A Visit to Ethiopia's Rastafarian Diaspora

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We visit a group of Rastafarians from Jamaica and the United States who worship the late Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie. They live in a small rural community about 200 miles south of the capitol of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa.


Ethiopia's former Emperor Haile Selassie who died in 1975 claimed to have the bluest blood in all of Africa. His family tree reportedly included King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

His legacy after 40 years on the throne was often mixed. He was considered by many in Ethiopia to have ignored the poor and starving in times of famine. But many others extolled him as The King of Kings, The Lion of Judah, The Chosen One of God.

Rastafarians prefer the rosier view. They say Emperor Selassie is a black messiah. NPR's Gwen Thompkins visited with some Rastafarians in Ethiopia and found that for them Haile Selassie's reign endures.

GWEN THOMPKINS: By all reports, Haile Selassie the man was a tiny thing. He had little hands and a little crown. He also had more than 50 different pillows for his feet, to stop them from swinging when he sat on his various thrones.

Selassie is reported to have died by pillow, smothered by his political rivals after a Marxist coup in 1975. But by then, he had made such a colossal impression on Rastafarians that Empress Baby Eye(ph) says she talks to him everyday. She calls him Haile Selassie Eye(ph).

Empress BABY EYE (Rastafarian): He's Selassie Eye, our personal savior. He's alive. We praise him as our god and our king of king.

THOMPKINS: Empress Baby Eye is 67 years old and plump, the color of root beer candy. She has long snowy dreadlocks wrapped like a crown on top of her head, and nearly a full white beard under her chinny chin chin. About seven years ago, she and her husband emigrated from Jamaica to Shashemene, a town nearly 200 miles south of Ethiopia's capital. They are caretakers of the Nyahbinghi church here. Empress Baby Eye, who would give no other name, says she never expects to see Jamaica again.

Empress BABY EYE: Ethiopia is our home. We, the black people, must come home. China for the Chinese. Indian for the India, European for the European, and Africa is for the black people, and we are our own.

THOMPKINS: Selassie reportedly never embraced the idea that he was the black messiah. But in an act of solidarity after World War II, he donated more than a thousand acres to Rastafarians who wanted to live in the motherland. About 200 Rastafarian families live on a sliver of that property now. And there's even been talk of Bob Marley's remains being buried here.

Ras Jabulani is a chatty reggae singer from Jamaica by way of Zimbabwe. He's just passing through.

Mr. RAS JABULANI (Reggae singer): Shashemene, after the war, this land was basically what - we don't say dedicated. We say live-icated to those who want to repatriate from the Diaspora. So - because His Majesty recognized all Africans born in the Diaspora as Ethiopians.

(Soundbite of people)

THOMPKINS: At this time of years, Shashemene could not look more idyllic. It is the end of the long rainy season and grass spills across the countryside like an emerald lake. This is horse country, and pretty ponies clip-clop down flowery lanes.

But despite Shashemene's horsepower, there is little work to speak of here. Many of the people look idle and out of cash. There's farming, of course, particularly herb farming. And then there's the occasional tourist. At the local museums, nearly everything is for sale.

Gladstone Robinson(ph) is a Rastafarian from Brooklyn. For a little more than $2, he agreed to sell copies of his original land award and waived what he called his standing fee for interview.

Mr. GLADSTONE ROBINSON (Rastafarian): Marcus Garvey prophesied that a king would come from the east to save the black race. And so when we look on November 2, 1930, he was coronated Emperor Haile Selassie, King of Kings, conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah. He was coronated just like the Bible say.

THOMPKINS: Whether it was Marcus Garvey's prophecy or the Bible's doesn't seem particularly important to people here. Theirs is apparently an elliptical logic. What appears certain is that if Haile Selassie is the Messiah for Rastafarians, then Marcus Garvey, the 20th-century pioneer of the Back to Africa Movement, is a kind of John the Baptist. Without Garvey, there would probably be no Rastafarians in Ethiopia today.

Mr. I. TIMOTHY (Poet): My great grandfather was a member of Marcus Garvey's organization. So it's in my blood. It's in my roots to return to Africa. So I just had to do it.

THOMPKINS: I. Timothy(ph) is a shaggy American poet who came to Shashemene about two weeks ago. Repatriation to Africa, he says, mitigates the disillusionment that many Rastafarians feel in other parts of the world, where materialism and a lack of spirituality reign.

Mr. TIMOTHY: Have you ever lived in L.A.? Enough said. Period.

THOMPKINS: I. Timothy has not decided where he will settle on the continent, but that's okay. He says he's already reached the Promised Land.

Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, Shashemene, Ethiopia.

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