As Rastafari around the world join Ethiopia in commemorating the 1896 victory at the Battle of Adwa, the repatriated community in Shashemene received news that the government is now ready to begin the process of granting permanent residence to those with valid passports. The long-awaited announcement was made at a community meeting on Wednesday evening, with details and logistics of the process still to be made public.
For Rastafarians, Ethiopia is the Motherland, a place to return after being torn from the African continent generations ago and subjected to the ongoing fallout of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, colonialism and neocolonialism. Africans in the diaspora looking to Ethiopia often envision a homecoming of loving embrace and welcome, though reality in the Shashamane settlement is far from a Rasta utopia.
One of the enduring challenges to returning Africans is obtaining official status, whether that is citizenship, permanent residency, or another avenue of recognition. While Rastafari community leaders do note the government has been accommodating to the descendants of Africans who were traded across the Atlantic, there is a lack of formal policy or legislation to address the needs of those seeking repatriation, which the Rastafari Movement defines as “the self-actuated, individual or small to large group return of people of African descent to their original homeland—Africa—from various locations in the African diaspora.”
“The issue is that naturalization or legal status in regards to immigration is a case-by-case scenario,” said Dr. Desta Yeshimabet Meghoo, liaison to the African Union’s Diaspora Africa Forum and owner of consulting firm D.Y.M.D.C. & Associates, whose clients include the Bob and Rita Marley Foundations and the Embassies of Ghana and the United States.
Dr. Desta, who holds United States and Ghanaian citizenship and has resided in Ethiopia since 2005, bases the legal argument for official status on African ancestry.
“It’s not even so much specific to our faith because within the Rastafari faith we now have Asians. We have Europeans. It’s broad even though it’s a Black Heart or Pan-African oriented faith,” she said. “What makes us eligible, for lack of better word, for this right of return is our ancestry. And so we need to focus more on our ancestry and why we have returned in order to make the legal case and the moral case, because this is an issue of morality as well.”
And in today’s world, with Twitter and social media putting a spotlight on longstanding social issues and racial tensions across the globe, discussions on homecoming and repatriation have been bolstered more than ever.
“You see what is going on in the United States, and people are still being lynched. Young people still have to say ‘Black Lives Matter.’ Why?” Dr. Desta said. “Still because of our race we are being discriminated against… and those of us who are coming home, we are looking to you, our Motherland, to give us the space in which we can thrive and in which our humanity can be restored.”
The Shashemene Land Grant, originally 500 acres of Emperor Haile Selassie’s personal land that he donated for Africans of the diaspora to return to, was officially granted to the Ethiopian World Federation in 1955. Rastafarians regard Haile Selassie as God incarnate and view their settlement of the Land Grant as a return from captivity in Babylon.
There are about 300-500 Rastas in Shashemene according to Dr. Desta, though she said it is a transitory community with people staying for as little as a few months, or as long as several decades.
For those in the community, lack of citizenship or official status is a constant roadblock to starting businesses, developing land and other means of making a living.
“Because of the limitations placed on our development by our status, it really puts us in positions of vulnerability,” said Sister Ijahnya Christian of the Nyahbinghi House in Shashemene. “We are not able to contribute to the development of the country we love so much to the extent we would like to.”
Sister Ijahnya who has been in Ethiopia since 2010, is from the small island of Anguilla, a British territory in the Caribbean. With changed regulations for entry, she no longer meets the requirements for a business visa.
“I am speaking to you with a feeling that it’s a bit ridiculous that I now, for the first time, have a tourist visa in my passport to enter the place I have considered home for the past six years,” she said. “We need to have a bit more a bit sooner from the government here… this would be the demand of any government in power.”
Despite challenges from lack of status, the Rastas of Shashemene have found ways to be productive and contribute to the greater community. A Fact Finding Mission to Ethiopia in 2009, known as the Harar Trod, highlighted the many benefits Shashemene has reaped from the hard work of the Rastafari. It specifically noted that Rastas owned two of the town’s main hotels and a soy processing factory, and operated a school whose student body was 95 percent Ethiopian and whose entire staff, except one member, was Ethiopian.
Harar Trod also reported the three critical demands of the Rastafari, which are still pressing issues today: “land tenure and security, diplomatic relations for representation with regard to repatriation and special legislative and regulatory measures to guarantee legal status/ citizenship.”
Sister Ijahnya reiterated that the Ethiopian government has been engaging in discussions and is accommodating to those who may be living in Shashemene illegally, but there is an urgent need for more forward progress.
“Politics in terms of how we have been able to negotiate our settlement has not been very strong, but our faith is unsurpassed,” she said. “In other words, if nobody else knows that that day will come, we know.”
In Ghana, hopes for repatriation were recognized this December when President John Dramani Mahama granted 34 members of the African-Caribbean diaspora citizenship.
“While we are excited at the move Ghana made in December, we really, all of us in Ethiopia had hoped that it would be Ethiopia making the move,” Sister Ijahnya said. “So there is a little disappointment that Ethiopia did not understand that it was expected to be the first to make this welcome return and settlement.”
While enacting new policy and legislation has been slow in progress, the community in Shashemene has been actively making strides to encourage economic innovation and growth among the wider Rastafarian population.
In November, Shashemene will host the first All-Africa Rastafari Gathering to spotlight possibilities for intraregional and intra-African trade. Sister Ijahnya, who is organizing the event, hopes it will feature speakers who will advise on how to establish a trade platform as Rastafari people.
“Rastafari is a brand,” Sister Ijahnya said. “The use of the colors, it’s everywhere you go… There’s a brand of wrapping paper called Lion of Judah, and I don’t know if those people have anything to do with [Rastafari].”
Finding ways to increase development and productivity is critical for returnees of the African diaspora, Dr. Desta noted.
“There is a point that we have to understand that this continent has so many challenges, and if we’re coming home to our mother, we come home prepared to help Motherland,” Dr. Desta said. “We do have to come home and be part of the narrative of construction, part of the narrative of development… we cannot come home to just be recipients.”
Ed.’s Note: The writer is on an internship at The Reporter.
Contributed by Kaitlin Junod