This was the Promised Land, a place where people stolen from Africa would one day return to reclaim their homeland and their pride.
And Gladstone Robinson was one of the early returnees. In the 1960s, the former Mar Vista mail carrier joined throngs of Jamaicans and other West Indians trekking back to live on land granted to them by Ethiopia’s last emperor, Haile Selassie.
Forty years later, Robinson and others who stayed are still chasing their dreams, battling insecurity, grinding poverty and reluctant hosts who don’t quite understand why they came in the first place.
“This is my birthright, to move back to Africa,” said Robinson, 73. “Other people have their Mecca, their Jerusalem. This is ours.”
Repatriates from the West Indies, Britain and the United States keep trickling to Shashemene, a dusty market town about 150 miles south of Addis Ababa, the capital.
The hard life here has cast a shadow on the hopes of a homecoming. Hunger, disease and poverty have led to the movement of Jah people, as they like to call themselves, in the opposite direction. Robinson, who settled here in 1964, said the community has been reduced from about 2,500 people in the 1970s to no more than 250 people.
One recent day, Robinson’s neighbor, Ras Mweya Massimba, a 39-year-old Jamaican who lived most of his life in London, said he knew why so many people have left Shashemene and why “not one of my blood” has come to visit during his seven years in this Horn of Africa country.
“For some people, Shashemene is their worst nightmare,” said Massimba, a video producer who runs a small video rental business. “They think of Africa as a place of war, famine and disease and see Shashemene as part of that. We have to work to prove them wrong.”
Shashemene owes its genesis to the Jamaican-born black nationalist Marcus Mosiah Garvey, who prophesied in the 1920s that a black king would rise up to redeem people from the African diaspora. When Ras Tafari Makonnen was crowned Emperor Haile Selassie at his 1930 coronation, the Rastafarian movement took off in Jamaica -- and across the globe.
Selassie’s coronation came during an era when leaders of the Pan-Africanist movement worked to unshackle themselves from European history, culture and religion. Many people saw Ethiopia’s uncolonized society, its ancient kingdoms, contributions to biblical scriptures, and world-famous architecture and monuments as evidence that Africans belonged to a great culture.
For many blacks who believed Garvey’s back-to-Africa message, the dream of repatriating drew closer to reality when Selassie granted 500 acres of his personal land to thank Jamaicans and other blacks who had helped him defeat the invasion of Ethiopia by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.
Rastafarians’ interest in Ethiopia surged during the next three decades thanks to the popularity of reggae and its high priest, the late “Master Rasta” Bob Marley -- hailed by some as the most influential musician of the last 50 years. Robinson, the former mail carrier, was already in Shashemene when the tiny exodus of blacks from Babylon, as Rastas call the West, began.
Robinson was among the first 20 settlers of the land. As an army medic in the Korean War, Robinson served alongside Ethiopian soldiers and was struck by their pride and history.
“These people had a beautiful culture, and it left me asking myself, ‘Where is mine?’ ” he said. “I decided to come and reclaim what was beaten out of us.”
In the last four decades, Shashemene has taken on some Caribbean flavor. The newcomers renamed the single-lane road that cuts through the town the King’s Highway, after Emperor Selassie. A Trinidadian recently opened a bakery that serves patties and other Caribbean delights. Dreadlocked Rastafarians walk the streets, peddling their T-shirts and handicraft. Reggae stars visit often, especially in July to commemorate Selassie’s birthday. And the smell of ganja, or “wisdom weed,” as Rastafarians call marijuana, wafts from the shipping containers that serve as houses for some people.
Robinson said that in the 1970s, repatriates ruled Shashemene. But in 1974, the community changed when Selassie was overthrown by Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam, whose Marxist regime later killed the emperor and buried his body in an unmarked grave.
Even though Mengistu’s atheist regime tolerated the Rastafarians, many repatriates fled, giving up their land. Some merely wanted to escape the repressive government, others the destitution of one of the world’s poorest countries. Repatriates who left behind modern technology in cities such as London, Paris and even Kingston, Jamaica, were shocked to see that one of the main modes of transportation in Shashemene involved donkey-drawn carts with bare metal wheels.
Indeed, less than a half-hour drive from Shashemene, a prolonged drought is exacting a heavy toll on Ethiopians, killing dozens of children under 5 years old and leaving thousands more “on the edge of death,” in the words of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
Such dire poverty caused Robinson’s first wife to return with their five children to Bakersfield. He also lost his second wife, an Ethiopian who went to New York to become a nurse’s aide.
“She called and said she’s not coming back,” Robinson said. “She said she was not leaving her comfortable life in America for this.”
He and his third wife, Yeshi, a 25-year-old Ethiopian whose father was a Jamaican repatriate, and their two children survive on $800 he receives in Social Security and veterans’ benefits.
Despite learning to speak Amharic, the lingua franca of much of Ethiopia, Robinson and other repatriates are still called farenge, or foreigner, by their neighbors.
Many Ethiopians say they don’t understand Rastafarians, especially their insistence that their messiah, Haile Selassie, is not dead.
“The only thing we like and understand about them is their reggae,” said Berhane Mebratu, a Shashemene resident. “They’re not real Ethiopians and, as hard as they try, they never will be.”
Immigration officials sometimes deport repatriates whose visas have expired, especially if they are caught with marijuana.
“I didn’t have any passport or visas when I left Africa, so I don’t understand why they asked for these things when we come back,” said a repatriate who identified himself only as a former resident of the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe.
Robinson said that after 40 years he was thinking of applying for Ethiopian citizenship, although his U.S. passport was useful when he was mugged recently -- the fourth violent robbery he has suffered in four decades -- and had to travel to New York to remove a blood clot in his head.
One recent morning, Robinson and Masimba sat in the latter’s video store, which rents mainly black movies. Favorites are “Malcolm X,” “Amistad” and “When We Were Kings.”
It was 8 a.m. and the men were enjoying their morning smoke. Robinson described himself as the Moses of Shashemene, saying that despite the enormous problems, he believed it was his duty to stay and welcome newcomers to Africa. “This is not ideal, but it is a place I could call my own,” he said.
Masimba too was upbeat. Life in Shashemene was indeed tough, he said, but they needed more repatriates to help them realize the dream.
As he spoke, a documentary he recently produced played on a small television. It showed idyllic scenes of Shashemene, with women drawing water from a clear river and unbridled horses running in the streets.
The film, which is sent to black communities across the globe, features repatriates with the same message: “Africa is waiting.”