When Julian Whitely lived in New York he was a go-to for legendary musician Bob Marley and his band The Wailers. Recalling his time as a fixer for the group, he remembers being asked to do all manner of things.
“When they come for business, I’m the one…. ‘Julian, we need fish,’ I’m the one, we need ganja, we need vegetables… take us here, take us there.”
It was a hectic life, and rather different from the one he lives now. Today he is more likely to be found tending his garden than cruising the streets of downtown Manhattan.
Whitely left New York behind for southern Ethiopia, swapping the metropolis for a rural town. Now he’s one of 600-800 Rastafarians living in Shashamene, an intriguing and beguiling place and the heart of the modern day religion.
The draw of the Promised Land
Two hundred and fifty kilometers from Addis Ababa, Shashamene’s Rastafarians live in 200 hectares of land bequeathed by former Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I, the country’s leader from 1930 to 1974. A modernizer, he was a strong supporter of pan-Africanism and brought the country into the League of Nations, United Nations and made the capital Addis Ababa the center of the Organization of African Unity – the precursor for the African Union.
But for many Rastafarians he was more than just the head of state. In fact the erstwhile duke (“Ras”) Tafari Makonnen gave his name to an entire religion.
Sent to assume the seat of Jah, “His Majesty Haile Selassie I is the returned Messiah, Jesus Christ in his kingly character,” argues Brother Moody, one of Shashamene’s residents.
It follows then that, via Rastafarians’ interpretation of the Book of Revelation, Shashamene is holy ground: “we see it [as] justified to see Ethiopia as the Promised Land, the New Jerusalem.”
The notion of escaping Babylon and living in a heaven on earth has drawn Rastafarians from around the world. Bob Marley may have visited Shashamene in 1978, but others have made the move more permanent. Moody was born in Jamaica and with his life’s savings made the trip to Ethiopia in 1981. Sister Tereas hails from Chicago, Illinois, and relocated in 2005 after making the journey for the first time in 1999.
Justifying her decision, she says “to know His Majesty and not to come for me doesn’t make any sense. We chant every day about Zion, Ethiopia, creators coming from Africa, so if I didn’t do it to me it would be like talking just to talk.”
Welcome to Rasta town
Reggae music and marijuana are often associated with the Rasta lifestyle, and they are an important part of rituals.
Whitely may not grow it among his cauliflowers, cabbage and herbs, but marijuana plays a part in “I-and-I,” a communion and oneness with Jah. “We have a practice of using it as a sacrament in our way of chanting,” Moody explains. “When I use marijuana, what it does to me, is that it keep[s] me in tune or in harmony with God.”
Around the tabernacle the community chants and re-convenes, brethren reunited on home soil. To live in Shashamene is “to be free,” says Tereas. “The feeling of freedom here is amazing, as an African American; as an American person of color.”
“This is always what we want to be,” says Whitely, “to come here and live that life… and I’m a little part of it now, you know.”