Ras Tafari – Returning Home To Africa

While I consider myself to be attune and aware of world history, and topical events of the 19th and 20th centuries, I have to admit my ignorance to the influence of Haile Selassie on Jamaica and his importance to the dope-smoking, reggae playing and laid back lifestyle of Rastafarians. Nor did I know of his importance in modernizing Ethiopian, becoming a charter member of the United Nations and more. As with anything that sparks my curiosity my thirst for knowledge and understanding is often insatiable. And as the ubiquitous Lion of Judah popped up nearly everywhere in this capital city, I struggled and demanded to learn more.

While I could write essays or scribe the scribbles of my notes here in this post, I’ll do my best to condense what amazed me and in turn share with you something perhaps you don’t know about Ethiopia. Truthfully, I don’t think the Ethiopian government nor its prominent citizens or most primitive village would care to discuss the influence Ethiopia’s perhaps most colorful character since the Queen of Sheba in creating the Rastafarian movement, which numbers more than a million followers today.

Crowned Emperor in 1930, the spectacle of his coronation was attended by world leaders from nearly every corner of the planet, but perhaps embarrassingly to Ras Tafari (his real Ethiopian name), Jamaicans who started the “return to Africa” movement, among them Marcus Garvey, saw that as perhaps Africa’s only independent state Ethiopia and its prince now crowned Emperor, or King, believed Ras Tafari was the Messiah of African Redemption, and thus created a new religion – Rastafarianism. Among their grievances, the Rastafarians believed that by being taken to the Caribbean by slave traders they had been robbed of their African heritage. To the Rastas, Haile Selassie became Jah, or God incarnate, who would one day lead the people of African origin to a promised land. From the beginning, Rastafarianism was associated with communal living but was loosely organized and largely below the radar of world religions. Years later the movement spread around the globe, thanks in part to the huge popularity of its most famous member, Bob Marley whose lyrics communicated the Rasta doctrine and represented the spirit of the movement, which included the infamous dreadlocks and smoking pot, or Ganja as its referred to by Rastafarians, which is regarded as a spiritual act usually accompanied by Bible reading.

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Ethiopian Orthodox Christian studies and prays under massive shade trees on grounds of one of Addis’s many churches.

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Drums in side church used for sacred religious ceremonies.

But Emperor Selassie, credited with modernizing Ethiopia, was, like most Ethiopians, a member of Ethiopia’s Orthodox Christian Church and did not consider himself divine. He was said to be embarrassed by the worship. But in the 1950’s, partly in recognition of the support blacks outside Ethiopia had given Ethiopians in their fight against Fascist Italy, the emperor gave to Rastafarians and black people residing in the west a plot of 500 acres of his own land in Shashemene, not far from where I stayed in Lake Awasa. Had I known I probably wouldn’t have motored through the community barely taking the time to stop for refueling.

But for Rastafarians the return to Ethiopia — immigration or pilgrimage — never truly began until after Emperor Selassie’s momentous visit to Jamaica in 1966. Back then, as Rasta myth holds, Jamaica had been experiencing a drought for two years. “But upon His Majesty’s arrival in Jamaica, no sooner had the Ethiopian Airlines carrier been focused on that part of the world, than there was a thunderbolt and rain. And just as soon did the rain subside and the sun appear — the airplane landed and taxied on the airport — most miraculously.” The drought had ended when the Emperor, their god, arrived.

Today there are more posters, bumper stickers, dreadlocks and spiritual followers of Ras Tafari in Ethiopia than perhaps anywhere in the world.

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Lion of Judah. Ubiquitous in Addis.

Selassie ruled over Ethiopia for more than forty years and at the time was longest serving Head of State in power and was given precedence over all other leaders at many international state events such as the state funerals of John F. Kennedy and Charles de Gaulle.

But it would end tragically for Selassie, in 1973 Ethiopia suffered a severe drought and crop therapy and tens of thousands of Ethiopians starved while the emperor reportedly denied the existence of any problem. Angry students aided foreign journalists to surreptitiously observe and then report on the desperate conditions. Western governments began to distance themselves from the fading emperor. At the same time, the Arab oil embargo sent the price of oil skyrocketing further depleting the Ethiopian treasury and nearly triple digit inflation. The government responded with austerity measures; the frustrated populace countered with major demonstrations.

The next year, many of the army’s junior officers mutinied, forcing the emperor’s cabinet to resign. The successful mutineers formed a dergue (military junta or council) and began vying for total control of the government, accusing the emperor of embezzling millions and causing the famine — many accused him of manipulating food supply in areas where he wasn’t supported. Then in September of 1974, 82-year-old Haile Selassie was arrested and taken away to prison. More than a half century of actual rule by the emperor had ended.

He was never seen in public again. But the saddest fact is he was buried without ceremony the following year and to date nobody truly knows the location of his grave.

So wandering around Ethiopia and digging up scraps of history, I’ll save the gory parts of the ugly 15 year history of The Derg for another post.

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