Walking around the Rastafari quarter of Shashamane, a small town in southern Ethiopia, I saw buildings adorned by the three colors that the Rasta culture had famously adopted from the Ethiopian flag. In these buildings, settlers originally from the Caribbean with dreadlocks and a genuine Jamaican accent live precisely by the Rastafari doctrine, worship in a Rastafari church, and study in a Rastafari Jamaican school.
“Ganja is grown in the soil with the will of God. Who is the white man or the government to tell me that I can’t touch it and that I can’t smoke it?” artist Ras Hailu Tafari told me in his gallery.
In his Rastafari beliefs, ganja is a sacred element used for certain rituals and meditational purposes, despite the fact that it is considered illegal in Ethiopia. For the Rastafaris, the marijuana plant represents the Tree of Life that is mentioned in the Bible, referring to passages like “Thou shalt eat the herb of the field.”
Using nothing but materials extracted from the banana tree grown in his backyard, Ras Hailu Tafari creates artwork that depicts a simpler rural life and women in traditional dress plowing the fields. He dissects every branch of the banana tree, separating each layer and grouping it in a stack of other banana tree layers of the same colors. His art reflects the simplicity of his house and the garden outside. Dressed in typical Rastafari fashion, 64-year-old Ras Hailu is a flirtatious man with a young heart.
Unlike his artwork, the streets of Shashamane have lost their rural essence but haven’t yet metamorphosed into a fully developed urban space. It is perhaps this incomplete transition that makes locals like him reminisce about the simpler life of old. Talking to the other locals of his age, I could feel this yearning for the past.
Another local woman told me about her migration with her family to Ethiopia. Sitting in her small garden, which she has turned into a charming restaurant, she introduced herself as Jamaican, like other Rastafaris around Shashamane. Here, she seems to be in her comfort zone, receiving guests and diners as well as her own daughters and their children.
Her family probably moved here when the late Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, born as Ras Tafari, gifted 500 acres of his land to Rastafaris from the Caribbean Islands. This was just a couple of decades after the Caribbean-based movement Return to Africa declared him as a messiah, giving birth to the Rastafari religion. This is how Ethiopia came to be perceived as the Promised Land of Zion that the Africans were meant to return to after centuries of arduous exile and slavery.
But this is how the elders, who can claim to have some memory of the Caribbean islands, see the world. Rasta youth seem to be living on a different planet, looking forward to the future rather that dwelling on the past. For my local guide Esa, 23, working in tourism full time cannot sustain him. Through an iPhone with a cracked screen, he proudly showed me photos of himself with other tourists that he had befriended over the years. For him, a perfect day consists of a small job with tourists like this one followed by an evening of Reggae singing and dancing along with other Rastas in the local bar.
When he is not busy with tourists, he grows ganja in his backyard. Once, he told me, he packed all the ganja that he had harvested and went to neighboring Kenya in search for a lucrative deal. In Nairobi, he was cornered by a local gang and ran for his life, barely making it alive to Ethiopia.
I wrote this post as a part of exercises given in Lonely Planet’s How to be a Travel Writer