Why Ethiopia’s Rastafari community keeps dwindling


A purple tint covers the evening sky over Shashamane, home to Ethiopia’s remaining Rastafarians. Inside the house of the Ethiopian World Federation (EWF), a few Rastafarians are watching a documentary about how science is threatening people of color. “Yeah, that’s right,” they mutter now and then. In the front row, Ras Paul, wearing a red, yellow and green beanie, is in charge of the projector.

Initially, “the EWF [was] a black organization, not a Rastafarian one,” said Ras Paul, the only employee of the place. The federation was launched in the US in the 1930s to support Ethiopia during the Italian invasion and to promote black unity. After World War II, Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie granted 200 hectares of land to descendants of slaves who wished to find a home on the continent. The EWF was to administer and attribute the land in Shashamane. “We can only gain political power if we become self-sufficient and rule ourselves, and the only way we [people of color] can do that, is to return home to Africa,” Ras Paul explained.

Ethiopia's Emperor Haile Selassie (picture-alliance)Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie was hailed by Rastafarians as the Messiah who would unite Africa

Whereas the Rastafarians were not the only ones being targeted by Selassie’s land donation, they ended up being the vast majority to undertake the journey from Jamaica and other countries to Ethiopia. Haile Selassie was widely viewed by Rastafarians as the Messiah who would one day bring them back to Africa. This belief added a strong religious component to the repatriation movement. It was encouraged by Selassie himself, who visited Jamaica in 1966 and urged the Rastafarians to move to Shashamane.

“The land grant was originally corporate land, but the Rastafarians spiritualized it,” Ras Paul said in a British accent. He arrived in Ethiopia from the UK 20 years ago. “Religiously speaking, we were enslaved by the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Church. We learnt that for most world religions, you can find their foundations inside of Africa.”

Rastafarian belief is founded on an interpretation of the Old Testament. “The Bible was the only thing we were given to read as slaves; we see Ethiopia in the Bible and we identify with that. We can also identify with the story of Israelis going into Egypt and being slaves for 400 years,” said Ras Paul. But for the Rastafarians, the Holy Land is in Ethiopia. In Ras Paul’s office, the thin face of Haile Selassie gazes down from every wall. Rastas see him as the true reincarnation of the Christ, in accordance with biblical prophecy.

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Clash of Rastafari generations

A first influx of Rastafarians into Shashamane took place during the late 60s and the mid-70s. A second wave arrived from Jamaica in the early 1990s, after the Ethiopian Civil War. Nowadays, a discrepancy persists between the ones who were here “from the beginning” and those who made the journey in recent decades.

The older generation prefers not to talk about their past which they describe as a traumatic experience. But for those who settled over 50 years ago, the newcomers had it easy here and don’t have the legitimacy to speak in the name of the community.

Ras Paul in his Ethiopia office. (DW/M. Gerth Niculescu)Ras Paul, who left the UK for Ethiopia 20 years ago, believes Ethiopia is the Holy Land

“For many decades, they’ve held the political power within our community because they have some legitimacy, and for many years they were the only legitimate ones,” Ras Paul recalled. “So you find there will be a clash in that way: I’ve personally witnessed this.” The tall Rasta-man regrets that his community is to some extent “dysfunctional.”

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Legal status and integration

Internal squabbles, economic struggles and the difficulty of integrating with the local Ethiopian community have led many Rastafarians to leave town, either to find work in the capital Addis Ababa, or to move to another country. Only about 200 still live in Shashamane. In the late 90s, they numbered approximately 2,000.