In late November 2015 I visited Shashemene, Ethiopia, in Africa. It was a decades-long goal of mine to make this visit to see first-hand what life was like for the Jamaican Rastas who had repatriated there.
My interest in the Rastafarians of Shashemene evolved from significant personal, psychocultural issues while growing up in Jamaica. Like many Jamaicans, my childhood years were fraught with numerous misunderstandings and deliberate misrepresentations about Rastafari. Even the person who loved me most, my mother, instilled in me egregious conclusions about Rastas. Back then, many Jamaicans believed the Rastaman was a “black heart man.” We were told some were “cannibals”, that you had to be careful because they would “eat yuh.” The ridiculous assumptions were many.
My mother, a staunch Christian, was permanently suspicious of anything to do with Rasta, due to the practice of some in believing that the former Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, was God. Given mama’s conviction that the validity of the Christian version of God was unshakable and universal, she concluded that Rastas must be “mad” in believing the absurdity that a man could be God. She made sure to passionately and continually share those concerns to me, which led to me holding a significant fear of Rastas.
Later however, I began to learn different about Rastas. I met many and found them to possess pretty much the same diverse qualities of all Jamaicans – with the exceptions being their whole existence was focused on fighting racism against black people, educating their fellow Jamaicans about their self-hatred based on race, and celebrating everything from Africa. They were also the first group of people to whom I was exposed that was very disciplined about a healthy diet. Another ‘first’ for me with Rastas was their emphasis of keeping fit as a lifestyle. It may be hard to imagine given the present keep-fit craze that exists all over, but back in those days working-class Jamaicans simply didn’t live a fit lifestyle, that was left only to athletes.
The biggest thing for most Rastas though, back then, was their passionate yearning to leave Jamaica (the West) and to “return to the East” to permanently live in Africa.
While Jamaican Rastas championed all things African, it was always Ethiopia they most celebrated. I took note that many even referred to the entire continent of Africa as Ethiopia. Their love for Ethiopia was grounded in the very reason Rastafari became manifest in Jamaica: the 1920s “prophecy” from Marcus Garvey to “look to the East for the crowning of a Black King” who would be the savior, a “prophecy” Jamaican Rastas deemed fulfilled when Ras Makonnen was crowned Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia.
Decades later, Jamaican Rastas continued their fight against oppression of the people of the African diaspora and continued to teach a more positive perspective on Africa and Ethiopia. These teachings were to mitigate my development in a most profound manner.
As aforementioned, my Jamaican childhood was one fraught with Black self-hatred. “White”, “clear-skinned” and “brown” were openly and relatively celebrated as being better than black. It was quite common to hear Jamaicans curse each other as “yuh black an ugly like.” Everything with even the smallest African retention was ridiculed and relegated to the domain of the superstitious, the ridiculous, and the profane. Africa bad; Europe good. Black bad; white good.
Many Jamaicans were impacted by the collective practice of weaponizing self-hatred against each other – an I was no exception. In school I was teased mercilessly about my African features. I was bullied about my complexion, my mout, and especially my nose. Being a child and unaware how to handle the attacks I reacted the worst way I could – I fought back physically. Of course, the more I fought back the more I confirmed to them their weapons were having an impact. The situation got so bad that it resulted in me feeling awful about myself. At times I wished I didn’t have the features they teased me about. I was constantly angry, confused, depressed and unwarrantedly ashamed – ashamed of who I was – because of the teasing. The psychological consequences were devastating. However, while I did not yet have the mental tools to fight back cognitively, I sure knew how to physicalize my anger at the bullies. I constantly got into fights. The fights got worse with pencil, pen, fork and compass stabbings, (‘compass’ refers to a sharply pointed tool we used in school for arithmetic). I became a “problem child” in school. The teachers exclaimed they didn’t know what to do with me. Eventually it was decided I needed “help” and the decision was made to send me to a psychiatrist. I was sent to one Dr. Knight at the University Hospital of the West Indies. That didn’t help. The “problem child” got worse. They then sent me to the real hospital for what they referred to as “mad people”: Bellevue hospital on Windward Road in Kingston.
At Bellevue I saw the famed psychiatrist, Dr. Aggrey Irons. What was good was that after he completed his diagnosis, I very clearly remember him telling me “nothing is wrong with you my son. You’re perfectly okay.” He even joked around with me. This was significant because by then, at 9 years old, I think I had unconsciously accepted the outside definition that I was a “problem child” and was indeed conflicted with the impact of the teasings. So, hearing for the first time, someone who knew all about my fights and stabbings, telling me that nothing was wrong with me and that I was okay proved tremendously important. Dr. Irons sent me back to my school and informed the school’s authorities that nothing was wrong with me. His conclusions, however, did not deter those around me from still believing something was wrong with me. I was to continue my journey through life with the same internal confusion and struggles of self-worth and lack of confidence.
Years later while studying theater arts at the Jamaica National School of Drama, I joined a crew of students and staff who would daily meet under our special lignum vitae tree and smoke the best ganja ever, and “reason”, joke around and philosophize about all imaginable subjects of life. During one of our hanging outs the issue of Jamaicans’ self-hatred came up. It was then that Owen Ellis, affectionately known as Blakka, explained how we Jamaicans came to hate ourselves. The remarkable depth of his knowledge, his ease and brilliance as a communicator who was able to simplify complex concepts to make them easily understood, coupled with the examples he provided that were one hundred percent relevant, immediately captured my attention. I felt his knowledge. As I sat there deep in the effects of my ganja and listening to Blakka, I was amazed that he singularly clarified, contextualized and explained all the problems I had at Calabar All Age School and all the internal flux I carried years thereafter. It was a moment of profound epiphany. Blakka solved a problem my teachers couldn’t, and psychiatrists didn’t. Blakka made me realize I was never a problem child.
Blakka made sure to let us know that what he shared was from Rastafari. Even though he had apparently found reason to have cut off all his locks, he exclaimed that he was still a Rasta. I took careful note of the connection between the liberating feelings of Blakka’s knowledge and the fact that the source of that knowledge was from Rastafari. Throughout later years I continued to seek refuge, strength and confidence from Rastafari teachings. My final thesis in one of my majors at my undergraduate institution, Vassar College, was on Rastafari. My doctoral dissertation in anthropology at the University of Connecticut was started on Rastafari but was changed due to my being in the middle of a “change of status” application with the US immigration authorities, which prevented me travelling at the time, which would have been necessary for me to complete the required fieldwork for my degree. In short, the teachings of Rastafari became permanently important for me. I was also permanently curious about what was to become the outcome of what I consider to be the ultimate goal of many Rastas: repatriation to Ethiopia.
After years of planning I finally put all the necessary resources together to visit Ethiopia in late 2015, and to specifically visit Shashemene: the home of repatriated Rastas.
I arrived at night in Ethiopia through Addis Ababa. The very next morning I was at the museum. I was excited to see the great archaeological finds of some of the earliest evidence of humans. Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, East Africa in general, and South Africa have long yielded some of the oldest evidence of human genesis…prompting some to refer to the area as the “cradle of humanity.” I found it thoroughly educational and exciting to have had the opportunity to see that vast evidence in the museum.
At the museum I also got to see and touch the throne of H.I.M. Emperor Haile Selassie. As I touched the throne it crossed my mind that I was having an experience that was the dream of thousands of Rastas all over the world.
The following day I met my contact for the Rastafari of Shashemene, Desmond Martin. Desmond’s effervescent and welcoming personality immediately placed me at ease. Our conversation progressed to the point where I decided I had to do record an impromptu interview with him right there in my hotel room. The interview turned out to be the highlight of my trip to Ethiopia. Desmond’s revelation of his journey as a Rastaman from Jamaica through his repatriation to Ethiopia was one characterized by hope, courage, obstacles, fear, resilience, fearlessness, contradictions, pain, rejuvenation, and success in the continued growth of a vision of Rastafari.
Desmond also took me to Shashemene, where, coincidentally, the Rastafari community was smack in the middle of a most horrific event that in unprecedented ways tested their commitment to the goals of their repatriation: the murder of a repatriated Rasta. My being able to witness in person their steadfast and valiant response to that trauma helped greatly in solidifying the success of my my main objective for going to Ethiopia: to obtain an organic understanding of the Rastafari of Shashemene. Though visibly disturbed by the death of their colleague, they remained firmly committed to the success of Rastafari repatriation.
My trip to Shashemene, Ethiopia was indeed quite memorable and, most importantly, facilitated a much better understanding of the original vision and mission of Rastafari. My time there was way too short though. I needed more time to better understand the dynamics of living there.
Videos of my trip to Ethiopia, including snippets of my interview with Desmond, are available here on ragashanti.com. Other videos, including the full interview with Desmond, will be available in the RagaWorld area of this site.
It is my hope to revisit Ethiopia in the future and to learn much more.