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Jamaican Rastas bring cultural diversity to 'Promised Land'

Published:Friday | June 18, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Patrina Pink, Gleaner Intern

Rastafarians who have repatriated to the Shashemene province in southern Ethiopia are reportedly having a monumental impact upon the youth of the area.

From embracing vegetarianism, Jamaican names and the infamous 'rude boy' mannerisms, to speaking Jamaican, young Ethiopians in Shashemene have abandoned the 'Babylon' language of the past and have embraced the new 'livity' of their Rastafari brethren and sistren.

Nicknamed 'Little Jamaica', the Shashemene area has been inhabited by Jamaicans since the 1960s. In 1968, Haile Selassie I legitimised the use of property in what has come to be known as the Shashemene Land Grant.

Since then, the land has been available to members of the diaspora wishing to return 'home'. Jamaicans living in Shashemene have since developed relations with Ethiopian women and men. The offsprings of these relations are considered Jamaican under Ethiopia's strict anti-migrant laws, despite being born in Shashemene.

It is this first generation of children, commonly referred to as the 'free-born' generation, that has been critical to much of the cultural exchange between young Jamaicans and Ethiopians. Yet, with almost 500 Rastafarians settled in Shashemene, how did this radical group build its foundation in Ethiopia?

"Rastafari sees Ethiopia as the 'Promised Land'. It's really been about 50 years now that West Indians have been trying to settle there. The most substantial efforts have been made by the Twelve Tribes of Israel," said Dr Jalani Niaah, a lecturer in the Department of Cultural and Reggae Studies at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona.

"Twelve Tribes is the largest numerical group among the Jamaicans there, but the Ethiopian Federation has a presence that predates that of Twelve Tribes," he added.

Niaah accounts that it was the scientific use of fact-finding missions organised by the Twelve Tribes group, prior to settling, that was largely responsible for Rastafari success in Ethiopia. After the missions, the group sent individuals and their families, in different rounds, to settle.

Fundamental exchange

In a presentation at UWI titled 'Ethiopia speaks Jamaican Creole: Voices from Shashemene', Renato Tomei, a linguistics researcher at the University for Foreigners Perujio, reflected on the impact of Jamaican patois on Ethiopian youth.

"The exchange between Jamaicans, particularly Rastafarians in Shashemene and young Ethiopians, is very fundamental and important. The local youths greet Rastafari in Jamaican patois. They have a lot of respect for Rasta and Jamaicans, especially."

Tomei has worked as an instructor at the Jamaica Rastafari Development Community (JRDC) School in Shashemene and said his class had several Caribbean nationals as well as Ethiopian children.

"The diversity that Rasta is helping to bring to Shashemene is amazing.

"It is truly something special. I had two Trinidadians in my class sitting beside Bajans and Jamaicans, as well as local children. The cultural mix and exchange is wonderful."

The local children of Shashemene are not just speaking Jamaican, some consider themselves to be Jamaican.

One young man, who Tomei showed a video of, was living in Addis Ababa, the capital, but through his early interaction with Rastafarians, particularly at the JRDC school, he had abandoned what he said one of his teachers referred to as 'Babylon English'.

"Jamaicans are Africans. They are Ethiopians, we are one Africa," said the youngster.

In a country where social mobility is often a fancy term in a social-studies textbook, relatively few will ever get the chance to read. The Rastas provide schools for children, and work on their many farming and hotel projects for many local parents.

Recently, the JRDC funded the construction of a police post. This has done wonders for community relations and Shashemene policemen are said to be tolerant of Rastas' use of marijuana.

"Rasta has done well in Shashemene. I see the relationship growing and getting stronger and stronger.

"The next concern must be the nationality of children born in Ethiopia," said Tomei.