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  • An Interview in ZionThe Life-History of a Jamaican Rastafarian in Shashemene, Ethiopia
  • Giulia Bonacci (bio)

On September 27, 2003, I sat with Rastafarian Junior Dan1 on the top of his unfinished house in the Jamaica sefer (the Jamaican neighborhood) on the outskirts of Shashemene, a southern Ethiopian market town. I solicited him for an interview as I was conducting research on the social history of the Rastafari repatriation to Ethiopia and their settlement on the “Shashemene land grant.”2 I had been in Shashemene for almost a year and had by then a fairly good understanding of the history and of the contemporary dynamics of the settlement.

In 1950, five gashas—or 200 hectares—of fertile land in the periphery of Shashemene were granted by Emperor Haile Selassie to the members of the Ethiopian World Federation who had defended Ethiopia during the Italian war (1935–1941). As a token of appreciation for their moral and financial support, the “black people of the world” were invited to come to Ethiopia, to settle, and to contribute to the country’s development. The Ethiopian World Federation (EWF) was founded on August 25, 1937, in New York, on order of the Emperor by Melaku E. Beyen, an Ethiopian who had previously studied in the United States and was married to an African American lady. The EWF’s objective was to agitate public opinion about the cause of Ethiopia, to raise funds for the war effort, and to contribute to Pan African solidarity. The Shashemene land grant represented a tangible territory with which Back-to-Africa aspirations could identify. A few Caribbean and African American settlers arrived during the 1950s and 1960s, but it is Jamaican Rastafarians who eventually peopled Shashemene’s settlement. Coming directly from Jamaica since 1968, their arrivals slowed down during the years of the Derg (1974–1991) and resumed with the change of regime in 1991. Reflecting the ongoing internationalization of the Rastafari movement, Rastafarians poured in from many different countries and backgrounds. Today, the Rastafarian community of Shashemene, about 600 men, women, and children of fifteen nationalities, is unique in Africa in its longevity and its diversity.

Of the sixty recorded interviews conducted during my research, Junior Dan’s is particularly interesting. A fluid and balanced exercise in oral history, Junior Dan’s interview is fairly representative of a “generation” of settlers, young men—and a few women—from the Rastafari organization the Twelve Tribes of Israel who came to settle in Shashemene since 1972. His life-history illustrates how he became a Rastafarian, and particularly a member of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, how he left Jamaica, as well as the vicissitudes of living in Ethiopia. As such, it unveils the social experience of repatriation to Shashemene and life in Ethiopia in the past thirty years. The voices of the returnees represent a methodological tool particularly important for historical research. Once collected, discussed, [End Page 744] and analyzed, these voices offer unique insights into the little-known history of African American and Caribbean settlers in Ethiopia. Furthermore, they contribute to the shaping of the history of the Rastafari movement, determined by the role played by its organizations and their mobilization towards the Shashemene settlement. They offer yet another version of the major social and political changes that swept Ethiopia since the 1970s. Eventually, these voices articulate the challenges and the significance of the Pan African relationship as experienced not by the Pan African elites but in the everyday interactions of “small people” in a particular location.

Oral history has a particular rhythm, shaped by intonation, a particular vocabulary and grammar, and is accompanied by the language of the eyes, hands, and body. Publishing oral history raises a number of issues and it is an uneasy task to pay tribute to the power conveyed by the sound once it is fixed on paper. While Jamaican patois has been honored through many literary works, it remains little known in academic circles. For the sake of clarity, the life-history of Junior Dan has been slightly edited. However, peculiarities of his voice have been left in the text. An unorthodox use of English, it has a poetic strength and...


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