new road. This has been the 7th time they have tried to terrorise I man. Earlier this year, a gang organised by the local Kebele, tore down I fence, it cost I over 3,500 birr to repair it.” Kabinda continues to make representation to the Central Oromo Government under who’s jurisdiction the Shashemane town authorities fall.
Meanwhile, in a recent communication, Kabinda lamented how the Ethiopia authorities continue to make it difficult for Rastafarians in prison to be afforded their human rights.
“Satan has been giving I and I a spiritual fight,” Kabinda said adding, “by preventing I and I from seeing Idren in captivity.” Kabinda says that the prison officials claim that if the individual is a British national, that he will not be able to see him unless accompanied by a member of the British Embassy. According to Kabinda, “the embassy gave I and I letters giving I and I multiple visiting rights yet dem still refuse I and I…”
The struggle continues….
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