Encountering the promised land: Rastafari in Ethiopia and Shashamane

Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie would have been 125 this year. Perhaps coincidentally — and indeed meaningfully for Rastafari repatriates in Ethiopia — the government just announced a decision to issue identification cards to foreigners who have contributed to the country’s development, Israelis of Ethiopian descent and Rastafari.

According to news agency AFP, a foreign ministry spokesperson discussed how this card would allow residence and many legal rights—such as the ability to come and go without a visa. “There were questions for them to recognise their presence in the country, so that is what the government did.”. In a separate report, the AP reported that though the cards allow for residency, this does not mean that Rastafari repatriates are yet considered Ethiopian citizens: “Thousands of people who will be issued the new identity cards still cannot take part in elections or engage in the country’s security and defense sectors.”

The new documentary film, “Shashamane: On the Trail of the Promised Land,” by director Giulia Amati documentary (screening on Afridocs, online or on BET on satellite TV), takes on a particular importance given these recent events. The film tells the story of the Rastafari repatriate community who have moved to their promised land of Ethiopia, specifically land that was granted by Haile Selassie in the late 1950s as thanks to the pan-African community for support during the Italian occupation. Amati’s documentary demonstrates the connections that Shashemene has to other places and other periods of history. Here’s the trailer:

 

The film is  a nuanced portrait of a community, but also a range of individuals who are connected to Shashemene. As someone who researched the Ethiopian perception of the Rastafari movement [and wrote a book about it–Ed], and has spent time in Shashemene, I was interested in speaking to her about the film and the way that she portrays and represents repatriation.

Can you talk a bit about this film? How did you get to Shashemene? 

The idea of starting to work on the story of Shashemene started from my previous project, a documentary entitled This is my land…Hebron. And it’s a movie that took me three years to make and was quite successful. What really attracted me to the story of Hebron was the underlying fight or search for identity through a piece of land. That was very interesting for me and I wanted to work on that topic. When I came to Hebron I was literally shocked. How come nobody is getting this information out–at least the way I’ve seen it? For Shashemene it was very different. I just started by going on the internet to find a new project: searching “identity,” “promised land” and other keywords. I came across Shashemene. But there wasn’t very much information. Then the book written by Giulia Bonacci, Exodus. Her approach is historical, which gave me a chance to tell the story of Shashemene as one that covers 400 years on at least three different continents. At the time Giulia was in Ethiopia doing research and  about to organize a Reggae Festival in Addis Ababa to which she invited elders and community members from Shashemene. She invited me along to get the chance to meet some of the elders and then eventually ask them to go down to Shashememe together. That was the beginning of this journey.

My research was about the Ethiopian perception of the repatriate community and the way that it has developed over time. But while doing that research I also fell upon Derek Bishton’s photographs and in your film his work sort of acts as a bridge. It demonstrates the history of the people and makes that connection to the past. 

At the time when I met Giulia we started doing some brainstorming and asked her about archival material that was out there. The first pioneers were very poor people they didn’t have cameras. So there is very little that documents this incredible story. But when she was about to publish her book she heard about [Derek] who had come in the 80s to document the story of the journey of some of the first pioneers. She gave me his email. When I met him, he told me, listen, I have just retired, and you came into my life in a moment when I am recollecting some of the key events on my life and trying to write a book. So what I am doing is also going through the pictures that I took during my journey in Shashemene and my project is to develop some of the pictures in a big format and eventually go back and see who of those pioneers have survived and what happened to their children.

I said wow, our timing really is good. About six months later I went to Shashemene to really start the filming, and I spent four months. At the end Derek came to Shashemene so we were able to coordinate. I knew when he was coming, but I didn’t tell the community because we wanted to preserve the genuineness of the significance of him bringing back a piece of history and giving the community the opportunity to see, through a small exposition, their history. It’s not just a family album, but a history that they have made through their journey and their life choices. It was quite moving to see how people from the community reacted because I felt that they were perceiving the bigger meaning that was behind those pictures. 

The film is obviously in three parts, three spaces: Ethiopia, the UK and Jamaica. Within those three you speak to a number of people, but the central person in Ethiopia is Ras Mweya, in the UK, Derek and in Jamaica, Ivan Coore. Obviously from what you have described, there is a reason for Derek, in that his experience in Shashemene thirty years previous made him an obvious choice, but can you talk about the other figures in the film? 

First, I think it was important to film in three continents for two different reasons. One is the functioning of the slave trade which links all three. The other reason was also to understand the journey and the hardship. This is where the key figures came in: one, a person who settled in Shashemene who was determined and stayed; and one who repatriated but had to leave. Derek is in England, but also in terms of imagery, that helped to created a contrast with the kind of society a lot of the people in Shashemene had escaped from.

And when I came to Shashemene it wasn’t easy, as it often is when you enter a community: to find your space, to create trust and to be truly welcomed by people. I needed to understand the community. It is quite complex. I try not to be naive, so I tried to give myself time to understand the inner dynamic. I didn’t want a narrow perspective. So I spent time understanding the people who allowed me to describe and have access to the community in a broader perspective. I wanted to give everybody’s point of view; it is why I made a choral portrait of the community.

With Ras Mweya — it was personal. We recognized in each other that there was a personal journey that we could do together. At the same time I also felt that his spiritual journey was deep and honest, and I think that really linked us. I grew up a lot by spending time with him, trying to understand the community through his eyes. At the end what happened is that one day he told me, listen, now it is time for you to decide the house where you want to stay. That was really the beginning of our interaction and it is really the beginning of the film. Because once I went to his house, I felt that I was safe, that I could start to put my energy into the filming process. Ras Mweya passed away just a month before I was able to bring the movie back to Shashemene. That was one of the most sad events that happened because he really wanted to see the final result of our work and it was very important for me to bring it back to him. I understood that Ras Mweya had the vision to know that through the movie, in a way, his legacy survived.

When I saw Ivan Coore speak in the film, it was very moving. Having interviewed him previously, I know how much he has wanted to tell his story. Could you talk about him a little?

Jamaica was the most difficult part to organize in terms of filming and production because in Ethiopia I spent a lot of time–six months in the community over three trips. England was easy. But in Jamaica I had very few contacts. I didn’t know what to do. And then, two weeks before I was about to leave, I finally received an email from Ivan Coore saying “I’m sorry, I rarely check my emails, and I saw yours and it is fantastic, I would love to meet you. Let’s talk.”

He was the man the wanted! A man who could tell a personal experience about Shashemene–not really a historical perspective, but personal. You could tell he was a man who really wanted to tell his story. At one point in your life you start to see your personal story as an element of a bigger history, and I think I was lucky enough to meet Ivan in this moment of his life. I think the story of Shashemene is what attracted me the most. This is the story of an incredible dream. Few people have the strength to try to turn their dreams into reality. When each of us dares to do that, each of us has to face how challenging it is to do this and how many compromises have to happen. So, as human beings, we often find ourselves in that place where we try to deny some the things that really didn’t work out. Because it is hard for us to accept that turning things into a reality can be hard and don’t work all the time the way we had envisioned and then there is a moment where you are able to see things in perspective: to see the good, the bad and to really analyse what happened and what you did. Ivan told the truth about his journey. 

I don’t know if you read Emily Roboteau’s book Searching for Zion, but it also looks at repatriation, and one of the powerful elements of the book, and I think your film also captures this, is this sense that repatriation is not an A to B process. Repatriation is not a journey that erases or exits the history of colonialism, the history of slavery, of what continues and impacts people to this day. Everything exists at the same time. It is about moving from one space to another, but it also is a journey that is more than that. It forces us to see the way in which history functions in the present. 

Repatriation is complex. I was fascinated by the search for identity of Black people who have decided to move back to Shashemene. It is linked to a physically journey, and the story of the place goes beyond that. It is not just a physical journey. I think at the end of the movie what I came to realize is that Shashemene represents a kind of a metaphor. The people have physically moved there and they find themselves in a sort of limbo: not at home in the west, going back to Africa and reconnect to roots, but even there not really being at home, welcome. In a way, it is a metaphor of how this process of emancipation is still going on. People in Shashemene are still fighting for the right to have citizenship. Considering the repatriation movement and the reparation movement, the pioneers went there without any help and they stayed there and they are a symbol of a demand that is bigger than Shashemene. They stand as a metaphor of a bigger process that is still going on. 

It is a very beautiful film. From a visual perspective, in terms of representing space, it looks like Shashemene. You focus very much on the community so you get a sense of how it looks and feels to be in that space. The same with Jamaica and the UK. Earlier, you talked about this concept of a “choral portrait” of the community. In many documentaries you have people named as they appear. Your film provides the names at the end of the film. Can you talk a little bit about this decision? How do you think it affects the representation of the space of Shashemene?

It was a conscious decision–I thought about it a lot. Because I knew how important names are for Rastafari and many people. Ras Mweya Masimba changed his name–renounced his birth name, the name that he inherited from a slave master to have an African name. I was aware of how important this was. At the same time, I wanted to be faithful to the experience and what I wanted to do is have the audience enter into Shashemene the way that I did. 

I didn’t meet or interview people because I had a list of people; I was knocking, door by door and listening to people’s stories. Little by little, by doing a sort of patchwork of different people’s testimony, I was able to create my own relationship and to trust people and I wanted people to get this experience about Shashemene. Not to make assumptions and decide on importance based on names and roles. I wanted people to share that sense of listening, and trust just by faces, expressions and stories. It was a bit of challenge to do that because audiences get nervous when you don’t give them a map of how to read things. So I the end I thought it was more valuable for the community to give that representation of history in this way. The editing is very slow–if you want to listen to the story, you have to sit down and wait. There are no short cuts. Of course, the names are in the credits. 

I figured that there was a reason. It functions as a documentary, but also as a portrait. It shows a community. Given the Rastafari theology of “I and I”, community is always a part of Rastafari. It’s a significant choice. The reality is that no figures in the movie are named: all are treated the same way. From Dr. Clinton Hutton at the University of the West Indies, to Ras Mweya in Shashemene, to Derek Bishton in the UK. What has been the reaction of people to the film? 

I’ve done screenings in Italy, Greece, England, South Africa, Egypt, Ethiopia and America. The audience reaction is very different, because of course this is a story that depends on who you are and the history you can grasp. For example, in England the premiere was at the Brixton and the audience was prepared. That was their history. And then in other places people connect more with the human story. Each of us is fighting to find who we are, what is home, and can identify with struggle, with people who have been abused and are fighting to restore pride and identity.

I went to Shashemene in November 2016 and the political situation was quite tense. I tried to get some support from the Italian Cultural Institute, but they said forget about it, we are not going to take any responsibility, we are not going to drive you down there. Then I thought, ok, I will need to organize myself on my own and again, Giulia Bonacci came on the scene and she was so supportive in terms of getting in contact with people in Shashemene, and had people helping out to get a room ready with a projector and so on. 50 people from the community showed up–which is a lot. Imagine, Raw Mweya has just passed away a month before so there was a feeling in the room. People were shouting with joy during the screening. After the screening there were a couple of people with whom I got closer during the making of the movie, very close friends of Ras Mweya. They hugged me and said, “hen you came here, you were a person we mostly trusted, I don’t think there had ever been someone we trusted so much, but that trust was 98 percen . There was still that two percent. We were wondering what is she going to do with us, with our history. But now after the movie, that trust is one thousand percent.” I feel like there was this recognition that we had done a piece of the journey together. And that is one of the most powerful feelings you can have as a filmmaker and as a human being–to see that you have done a journey with other people.

Erin MacLeod

Erin MacLeod is the author of Visions of Zion: Ethiopians and Rastafari in the Search for the Promised Land (NYU Press).

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