It’s been nearly 60 years since Haile Selassie, the last emperor of Ethiopia, granted 500 acres of rural land to a newly burgeoning religion whose followers had begun worshipping him as a Messiah. The first Rastafarians arrived in the decades after 1948 when the area in Shashamane, southern Ethiopia, was bequeathed to them.
More than half a century and two Ethiopian revolutions later, repatriation — returning to the continent their ancestors were forced to leave as slaves — is still recognized as deeply important by Rastafarians across the world. For those who make the journey across the globe to begin a new life in the country considered their Zion, however, the reality can be far from heavenly.
Shortly after VICE News visited Shashamane, the town where hundreds of Rastafarians still reside on the land that Selassie designated to them, an elder Rastafari man was murdered in his home, in what appears to be motivated by land tensions of the sort that are characterizing the country.
Clifton Simeon — or “Brother Grimes” — was 60, unmarried, and living alone when he was attacked.
On November 11, 2015, a friend arrived at his home to bring Simeon dinner. Instead, he discovered Simeon’s dead body — bloodied, with bruises on his head, and cuts on his neck.
Simeon had been in Shashamane less than five years. A Trinidadian, he lived in America before deciding to make the journey to Ethiopia, his promised land and spiritual home.
The killing has shaken up the Rastafarian community, acting as a violent reminder of the unease that simmers between the self-declared pilgrims and some of the local, mostly impoverished Ethiopians who remain bewildered by or even resentful of their presence.
The Twelve Tribes of Israel headquarters. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)
Shashamane is 155 miles south of the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. Traveling down brown dirt roads on the drive, you pass partially erected buildings. Ethiopia feels like a country under construction. Chinese, Saudi, and Indian money is pouring in. Ethiopia was predicted to have the world’s fastest growing economy in the four years up to 2017, but it remains one of the poorest countries on earth. It’s also the second most populous in Africa, with close to 100 million inhabitants.
Like the capital, Shashamane has the atmosphere of somewhere being renovated. Fields further out from the center are filling up with cement structures. Stacks of stones lie in front of half-completed houses. Almost everyone in the town seems to be looking for a money-making scheme or an escape route — except the Rastafarians.
There are around 800 of them from about 20 different countries including Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Guadeloupe and Martinique, and France. Many of those countries don’t have a diplomatic presence in Ethiopia and the new settlers are barred from claiming citizenship, even if their children are born there.
Their area of the town is easily distinguished. It’s colorful — the Ethiopian and Rastafari colors of red, black, green, and gold are everywhere.
Meanwhile, Lonely Planet’s guidebook on Ethiopia highlights Shashamane as one of the places a visitor needs to be most vigilant for thieves. The town is a crossroads — a transit point where buses head out in every direction, including to Addis Ababa.
When VICE News met Rastafarian and banana artist Bandi Payne he was pacing inside his small gallery. He had been robbed the night before. He showed off his art distractedly, directing the occasional complaint at a friend. The thieves were local Ethiopian youths, he said. They break in regularly.
Rastafarian banana artist Bandi Payne at his home and art gallery in Shashamane (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)
After hearing of Simeon’s death in November, VICE News contacted the Jamaica Rastafarian Development Community (JRDC), an NGO run by Rastafarians which operates in Shashamane. A spokesperson confirmed it: “Greetings, We are sad to report the news of Brother Clifton’s demise on November 10, 2015. We pray for justice. May his soul rest in peace.”
Reports of the murder spread swiftly through the Rastafarian community.
“The American man who was assassinated?” Alex, one of the owners of Shashamane’s Zion Train Lodge, queried in response to VICE News asking him about Simeon. “I know what you’re talking about. We’ve heard a lot about it.”
Alex said thieves wanted to steal Simeon’s belongings and take his property. The situation “wasn’t new,” Alex said, adding he had heard Simeon had written of threats in a notebook.
Sister Lorna, a neighbor and friend of Simeon’s, also spoke about what had happened. She originally met him when they were both living in New York.
“He was found dead at his home and a lot of his stuff was stolen,” she said. “The police have apprehended several people and the prosecutor is putting a case together.” She said the trial had been put off for a few weeks.
“There seems to have been another motivation, like the person who he got the land from apparently needed more money or needed to get the land back or whatever.”
Lorna said the attackers were local Ethiopians. “We’re still trying to come to terms with what has happened because now everybody feels a little vulnerable.”
“There really wasn’t any tension between our community and their community, but this has created a little,” she continued. “We feel vulnerable now. And usually in Ethiopia it’s petty robbery, they do these things when you’re not at home, but it’s very unusual for somebody to rob you while you’re there and even kill you… So it’s a little jarring to all of us.”
VICE News heard locals refer to Rastafarians disparagingly as ‘monkeys,’ while saying they disapproved of their lack of work ethic
Saturday would have been musician and notable Rastafarian Bob Marley’s 71st birthday. Over the weekend, hundreds will descend on Shashamane for two days of festivals, with 14 artists playing, a bazaar, DJs, and drumming sessions. “Peace, love, unity, and a good cause,” one advertisement reads.
Friday was also set to be the beginning of the murder trial, which was delayed during a wait for the autopsy report that was completed last week. Four suspects face charges for involvement in the killing.
Several people who spoke to VICE News about Shashamane’s legal system gave scathing indictments, but Lorna seemed quite calm about the upcoming proceedings.
Nearly three months after the death, Lorna also said tensions were no longer as high, though the community remained “bewildered” and upset. “It’s basically back to where it was — which is fairly peaceful, until something happens.”
Banana art depicting Haile Selassie, the last emperor of Ethiopia. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)
Many Rastafarians are now taking action to increase securities around them, such as hiring watchmen to guard their property, or getting dogs. “Lots of prayers for safety [too], that’s a deadly weapon,” Lorna laughed.
She said there has not been any backlash or increased animosity; there was a common understanding of the greater issues affecting the whole country, which had been demonstrated on a personal level in this incidence. “Land has become a very precious commodity, and in Ethiopia you’re not allowed to own land, you’re occupying it, but at the same time it’s so precious that it’s money to people.”
Shashamane is located in the Oromia Region — where deadly protests have been taking place over the past few months against the government’s recently-shelved “master plan” — a strategy to expand Addis Ababa into the farmland surrounding it.
At least 140 people — many students — were reportedly killed by government security forces during demonstrations that began in November.
Opposition leaders, including Deputy Chairman of the Oromo Federalist Congress Party Bekele Gerba, have since been imprisoned. In an email to VICE News, 10 days before he was arrested at his home in December, Gerba said that he felt the protests — one of the “biggest events” in the Horn of Africa — were being underreported.
‘Reality didn’t kill the dream’
Lorna said the Addis Ababa master plan meant that many Ethiopians had been forced to divide up their land into smaller pieces and put some of it up for sale. “So I think there’s a little jealousy when they see that we still have our land.” She said that Simeon’s death could stem from that kind of resentment.
According to Lorna, many of Shashamane’s Ethiopians who had lived in the town for decades were outspoken against Simeon’s killing, passing their condolences on to his friends and the Rastafarian community.
But she said the town’s quickly growing population — which has now topped 100,000 — was adding to feelings of uneasiness. “A lot of them came recently and they don’t know us,” she said. “We’ve become so dramatically outnumbered and we’re a little fearful of that because we are used to Shashamane being really for Rastas. Not that other people weren’t here, but we were so many and they were so few.”
People gravitate to where there’s infrastructure, she noted. “Shashamane became that for this area, people coming from all different angles — it became a crossroads… That’s really changed the whole climate for Rastafarians living in Shashamane. It’s not the same as we have anticipated or accepted or enjoyed years ago. It’s a different kind of thing now.”
(Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)
Simeon was a member of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, one particular organized order — or “mansion” — of the Rastafari movement. When VICE News visited their Shashamane headquarters, two months before the murder, several septuagenarians sat on a wooden bench inside the gated compound. They offered around a joint, before one dreadlocked man began explaining how his ancestors were treated in his birth country. “I don’t need to work here, I’ve escaped slavery,” he said. “That’s how the blacks were treated in Jamaica; you’ll know that if you know your history.”
Outside the mansion’s gates, VICE News heard locals refer to Rastafarians disparagingly as “monkeys,” while saying they disapproved of their lack of work ethic. Many also had major issues with the use of marijuana — though the stimulant khat is commonly chewed in Ethiopia, cannabis is illegal.
In contrast, sacramental use of cannabis in celebration of the Rastafari faith became legal in Jamaica on April 15, 2015.
However, Ethiopia is not the only country where Rastafarians face problems. Followers of the religion can be found across the world — in countries including Botswana, Japan, Madagascar, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Their obstacles differ — in Malawi, for example, children have been banned from wearing dreadlocks in schools.
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“No one deserves to die like that,” Giulia Bonacci — a historian and researcher at the Institute of Research for Development in France — said sadly, speaking of Simeon. Bonacci is a Rastafarian herself, and has written a book called Exodus! Heirs and Pioneers, Rastafari Return to Ethiopia.
“In Ethiopia there are no [other] communities of international foreigners who [have tried] to settle and integrate themselves in that level of Ethiopian society, in a secondary town, far away from the capital city,” she said, explaining why Shashamane fascinated her. “It’s both a very special community and a very abandoned one and despite that it’s quite striking to see that returns actually continue, and that was one thing in my work — myth can surpass reality in that respect.”
“Reality didn’t kill the dream,” she continued. “New arrivals have adapted to a new environment, new surroundings, new challenges, and they strive their best to develop themselves, their businesses, their communities.” They do this without any identification papers, Bonacci noted, because they have been given no right to citizenship, while in the background is the question of what their existence as the descendants of former slaves entitles them to. “What is their right to Africa today?”
Rules for entering one of the Rastafarian places of worship. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)
“Repatriation was both a cornerstone of Rastafarian belief and it was also understood in the literature as an utopist, escapist illusion.”
However, the Rastafarians couldn’t escape the broader social issues in the country, which are often closely linked to land ownership.
Throughout the last decade, different complications have been more pressing but Bonacci said: “Today what is really at stake is the recognition of the community and the acknowledgement of what they were able to contribute to local development. Since the Ethiopian revolution in 1974 there has been no formal policy from the Ethiopian government in their regards, and as much as they are tolerated, they are not embraced or integrated formally by the government.”
Bonacci spoke about the precarious position Rastafarians are still occupying — particularly in relation to their lack of documentation which means they can’t get bank accounts, can’t establish registered businesses, and regularly face other legal obstacles. Young people have it especially bad, she said, because “they’re born in Ethiopia, they grew up in Ethiopia, they went to Ethiopian schools, they speak Ethiopian languages and they are not entitled to ID papers.”
All Ethiopian land was nationalized after the 1974 revolution, which resulted in the imprisonment of Selassie and death the following year. “Since then, even though it’s been granted and removed a number of times by the Ethiopian government there is no formal acknowledgement of [Selassie’s] original land grant by the Ethiopian authorities and the neighborhood and context has changed so much that I am not sure they will ever be able to get back their 500 acres,” she said.
Bonacci also suggested that local Ethiopians might be a bit jealous of the Rastas. “These are people that leave New York, London, to go to Ethiopia — a country where there’s serious demographic pressure and the young people just dream about running away… [Ethiopians] have a difficult time understanding why would people leave New York to come to Shashamane.”
The academic also said that it was unfair to say Rastas don’t work — in fact the percentage of unemployed was similar to the rest of Ethiopia, where it is high throughout.
Sandrine, who runs the Zion Train Lodge in Shashamane. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)
“It’s no longer a question of color, is it?” said Selassie’s great-nephew Asfa-Wossen Asserate, referring to the Rastafarians who congregate beside a train station near his home in Germany.
Asserate, 67, met VICE News while in London for a book launch. The former royal family member was studying abroad during the 1974 revolution, and many members of his family were imprisoned — some for decades.
He has since been to Shashamane many times. “I think it’s a very interesting place where they are really doing a lot of good by showing Ethiopians what the green theory is, that you work with non-chemical things,” he said.
However, he’s not a big fan of cannabis, and thinks it’s “bizarre” it’s been linked to Selassie in any way. “They shouldn’t be smoking it. This is not the thing which we want to show to the youth of Ethiopia. We have enough problems, you know, and smoking ganja, they should not ask people to partake in that and lead people to believe that it is not a harmful drug.”
A cannabis plant growing inside Rastafarian property. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)
In a country like Ethiopia “where we need people to work for a living and they need to have a clear mind,” Asserate continued, “any kind of drug is not agreeable.”
The Rastafari worship of Selassie was inspired by the words of black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey, who declared in 1920: “Look to Africa, when a black king shall be crowned, for the day of deliverance is at hand.” Many later interpreted this as a premonition of Selassie’s crowning, before which the king was known as Ras Tafari Makonnen.
Selassie’s grandson Crown Prince Zere Yacob still lives in Addis Ababa. Several Rastafarians told VICE News that they also worship him when he comes to visit.
Asserate — back in London — said he admires the Rastafarians for their “pan-African attitude,” but he believes deifying Selassie is “the greatest blasphemy.”
“If it makes them feel good they can believe whatever they want to believe, but don’t incriminate the emperor by saying that he himself believed in that, which he didn’t.” Instead, Asserate — a Christian himself — suggested the Rastafarians should now approach the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Addis Ababa and lobby to have Selassie made into a saint. “That is something which anybody can accept because every saint in the world is a human being.”
Taxi cabs on a street in Shashamane. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)
Asserate also said he had heard of tensions in Shashamane because of the origins of the Rastafarians’ land. In a broader sense, he claimed to feel “terrible” about the laws preventing Ethiopians from owning land outright. “I don’t believe that leasing is the right attitude for farming in Africa because land has got a magical thing about it for African farmers. They believe that is the only thing that is eternal in this world and they want to have a piece of that eternity, and what’s more, they want to give part of eternity to their children.”
“Forty years after the revolution the Ethiopian farmer is still not the owner of the land he tills,” he continued. “Yesterday, he might have been the tenant of the Ethiopian aristocracy, and for 40 years [now] he has been the tenant of the government.”
Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Emperor Haile Selassie had been executed. In fact, he died in custody in 1975. The story has been amended.
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