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Last children of Zion

GENERATION GAP: Shashamane resident Mawawa and her grandson at their home

‘FIGHTING ON arrival, fighting for survival’ are some of the well-worn lyrics of one of Bob Marley’s most famous songs.

And the words featured in Marley’s reggae anthem Buffalo Soldier could not ring more true for the Rastafari community of Shashamane, a small town 150 miles south of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

A group of devout Jamaican Rastas – descendants of those stolen from Africa and brought to the heart of the Caribbean – decided to not only dream, but to act on their desire to return to the place they saw as their religious and spiritual home.

In 1948, Ethiopian monarch Emperor Haile Selassie (1892 – 1975), donated 500 acres of his own private lands “for the black people of the world” to encourage displaced Africans to repatriate.

From the 1960s onwards, these early settlers made their way from Jamaica – where they faced being jailed or tortured for their way of life – to establish the oldest Rastafari settlement in the world.


But the community, consisting of approximately 800 men, women and children is now under threat. Much of the land originally donated by Emperor Selassie – considered by Rastas as God incarnated – has been reclaimed by successive governments, and many Ethiopians view the residents of Shashamane as outsiders.

Those who moved there are required to have working or resident visas and even those who are born on the settlement are not entitled to citizenship, leaving them in a state of limbo with little or no civil rights.

Their challenges captured the attention of international journalist Nadine Drummond, a producer for Al Jazeera, who grew up in Lewisham, south London, to Jamaican parents.

The Cambridge law graduate told The Voice: “I first heard about Shashamane in Buju Banton tune Til I’m Laid To Rest. There is a lyric where he says: ‘Mi guh down a Congo and stop inna Shashamane land’. I did not know what Shashamane was so I googled it. I read about this Jamaican Rasta community and because I love all things Jamaican, I promised myself I would visit.”

Last December during a birthday trip to Ethiopia, Drummond who lives and works in the Persian Gulf, chartered a taxi and headed to Shashamane to satisfy her curiosity.

FAITHFUL FOLLOWER: Teddy Dan, 56, sits next to a series of paintings of Emperor Haile Selassie. He is also the police chief of the community

She was so moved and inspired by what she experienced there that she is now planning to direct a feature-length documentary Jamharics: The Children of Zion to help tell their story. It will reflect the everyday lives of this unique group of people as they struggle to protect their way of life.

Jamharics – an amalgamation of Jamaica and Amharic, Ethiopia’s official language – is the term used to describe the new generation of Shashamane, who are at the forefront of defending their culture.


Drummond said: “The Rastafari community in Shashamane has found themselves facing battles on several fronts. The central government in Addis Ababa has been a constant threat, urging [them to] develop or decline.

“[Development] requires a serious injection of cash which won’t come from within given the few money-making options which exist. Children born on the settlement with both Caribbean parents are denied Ethiopian citizenship, leaving them ‘stateless’. Like their parents, as non-citizens they are unable to leave the country and return without incurring crippling financial penalties.”

In a trailer for the documentary, Shashamane resident Fekade Campbell puts it like this: “Ethiopians will say you’re not a real Ethiopian. Jamaicans will say you’re not a real Jamaican. We are nobody in a sense. Yet, we exist.”

The settlement 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.

Drummond is now trying to raise $40,000 (£25,000) to fund the project.

Half of the proceeds will be used to support existing community-based programmes and develop new ones, such as Ancient of Days, an initiative run by Ruben Kush, who moved to Shashamane from Birmingham two decades ago, which provides medical support to the original community members.

It will also help build sustainable HIV/Aids support projects, including awareness and prevention training.
Filming is expected to take place in 2014 in Ethiopia and Jamaica.

Drummond said: “Most people do not act on their words or beliefs, they just chat. But not these Rastas; no other group of people in the world have done what they have done. They left their tiny island, funded by their independent Rasta organisation and repatriated themselves back to Africa and made it possible for other Rastafari people from all over the world to settle in Shashamane.”

She added: “Their legacy, characterised by bravery and sacrifice should be celebrated as a major contribution to Jamaican and Pan African history.”

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