In 1948, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie set aside 500 acres of land for the “Black people of the world”. He wanted to reward those in the African diaspora who helped Ethiopian forces during the turbulent times of the Italian Occupation.
Within few years a few West Indians took Emperor Selassie up on his offer. But from the 1960s Rastafari people from Jamaica and around the world began to make their way to the cradle of the Rift Valley in southern Ethiopia. They had come together to help establish and develop the town of Shashamane. Armed with faith and determination, they worked to create their spiritual sanctuary and heaven on earth, their Zion.
But many of these families experienced decades of upheaval including famine, regional conflicts, economic decline and, finally, at times persecution at the hands of the Ethiopian government. Rastafari faith and community helped them endure, but today, some members of the community are in crisis and are facing serious questions about their way of life. Rastafari people often settle at what would be considered the lowest social class of Ethiopian society and some of their children exist in a legal and political vacuum which acts an impediment to development.
Shashamane is also debating whether to open its community to outsiders — a move that could provide economic benefits but could also impact its culture and identity.
Like much of the continent, the community is also battling the scourge of HIV and Aids.
In a world where Bob Marley is an instantly-recognizable icon and reggae music makes millions of dollars, Shashamane, the city that Rasta’s built remains largely unknown, its contributions ignored and its legacy written out the annals of history.
It is Jamharics — those mixed Ethiopian and Jamaican children born in Shashamane — who have inherited the difficult task of preserving the history of their pioneering elders.
Who will help them?