It was evident that the Exodus, the “movement of Jah people,” as Bob Marley put it, never really came to pass in Zion, despite all that singing and proselytizing. Best estimates put the Rasta settler population in the 400 to 700 range, down from a peak of more than 1,000 before 1974, and there are few new arrivals. Reasons for this run the gamut, from the fear that “lions are eating people there” to cost, but the main problem is the Ethiopian government. No “repatriates” have ever been granted citizenship or even an identity card. You can sense a feeling among the settlers that they did not get the welcome home they thought they deserved. They came, however, to create a perfect spiritual community, not to fit into Ethiopian society. Therein lies the rub. They have never really assimilated, and have a complex relationship with the “outside,” made more complex by religious and language differences. In that regard, the Amish parallel holds up.
For all the difficulties, though, the Rastas who came and stayed seem happy with their choice. They have built a very tight-knit, peaceful, and spiritual community, albeit with a few rough touts trying to peddle ganja. Their land is rich, they live in natural beauty, and the people look healthy and satisfied. They have a school and even a Web site (shashamane.org). As for ganja, that Rastafarian staple, although it is illegal in Ethiopia, it seems to be quietly tolerated in Shashemane. One Rasta told me, “It’s a holy sacrament. We use ganja instead of wine, but we are not arrogant about it and do not want to provoke the system.”
For all the drum-beating and religious and musical encouragement—for all the exhortations about Marcus Garvey and Haile Selassie—the Back to Africa movement never really happened. If they are going anywhere, most descendants of African slaves are not “going home.” Even Bob Marley, the most famous Rastafarian of all, did not do it, though he visited Shashemane in 1978. (His wife, Rita, wanted to transfer his body to Ethiopia, his fatherland, but his grave remains in Jamaica.) More than a million people have emigrated to the United States from the Caribbean, in contrast to the few thousand that ever made it to Ethiopia. But the settlers of Shashemane seem to have few regrets. Desmond Martin, an old-timer Rastafarian who came in 1975 from Kingston, told me, “I escaped from Babylon. It was difficult, but I’m never going back.”