Amid the mud huts and volcanic lakes lining the main highway south of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, is a small walled compound ringed with razor wire. A rainbow-colored sign on the wall reads, “Twelve Tribes of Israel—Head Quarters, Shashemene.” It is all that remains of an attempt by the late Emperor Haile Selassie—former Ethiopian head of state and, according to his followers, God incarnate—to create a utopia for the Caribbean Rastafarians who worship him. Today this promised land is a dilapidated refuge for a handful of bitter, disillusioned men and their families far from home.
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Their numbers were once estimated to be in the thousands, but today no more than a couple of hundred Rastafarians from across the Caribbean remain here. In the mid-1940s, Selassie granted them a 500-acre plot on the outskirts of Shashemene, a dusty town several hours’ drive southwest of Addis Ababa. After Selassie was overthrown in a Soviet-backed coup in 1974, successive regimes have reclaimed much of the Rastas’ land, which now totals only a dozen or so hardscrabble acres.
It’s just before 10 a.m. and several men, all in their 40s and 50s, are sitting on stools rolling joints and drinking warm beer. Their encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible is remarkable. They subsist mostly on remittances from home and handouts from European backpackers who pass through to buy weed and soak up the Rasta atmosphere. None of the men here have jobs.
“I have been here for 10 years now,” says Benjamin Abraham, a Jamaican who immigrated to Ethiopia by way of Washington, D.C. “We are a nation within a nation,” referring to their plot of land within Ethiopia. ”My wife and four children are here with me, and we couldn’t be happier. We are at the gates of Zion,” he adds, exhaling the last drag from his morning joint.
But Benjamin is in the minority. Another man named Isaac, who moved here from Trinidad 15 years ago, says bitterly, “I can’t tell you that this is paradise. Hell, no.” He begins reciting random verses from the books of Genesis and Revelation angrily before stumbling off, eyes glazed.
The immigrants here claim they are not given citizenship or many rights at all. “We can’t get any jobs because the government won’t allow it,” says one man who, like many here, did not want to be identified or photographed. “This is not the place I thought it was.”
Today the Rastafarian’s land amounts to no more than 50 acres. Several officials from the Ethiopian government in Shashemene declined repeated requests for interviews regarding the Rastas.
Adjacent to the compound is the Black Lion Museum dedicated to Haile Selassie and the Rastafari movement, taking up a few front rooms of a small home. Inside are dozens of painted portraits of Selassie, as well as those of Rastafarian elders and reggae bands. A desk is covered with handwritten notes and photographs, as well as a photocopy of the original land grant from Selassie.
“His Imperial Majesty [Selassie] said, ‘Come home to Zion. I will give you a place to live in peace and prosperity,’” says Judah, a young man who helps to run the small museum. “And here is the throne His Majesty sat on during his first visit to Shashemene,” he says, pointing to a small hand carved stool. Judah was born here to Jamaican parents who answered the call to return to Zion.
“We are in the process of bringing Bob Marley’s remains here to be buried,” Judah says, showing a picture of the singer and his band the Wailers, all Selassie loyals, on a visit to Shashemene in 1971. Countless pictures of Marley adorn the walls of shops and homes in Shashemene, and anywhere you go in the town you’re all but guaranteed to hear his songs. There’s even a soccer stadium named after Marley in the town.
Back in the compound, the conversation is interrupted when a young Ethiopian teenager walks in wearing a crooked Yankees cap. He pulls out several types of weed (“high grade,” he says) to sell to the chain-smoking Rastas.
In Shashemene and surrounding towns, the Rastafarians seem to get along well with their Ethiopian hosts. When asked about them, most Ethiopians just smile and mimic the act of getting stoned. Some locals accuse the Rastafarians of being lazy and addicted to weed and even cocaine, which the Ratsas deny.
Much like a caricature of Rastafarians, the men of the Twelve Tribes of Israel compound seem to do little else but get really, really high. Several nights a week they have an open-air street party where they freely blaze away on huge joints and dance slowly to reggae music. Young men at these parties ask outsiders for “donations,” often in return for weed or various Selassie-related kitsch.
But Rastafarianism is not all about peaceful coexistence, and there remains an incredibly dark side to the movement, which is named after Selassie (“Ras Tafari” was his pre-coronation name). Like many zealots committed to hardline readings of scripture, Rastafarians have long been accused of being homophobic, and these men, unprompted, reinforced the stereotype to an almost comical degree.
“Life comes from here and death comes from there,” says Rubin, a middle-aged Jamaican, pointing to his groin and ass, respectively. “Why would I want to put my cock there?” The others quickly nod in agreement.
“They are living in Babylon,” Rubin adds, referring to gays and lesbians. “We don’t want their diseases here.”
Others join in. “God said, ‘Be fruitful and multiply.’ But you can’t multiply between two men!” says Isaac, the snaggle-toothed man from Trinidad. Then, seemingly straight out of a Tea Party playbook, he exclaims, “It’s not Adam and Steve. It’s Adam and Eve!”
When asked about the questionable human rights record of Selassie, who was widely accused of torturing and murdering opponents, the conversation turns downright hostile. “These are all lies spread by those who wished to colonize Ethiopia!” Rubin yells.
The men then ask for a “donation,” are rebuffed, and the conversation is over.
Opening the front gate, Benjamin smiles and says diplomatically that all are welcome to visit the Twelve Tribes of Israel compound. “We Rastas don’t have a philosophy,” Benjamin says. “We have the truth. And that is all we need here.”