Zion Higher

This time of year in Addis is much quieter than at other times. Certainly in Kazanchis, home of big hotels and the U.N., the population is largely from outside of Ethiopia, so it’s a lot quieter now than when I arrived because they’ve all gone home for a bit.

I’ve just slotted in since I got here, and the people I’ve met have been so open and welcoming and normal, so I’ve forgotten to think about writing this blog since the last one. I keep notes as I go along to remind myself of stuff but I haven’t done that for the past few days because I forget I don’t live here. Life is pootling on by in Ethiopia and it’s very comfortable. Then I realised today – I think I have a touch of the Dakars. Not as bad as then but certainly for a few days my life has just been washing over me a little bit. Life doesn’t seem to move at any mad pace in Addis and it’s far too easy to slow down and meander. I wonder if it isn’t just the time of year and that there is a slower pace here because it’s so far above sea level. Does thinner air make for a slower lifestyle? Or are Ethiopians just Casual Colins? If you asked them they’d just say they have the best life.

I had a haircut and a Swedish massage in Boston Day Spa, post mountains. I met up with Zoe, a British artist with links to Addis, who I share a friend with, Vikki. Zoe’s a football mad artist so her and I got on straight off the bat. Dinq Gallery had another launch, which was lovely. I’ve had a couple of rollicking nights in Top One. George headed back to Uganda so I found a cheap guest house up the road. I’ve had a couple of lovely long walks. I made it down to Shashemane to see the Rastas. Things are ticking over until I perk back up again really.

The other day I went to see Lucy, the oldest human remains found on Earth, in the National Museum of Ethiopia. They found her around Harar, in the north. She is called Lucy because Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds was playing when she was discovered. The Beatles link was more than enough to pique my interest. She’s getting on a bit – 3.2 million years old – but her knees give away that she walked upright. She’s probably the closest thing we have to Darwin’s missing link. Her Amharic name is Dinkinesh, which means ‘you are marvellous’.

They call her a ‘tree dwelling australopithecine’ and have reconstructed her standing up. It basically looked like a bi-pedal chimp. She wouldn’t have looked out of place selling PG Tips. The other remains from that time were also all female although I didn’t find out if female bones preserve better, or if there were certain traditions to female burials or not. It’s intriguing that the oldest remains we have – 40% of a skeleton from 3.2 million years ago, 50% of another from 150,000 years after, plus a few other bits there – are all female. I like that.

What also struck me, in a country of profound Orthodox Christianity, is the amount of evolution and science stuff written on the information boards everywhere in the museum. I don’t know much about attitudes to God creating heaven and earth in Ethiopian religions, other than assuming they think similar to the others, but this museum looked to me to be very Darwinian. I know I’m missing a lot of information here though.

Elsewhere in the musuem there were artefacts from the Axumite Kingdom, bits and bobs like clothes, crowns, weapons and thrones from the Monarchy and some classic old Ethiopian art. Outside were statues and busts of the Monarchy, Menelik II and Haile Sellassie included of course. It was all good stuff but I don’t think I was in a museum mood and much of it washed over me really. I know why that was the case now. I got more out of the walk to and from it to be honest! I did enjoy following the tour of English pensioners round the museum though, as they contradicted the tour guide’s information. The white haired retired radiologist particularly made me smirk. I wish I’d asked him if there was anything to the oldest remains being female but I’d probably still be there now if I had.

New Year on December the 31st is sort of a thing in Addis but with their own calender and new year celebrations in September, it all passed like any other evening really. Some of the clubs celebrate international new year so there were some sore heads around town January 1st morning. Blen at the gallery was particularly cumbersome. I accidently had my mad night on the 30th, in keeping with my tradition of ‘you just have to be bloody different don’t you’, as Mum used to say to me.

What else have I done? Oh I walked up to Piazza, which retains its Italian name. The first cinema and first hotel in Ethiopia were built round there. I read something about all the colonial buildings but you can’t really tell – it’s all really Ethiopian. Everything is a mish-mash of hilly roads lined with shops selling anything and everything. I was collared by a male local and his mate who, guess what, was a DJ and his friend has a music shop. They really do all have exactly the same story. I forgot that I’d said I was gonna tell outrageous lies the next time I had one come up to me. Thomas and Zion they were called – Zion this self styled ‘Rasta’ with childish mini-dreads who had no idea about Rastafarian faith and probably just liked the look and sound of it. Is that cultural appropriation? It turns out that Thomas’s friend’s shop was actually the only other vinyl record seller in Addis (the other is Kidus who I met in the first week). Run by the roly poly Abdi, his shop was at the back of an AIDS prevention centre. I was after Yekereme Fikir by Getatchew Kassa but he didn’t have it, after he spent 30 minutes looking through his records. He popped on one Getatchew Kassa that he did have, which is the most famous one, Tezeta, which is a classically sounding Ethiopian tune of its time.

By then, Biniam had phoned me for help with an application of his to study Architecture and Building design in Massachussets, so that gave me a good reason to scarper and off I went to meet him in Meganagna. I hopped in a taxi to the sound of Zion, who was a dance teacher and could do this horrible thing with his shoulders, about to ask me a question. I cut him off because he was obviously about to ask me for money. “Listen, my friend, I was hoping to ask you… you know, I’m, me, I’m-yeah no chance mate, see you later” and I shut the door. I hate saying no but they must think I’m stupid. All 4 African countries I’ve been to assume that I have money because I’m white. I don’t like it and it is holding the entire continent back.

Although, apparently, I am basically African now. That being said, as it’s coming up on Saturday, I’m mentally gearing up for going to Japan. I was back on a fully vegetarian tip which was pleasing, but I had a wobble today and will inevitably eat fish in Japan. I love shiro so I’ve been eating that a lot with enjera, with salads for lunch. Top One has by far the best shiro. My appetite hasn’t gone, which is good. That’s in full swing. Alive and kicking. Safe and sound. In fact in a country ravaged by drought and famine for so many years, trust me to start putting on weight.

I popped down to Hawassa for 2 nights, with the aim of seeing the Rastas in nearby Shashemane. Hawassa is a student type town with a lively night atmosphere and bars, shops, hotels and market lining the roads. There’s a fair few people about. It’s close to Lake Awassa and is about 200km south of Addis, there or thereabouts. The bus journey is 3 and a half hours but mine was 5 because the bus broke down. I was told by Callan, a Brit local to Top One who works for the World Food Programme, to stay in Hawassa if I went to see the Rastas.

So I finally made it to Shashemane today. This was one of the most intriguing parts of this whole trip for me and something I’ve been thinking about a lot. The story just fascinates me. Basically, a bloke years ago said a thing would happen, then loads of people said ‘look there’s that thing he said would happen’, and now we have the Rastafarian Movement. (Note: that was a joke).

I’ve written about it previously but here it is again: Marcus Garvey, renowned early 20th century Pan-Africanist and leader of the Back to Africa movement, said that a black King would soon be crowned in Africa to free the suppressed peoples of Africa and the disapora. In 1930 in Ethiopia, Ras Tafari Makonnen became Emporer Haile Sellassie 1. With his ancestral links to the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon and devout Orthodox Christian beliefs, Jamaicans used the Bible as a base to form this new interpretation and named His Imperial Majesty as their Messiah. They used his birth name to name themselves and their movement. They continue to read the Bible and base their life around the parts they take from it. Marcus Garvey is seen as a Prophet and Sellassie is a Christ-like figure, with God making the Father/Son/Holy Spirit triumverate. In the late 1940s, as Rastafarian beliefs started to grow, Haile Sellassie granted Jamaicans 500 acres of land in Shashemane and since the 1950s Rastafarians the world over have been re-patriating themselves to Africa. It’s their Utopia, and is a physical place in which to call ‘Zion’; a place in which to escape from Babylon.

I hopped on the short bus ride of the 20km from Hawassa to Shashemane. I got a tuk-tuk, or Bajaj as they are called here, from the bus station to my first port of call – the Black Lion Museum. ‘Ah, Rasta Village’ exclaimed the Bajaj driver, grinning. When we arrived, even before I’d got out of the Bajaj I was collared by this bloke that seemed to be an exact half and half of Jamaica and Ethiopia. He spoke his broken English with a Caribbean accent but his Amharic like a local, and physically he looked split right down the middle. I thought I’d ask. His Dad is Jamaican, his Mum is Ethiopian. It’s common here now and I saw and met a few Jamaican Ethiopians.

The Black Lion Museum was shut. The founder and owner recently died and his wife works in Addis, so nobody is there to open it. This lad knew this and looked to me to be waiting outside for tourists that arrive before whisking them off elsewhere. As with all these trips I’ve done, people wait for tourists like me and take them, for a haggled fee, to all the places they think they want to see. His English was limited so I couldn’t ask him nearly as much as I wanted to, although he was versed in the regular facts and figures of the things we went to. I didn’t want to sound like a certain retired radiologist so I nodded and smiled along.

There are 4 main tribes that make up the Rastafarian Movement – Bobo Shanti, Nyabinghi, Twelves Tribes of Israel and the Ethiopian Unity Church. Bobo Shanti started in 1958 in Jamaica by Prince Enmanuel Charles Edwards. Emmanuel means ‘God is with us’ and it was the Bobo Shanti compound that we visited. I spoke to the head fella there but I never actually got his name. He was Jamaican, raised in Kingston, but now the go-to figure of the Bobo Shanti Church in Shashemane. His Dad had bought the land years ago and was knocking about, casually. Bobo means black and Shanti comes from Ashanti, a tribe in Ghana that made up many of the slaves in Jamaica.

As we sat down and he played Dominoes with his mate, he asked ‘So what do you want to know?’ I just said I was super interested in what Rastafari is because I have heard all these things in the Reggae that I listen to. I tried so hard not to say ‘I wanna know about this Rastafarian thing mate’.

‘Rastafari is more than music. Rastafari is not a religion, it’s a fate. God didn’t put people on earth to die, he put us here to live. We live in order to worship him and thank him for his incredible work creating the heaven and the earth. Livity. Livication. He gave the earth to the Devil and look what has happened. The planet is being destroyed. But one day, through destroying earth, we will provoke Him enough and he will come back. Then we must repent. We live in sin’.

I knew it was based on Christian stuff but not quite how much it’s all based on it. He went on to complain about Richard Dawkins, asking how ‘God can be a delusion’, and spoke further about human interference with the planet. He mentioned Hiroshima at one point. It was like listening to a Christian preacher in patois.

Then he extolled the virtues of weed for ages. Rastafarians use Ganja instead of Holy Wine as many are tee-total vegetarians and Rastafarian use of Ganja was made legal in Jamaica not long ago. He didn’t say this but I have read that Biblical mentions of ‘herb’ is what using Ganja is based on. I’ve never got on with it when I’ve done it. I have a very active mind and imagination and if I smoke it just kills it for hours. It’s illegal in Ethiopia too, although they have a plant called Khat which is a natural amphetamine that is really common, so it’s a touch hypocritical to frown upon another plant. Rastas could have trouble with Ganja but it’s just about tolerated in Shashemane.

I asked him how many Rastas live here and he said 850. It’s been more or less that number for ages really. They have visitors from all over the world coming over, both Rasta and not, and the services in the compound are on Saturdays, which he called the Sabbath day. The grounds were lovely and the church building was beautifully kept and newly painted. Everything smelt really nice too. It was a calming atmosphere.

One of the Bobo Shanti beliefs is that dreadlocks should be tied up in what they call a ‘turban’. They need to be kept clean and away from dust, dirt and whatnot, because traditionally Rastafarians have been all about life, so you let your hair grow, but you need to protect it. Rasta is more than a dreadlock thing and nowadays those Rastas without dreads justify it by saying ‘Haile Sellassie never had dreads’. I don’t think having dreads or not is a point of contention between believers; if it is, it’s kept private to outsiders.

I asked if I could play some reggae tunes on his speakers and he obliged. That was great actually. I whacked out some Noel Ellis, some Upsetters, some Michigan and Smiley. He knew half of them word for word and sang along, almost like a private MC performance, and he even asked what a couple of the others were, as he was dancing along playing dominoes. Playing some reggae tunes to a grateful and dancing Rasta Priest in Shashemane. That’s what I wanted.

We then went to the Banana Leaf Art Gallery but that was shut as well, which was disappointing. The art is all made from banana leaves. We headed off to the Zion Train Lodge instead. We walked everywhere, which I enjoyed, seeing the Rasta compounds with the familiar colours and Star of David everywhere. The village is made of 2 parts – Jamaican repatriates and non-Jamaican repatriates – and as Zion Train Lodge was set up by a French couple, it’s in the non-Jamaican bit. Built in 2006 for tourists, the recent State of Emergency in Ethiopia means that they haven’t had anyone stay for a while. Paintings and pictures of Haile Sellassie were everywhere, including all over the lodge buildings.

Sat on a table were Sandrine, a white French Rasta and her husband Alex, a black French Rasta. They set up and own the lodge. Also there was Sandrine’s daughter who said ‘Jah Rastafari’ when I shook her hand, which distracted me enough to miss her name. They all had gorgeous long dreadlocks and Alex had dreaded his beard. Over a coffee I asked them about the State of Emergency and it all boils down to the Government being Tigray and the Oromo and Amhara people feeling left out. It’s as simple as an ethnic division, common the world over.

Conversation flowed a bit but thought everybody so far seemed a bit cagey. I hadn’t realised that it was such a private movement. I wondered if there was something about not opening up to non-Rastas. I found out later that there had been a local Rasta murdered and robbed a few months back and it had shaken the community hard. He was a newcomer, who had only been in Shashemane for 5 years, and the fast growing population of Ethiopians moving to Shashemane, swelling the population to 100,000, means a minority are targeting the Rastafarian community, who very much keep themselves to themselves. Even more so now.

The reality isn’t going to spoil the utopian dream, but the repatriates aren’t acknowledged by the Ethiopian authorities, aren’t given citizenship or I.D cards and often don’t work. For years, Derg and post Derg, anything to do with Haile Sellassie has been admonished in Ethiopia. Those smirks I see when Ethiopians talk of Rastas might be because they are taking the piss. I’ve read that locals have problems with a Rasta lack of work ethic, but unemployment numbers within the community simply reflect the country as a whole, where unemployment numbers are very high. Haile Sellassie’s land donation to them was never properly recognised and all land in Ethiopia was nationalised with the change in regime in 1974. The struggles with integrating in to society is a bit like the Amish really, or the 20,000 strong Jewish community in Stamford Hill. But they seem to have enough support from each other.

We had some Caribbean food in the Bolt House, a restaurant named after Usain. It’s owned by a Jamaican man who has married an Ethiopian and had children. I like it when owners come and talk to you and answer questions but he didn’t. He didn’t even say hello and we were the only ones in there. I think Rastafarians really are quite private, or perhaps today just wasn’t a good day, or perhaps they are tired of curious knobs like me coming and asking daft questions.

I’m so glad I went though, to finally see this place. It was kind of what I expected although was disappointing that the museum and art gallery were shut. I’d read a lot about Shashemane so the struggles people are facing here weren’t news to me. I certainly didn’t see any unhappiness – perhaps more quiet frustration. What they’ve achieved is quite something though, in a religion (or fate) not even 100 years old. They have a physical place, in a symbolic continent to where it all started Jamaica, and get to live on land given to them by their Messiah. That’s really special. My only surprise is that I barely heard any music anywhere.

I headed back to Hawassa and booked in to that posh hotel so I could have WiFi and a hot shower for a change. It felt good. The WiFi stopped working for hours though, typically.

It’s been a mad near 3 months in Africa and it’s already coming to a close. I’ve loved it here, really. I didn’t pick the places on this trip, they picked me. It’s mainly based on music but it’s so much more than that. Routes and roots.

What I’ve taken from tracing all these religions so far, because they make up a bulk of the music that I love, is something I need to stew over. My main thing in life is music and always has been. It takes the place of what a religion and God would. I’m endlessly devoted to it, striving for experience through music and regularly obsessing over songs. It drives me to continue and fills up my days, well, religiously. Exploring all these fascinating religions and seeing them not treat music as the most important thing has shown me even more how it’s just the number 1 thing in my life. Music already is my religion. This is why I am travelling to the places of the music that I love. I’m dedicated to music. I’m not looking for any absolute conclusions here though.

I wonder if I’ll be spoken to by everybody in the street in Japan. I’ve had 3 months of non-stop whistles, names, greetings – it’s no exaggeration to say that every 10 seconds somebody will shout something at me, every single time I leave the house and walk the streets. 4 countries, 3 months, every 10 seconds, non-stop. It’s exciting that from here to Japan, I’m going to a seemingly opposite culture. Not at all to get away from anything African, but I do tend to revel in drastic change.

I’ve been in contact with Banda Girassol, a Samba Reggae band in Tokyo, who said yes to my asking to come to rehearsals. I have at least 2 rehearsals lined up with them in my first days in Tokyo, and a hostel booked. I think they might be an all female band, which I didn’t know before I messaged them. I’m sure you can imagine me stood in the middle of a bunch of Japanese female drummers, blushing. There’s also Porca Rosa, who call themselves a ‘Samba Reggae-ton’ band and who are only a year old, but I haven’t contacted them yet. Plus there is all the other stuff that Japan has to offer, including the David Bowie Is exhibition in Tokyo. I imagine I’m going to absolutely love my three weeks there.

I’m back to Addis tomorrow morning and later in the week I have a bit of Ethio-Jazz with Biniam at the Coffee House, to round this part of the trip off. It is Ethiopian Christmas Day on Saturday the 7th and I leave that evening, probably after a mountain of shiro and enjera, if anywhere is open. Hopefully I will see people for some hugs and goodbyes beforehand too. The time has flown by. But it’s been lots of fun. Now, if only I knew a pithy saying for that…

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