To most people, Rastafarians are synonymous with Jamaica and reggae music. Of course, the most famous being Bob Marley. I was first introduced to Rastafarian culture in the 1980’s, when I lived close to Brixton (London). I would often visit the area to enjoy the Rastafarian vibe, eat the great food and be closer to my ethnic roots. The UK has second largest Jamaican diaspora (Scattering of people from their ethnic roots) to the United States, outside of Jamaica itself. This post follows on from Rastafarians of Zion-1
At the time, I had no idea about ‘Zion’. My knowledge of the Rastafari movement was limited to general cliche’s. In 2010, all that changed. During a holiday in Ethiopia, we passed through a small town called Shashamane, about 240 kms south of Addis Ababa. The difference between Rasta image and Rasta reality, couldn’t have been greater.
Since then, I have returned to Ethiopia a number of times. As well as other areas, I have spent one month in Shashamane. The history of The Promised Land is too complex to cover in a short blog post. I am also not the best person to explain it. Therefore, my focus is on the Rastafarian community who have returned to The Promised Land. For they believe that they are fulfilling a prophecy that Africans and descendants of African slaves, will return.
Originally from Martinique, Ras Mau Mau repatriated to Shashamane 15 years ago. Most Rastafarians make incredible sacrifices to repatriate. He and his wife lived in the bushes for two years with their new born child in Martinique so that they could save enough money to return to The Promised Land. He now has four children. It was the first time that he had ever left Martinique. It was the first time that he had ever seen Ethiopia. He has not left since.
Three of his children were born in Ethiopia, yet have no citizenship rights. Like nearly all Rastafarians, he is unable to leave Ethiopia or travel abroad without a complicated administrative process and large fine (Extends over fifteen years). This is because he originally arrived on a tourist visa.
Smoking ganja is an important aspect of the Rastafarian faith. Its not just about getting high or for recreational use. It’s more about reaching a higher conscious sense of awareness and emotion to facilitate spiritual enlightenment through forms of meditation. Ras Mau Mau (and other Rastafarians) are relaxed about being photographed whilst smoking as they want the reality of daily Rastafarian life portrayed.
Ras John Judah is one of the few white Rastafrians currently living in Shashamane. He arrived in March 2014 with his wife and two children. A third child was recently born in Shashamane. Originally from USA, they lived in Florida and Texas. Ras John Judah says that he always knew he was different. He and his wife became interested in reggae and the true meaning of the lyrics helped guide them to the Rastafarian faith. Eventually they realised that they were not meant to live in America and made the decision to leave for Shashamane. This was the first time that they had ever travelled outside of the United States. At first, their family and friends did not welcome the news, however, Ras John Judah and his wife continued with their chosen path. Now their families are more accepting and have started to reconnect again.
Since arriving in Shashamane, Ras John Judah and his family have not left Ethiopia. Like nearly all Rastafarians, they arrived on a short tourist visa that has long expired. An accumulative daily fine of $10 is now payable. There are also other challenges for White Rastafarians. They are not considered as true Rastafarians by all in the faith. This is due to the fact that the idea of the ‘repatriation’ within Rastafarian beliefs, relates to black African slaves that were taken from Africa and sold in the west. Ras John Judah hopes to visit India with his family one day.
Ras Kabinda was formerly known by his birth name Desmond Trotter. Whilst living on the island of Dominica, he was arrested, convicted and sentenced to hang in 1974 for the murder of a white American tourist. At the trial, he was defended by Maurice Bishop – Later to-be-foreign minister in the Freedom Party government.
Desmond Trotter was a well known activist and claimed that the charges were politically motivated. He managed to escape from prison after four years and hid in the hills. Eventually, the political turmoil that engulfed the island in 1979, led to the toppling of the Patrick John Administration. It was less than a year after he led Dominica into Independence from Britain. Desmond Trotter was subsequently acquitted and pardoned by the new administration. In 1987, he went to live in the UK. Whilst he had been to Ethiopia a few times, he repatriated in 1992 and is now known as Ras Kabinda.
Whilst still passionately campaigning for Rastafarian land rights, he lives peacefully as a herbal practitioner in Shashamane. Ras Kabinda is a tall and mildly unassuming man at first glance. However, when you get to speak to him, you see a warm, impassioned and articulate man who has experienced a great deal in life, yet appears to be at peace with himself and the world around him.
Ras Lee-I repatriated to Shashamane twelve years ago. He used to live in Miami, where he still has a wife and children, whom he has not seen since. He hopes that one day he sons will visit him to see where he lives. Ras Lee-I has also lived in Indonesia where he exported Rastafarian style crafts to Shashamane.
His life in Shashamane has not been easy. Like most Rastafarians who repatriate, he does not have legal immigration status. Thus he cannot own land, has very few legal rights and is not permitted to work. He says that much of the original large plot of land where he settled has been taken from him without compensation. First when a road was built through part if it. Then, another man had him imprisoned until he signed much of his land over to him. The man then built a house on this land. All Ras Lee-I has left is a small corner plot where he lives in a small two room shack.
Many Rastafarians rent land from Ethiopians. some also get Ethiopians to buy land on their behalf. However, the later often causes issues as the Ethiopian national will retain all ownership rights. When asked how he manages to live under such circumstances, he replied “I always keep faith”.
Sista Berenice is a caring and passionate young Rastafarian with incredible energy. She is French and the daughter of the mayor of a small french town. Her Rastafarian destiny started at the age of seven years old. Her school was raising funds to buy rice for Ethiopian children and since then, she felt a connection with Africa.
Growing up, she started listening to reggae music and hanging out with Rastafarians. Eventually, she went to live in Jamaica for a couple of years. It was there that she heard about an NGO that was looking for someone to run a school in Shashamane. She applied and was accepted.
Due to the complex immigration status for Rastafarians, she wanted to come to Ethiopia officially as an employee. However, when she arrived she soon learnt that the school was not registered as an NGO. For the next two years, she worked tirelessly to gain official status for the school, leaving Ethiopia every three months as she was on a tourist visa. Eventually all came together and now she and the school are settled. She is one of the few Rastafarian settlers to have a legal work status in Shashamane.
Yawanta Children’s School looks after children with HIV (around 50% of the children) or who are socially deprived. She explains that the school provides free nutritional, medical, educational and phycological support to 120 orphans and extremely vulnerable children of Shashamane, majority being HIV +
The school is entirely funded by donations, mainly from her network outside of Ethiopia. Every day is a constant struggle to make ends meet.
Understandably, the Rastafarian community of Zion is wary of outsiders. Especially of people with big camera’s and their motivations for taking photographs. It took considerable time to gain the trust needed to take these images. For that, I am truly thankful to the Rastafarian community…One Love.
All images taken with a Hasselblad H5D-50c, 50mm, 80mm lenses, Profoto B1 + 3ft Octa.
To see more photographs and read more stories about the Rastafarians of Zion, visit my web esamhassanyeh