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The ways of the Rasta
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The ways of the Rasta

The spiritual homeland of Rastafarianism is in Shashemene, a small town about 200km south of Addis Ababa. It was in Shashemene that the Rastafari community was given 200 hectares of land by Emperor Haile Selassie, who was in equal parts bemused and flattered to learn of his deification by the young religion in faraway Jamaica. The emperor remained a lifelong Christian, but never reproached the Rastafari for their beliefs in him as the returned messiah. To this day, Rastafari rejoice on July 23, the anniversary of his birth with some congregating in Shashemen, writes Senait Feseha.

Shashemene, Ethiopia – from beyond the mystical compound of the Nyabinghi church, sounds resembling the loud blows of thunder and the warm murmurs of the heartbeat ascended through the morning. Inside, men with dreadlocks formed a communal drumming circle around a bonfire; the air was thick with smoke. They hunched over, hugging the drums in between their legs, beating a sacred rhythm and chanting time-honoured prayers. This was the force of the Nyabinghi, its powers lies in the sounds of drumming and chanting.  

By the act of worship, the Nyabinghi gathering calls on the forces of nature to destroy the powers of evil and wickedness. This custom is the one of most integral part of the belief.  It connects humans with Jah, the god of the Rastafari faith.

These gatherings are formed to commemorate important dates throughout the year; and on this occasion, July 23, 2018, Rastas from all over the world amassed at the heart of ‘Rasta Town’ to celebrate the 126th birthday anniversary of H.I.M (His Imperial Majesty) Haile Selassie I, the last  emperor of Ethiopia.

“We mark this day because we see him as divine, in his divine character. We come together on this day to recount the history, the prophetical significance and the day to day reality of what it means to us to be here in Shashemene, Ethiopia.”  Ras Joseph Anderson, one of the priests and caretaker of the Nyabinghi church, said.

The Rastafari offer justification for the divinity of Haile Selassie I, by tracing Haile Selassie’s linage back to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba and using biblical names such as Lord of the Lords, King of the Kings and Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah.

They provide further proof through the prophecy of Marcus Garvey, an influential activist during the 1930s. While in colonialism and post slavery conditions, oppressors tried to convince those in the Caribbean that the only God they had was white skinned, blue eyed and blond headed. Garvey preached a coming of a black messiah who would lead the people of Africa and the African diaspora to freedom.

Haile Selassie I, from the lands of Ethiopia, the country that has never been colonized, provided a safe haven against the mental and spiritual slavery that had permeated many generations.

Presently, many Rastas across the world celebrate Haile Selassie’s birth with extended prayers, drumming, chanting, feasting, smoking the ‘holy herb’ (marijuana) and reasoning (a discussion among assembled Rastas regarding the religion’s principles.)

Later during that day, several people congregated inside Mama Earth’s humble abode. Mama Earth is an influential member of the Rastafari community; she has lived in Shashemene for more than a decade. Although she lived inside a modest mud hut, her compound contains astonishing number of plantations and animals; fruits, vegetables, herbs, crops, chickens, kittens, dogs and cattle coexisting peacefully. As if her name implied it, animals roamed in and out her hut freely, without bondage, just like nature intended.

Her guests celebrated the holiday by discussing spiritual passages, citing the bible and reflecting on their faith.  She served them with large portions of rice and beans, Jamaican curried tofu and sautéed vegetables. “Their diet is called Ital” explained Abiy Gethahun, a friend, a local tour guide and one of the invited guests “they eat clean foods that are produced naturally, organically and locally; most of them are vegetarians, they don’t use additives like salt.”

Abiy, affectionately called Dubuch by almost everyone in the town, spoke about the cross-cultural communications and interchanging of concepts within the two communities. This cannot be more apparent than in his way of speaking. He spoke in Patois, a dialect that sounds African in rhythm and English in interpretation, which Rastas took the diction of Patois and English to form their own translations, meanings, slangs and styles.

But despite having lived for generations in Shashemene, Rastas are still a culturally arcane community. The Rastafarian community feels like they have had poor press over the past years. And it is fair to say that there are many misconceptions surrounding the Rasta way of life.  

“A lot of people have a preconceived notion about Rastas, within this town and within our country. People are not sure what to make of them; it’s easier to label them as drug dealers, addicts and rebellions of some sort.” Abiy said.

Contrary to popular belief, Marijuana is not seen as recreational or a social drug in the Rasta community. Instead smoking the ‘the holy herb’, is believed to create a spiritual and social awareness that awakens in man. Rastas use Marijuana very seriously in the Nyabinghi sessions to ‘reason’ and gain a serious tuning with the forces of life, amongst other rituals.  

“It’s true; a lot of non-believers are attracted to the idea of ‘Rasta’ because they assume that the religion gives them an excuse to smoke ‘ganja’” said Abiy “and it is considered disrespectful to use the herb in a vain, loose manner amongst the Nyabinghi order.”

Long before the Rastafari, Marijuana has been smoked and drank as tea for medical purposes in many parts of the world. And Ras Kabinda Habre, a farmer and herbal doctor believes that the 21st century it is the right time to understand the proper uses of Marijuana and reap its benefits.

“All over the world today, Marijuana has been legalized; it has been recognized. We cannot continue to deny it when the entire world and scientific journals have established the fact that there is no greater healer to the human body than medical Marijuana, it is a vital essence for your mental faculties, it alone can heal the brain.”

Ras Kabinda continued “… it has been proven scientifically to heal cancer, nourish your body and combat deficiencies, so therefore it is a multi-billion industry in the West. So how is it they are passing laws that make it illegal in Africa and we are a developing nation in short of foreign currency? ”

“We cannot be under European domination, how could they tell us to enforce those laws and in their country they are legalizing it, making a lot of money on it, and we have to be short on foreign currency? … if you give the Rasta man the place and rights, we can teach our people how to plant the herb and scientifically develop it so we can make a vaccine for and eliminate diseases, just by using natural sciences.”

Sister Benji, also a guest at Mama Earth’s home said “In Shashemene a lot of people think that the Rasta community is just here and smoking marijuana. There are many who do not smoke at all, but they understand the plant and its uses. Some people use it for their health issue as it relives their pain or the condition they have.”

She believes that the wrong stereotypes given to the ‘Rasta’ of deadlocks, of smoking ‘Ganja’,  and reggae music are creating a wrong image to what the lifestyle is all about. “ In Shashemene, the Rastas are really doing a lot of work for the Ethiopian community, we help them with first aid, hygiene, talk to girls about the dangers of selling their bodies, help them go to school whether financially or through tutoring. These are not highlighted or covered in the media, about the works done by the Rastafari community to help our brothers and sisters.

“We are not here just as dreadlocks, or just worshipping or sitting back, we are actually working and a lot of people don’t see the inside job. If you came to the community or really come to us, you would have seen what we do and what has been done; not by our doing, but by the grace of God.  ”

Although the ceremonies at the Nyabinghi church will finalize after the burning of the bonfire for an entire of seven days, the day ended with a Concert and a Caribbean style open air party at the compound of The Twelve Tribes of Judah.