ras tafaris retirement ranch

SHASHAMANE, Ethiopia Brother Zulu is … slowly … looking for a phone number. The elder painstakingly leafs through pages in his black…


Brother Zulu is … slowly … looking for a phone number.

The elder painstakingly leafs through pages in his black address book. Money and business cards fall on the floor. He watches them but, very slowly, keeps on leafing.

“We get by,” he says, hunched on a chair as if weighed down by his greyed dreadlocks. “Sometimes there are problems, but we get by.”

Pictures of grey-haired Rastafarians and several faded portraits of Haile Selassie — the mouse-faced former emperor of Ethiopia — watch Brother Zulu from the walls.

Outside, three massive turtles move with a shared lack of urgency.

Sixty years after it was created, Brother Zulu and about 200 other rasta pioneers, most of them from the West Indies but some also from North America and Europe, still cling to a utopian dream hatched by Selassie here in the southern town of Shashamane.

It was here, in 1948, that the emperor donated 500 hectares of state land to any uprooted African — transplanted to the West through the slave trade — who wished to return to their ancestral home.

His promise was Ethiopian citizenship and assistance.

The donation coincided with the rise of Rastafarianism, a religion co-founded by Jamaican philosopher Marcus Garvey.

Its unique reading of Christianity places black people at its centre, and prophesizes the rise of a black king of kings in Africa.

To rastas, that was Ras Tafari — none other than the pre-coronation name of Emperor Selassie himself.

Selassie, it is said, found it all a bit silly.

But he also considered himself a descendant of David, the father of Israel, and went by titles like The Conquering Lion of the Tribes of Judah. So he set aside the land.

And come they did. The first Jamaican to settle this place, seen by rastas as their Jerusalem, arrived in 1964. Like a lion in Zion, they’ve been here since.

“Jah Selassie,” says a woman as she greets Brother Zulu. Nearby hangs a portrait of Bob Marley, whose remains, some once hoped to move here from Jamaica, and a sign implores members read one chapter of “da Bible” per day.

The sweet smell of pot wafts in the air.

But what was once a stream of Jamaican settlers coming to this rasta version of a kibbutz has today become a trickle.

At one time there were more than 2,000 here. Now, numbers aren’t discussed.

“That question tickles a bit,” says George Benji, a 48-year-old Trinidad native who recently moved here, leaving eight children in the Caribbean.

“Every day, people come to repatriate. Some come and go. People from the West need to come wit ideas and wit money, and together we’ll work to make Shashamane a city like Addis Ababa.”

Despite his optimistic hopes, young people won’t be following his footsteps if there isn’t opportunity. They certainly don’t seem to be now.

Within the main compound — with its one-storey concrete office building, a massive stage for the frequent bands and a bar and kitchen — the predominant colour is white: lightning white eyebrows, beards and dreadlocks, contrasting abruptly against the people’s black skin and their colourful wool hats.

At 25, a young Brother Zulu was one of the first to come here from Jamaica. Now, he’s an old man, his facial structure all sharp protrusions and incredible sinkholes.

Like most here, his sense of achievement is simply “getting by” in Ethiopia.

This determination to remain is all that prevents the place from becoming an African retirement community for aged rastas.

No Ethiopian government has honoured Selassie’s promise of citizenship. Even the children born here remain landed immigrants.

Selassie was unceremoniously deposed in a coup in 1974 and held under house arrest until he died (some say he was murdered) a year later. The rastas were suddenly like the guy at the party nobody invited.

“They didn’t know any’ting about us,” says Moses, a friendly-faced settler who came from Jamaica in 1976 and raised three of his four children here. “Slowly, over time, we ‘ave built on dat relationship.”

Still, the 500 hectares of land has been stripped down to little more than 10 hectares by successive governments and indigenous tribes. Now, new residents must rent houses from the locals.

Christian communes lying on the cusp of small junction towns — like say, Shashamene, or Bountiful, in British Columbia — tend to have a touch of implicit malevolence. Perhaps it’s because of the works of David Koresh, or Jim Jones, who promised salvation through drinking poisoned Kool-Aid.

But there’s an easy camaraderie between non-believers like myself and the rastas of Shashamane.

“It’s a boosta,” says Benji as Brother Zion — the commune’s overseer and one of its original settlers — arrives with a bottle of N + R Roots, the homebrewed root drink the rastas swear by and sell for $2 to visitors.

“You like dat drink?” says Brother Zion in a high-pitched twang, looking and sounding like a reggae Yoda.

“It’s good for gettin’ firm.” As he says this, he glances toward a female friend who has accompanied me with the smile of a teenager on his face. “… For later.”

It’s good for getting high, that’s for sure.

After half a bottle of the dark brown liquid, which tastes like apple cider mixed with root beer, I’m stoned.

But while, indeed, a visit to the rastas may leave you giggly this isn’t a caricature of a community.

Not the baked, ganja-smoking, reggae listening, ‘We be jamin’ atmosphere most of those with Bob Marley flags hanging in their bedrooms might hope it is.

It’s a devoutly Christian community that believes what it does and keeps waiting for its utopia to appear.

Sure, the beliefs surrounding Selassie are difficult to understand.

To rastas, he’s not quite alive and not quite dead.

“They ‘avv no burial, no tomb, so I can’t say he died. He go up,” says Benji, pointing to heaven.

He’s not quite Jesus and not quite, well, not Jesus. And his grandson, Zia Jacob Selassie, is considered by the community in Shashamane to be the next manifestation of Jesus and the future king who will rule during the time of Revelations.

He lives in Addis Ababa, at the Hyatt Hotel, says Benji, without any sense of irony.

“I’m here to see the monarchy, the true repatriation,” says Benji, his three beard dreadlocks bouncing, his one gold tooth embossed with a Star of David.

As he lets us out of the main gate, he pushes aside one of the huge turtles. Like the community he has joined, it refuses to move out of the way.

 Tim Querengesser is a former Yukon News reporter now writing in Africa.