Fifty years ago today, Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie visited Jamaica. Hysterical crowds of thousands of people greeted him the airport in the capital of Kingston. The Ethiopian resistance to Italian colonialism and later occupation, legendary in the Atlantic world, drew some of the attention, but it was the Jamaica’s Rastafari population who were particularly enthusiastic. Rastafari revered (and still revere) Haile Selassie as divine. Leonard Barrett, in the first extensive study of Rastafari, explains how, in the first part of the twentieth century, the combination of economic and political crises in Jamaica and the rise in Afrocentric belief systems as promoted by people like Marcus Garvey (and his “Back to Africa” philosophy) led to a belief in Haile Selassie’s reign as more than the continuation of Ethiopia’s monarchical government system. The coronation of Haile Selassie I, King of Kings, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah was the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. In Kevin McDonald’s film Marley, Bob Marley’s wife, Rita, recalls meeting Selassie and recognizing his divinity.
From 2004 to 2013 I engaged in research that looked at the relationship between Ethiopia and Rastafari, resulting in this book. I was fascinated by the appeal of Ethiopia to Rastafari, but also, crucially, how the Ethiopian population perceived the Rastafari movement. Haile Selassie and his April 21, 1966 visit to Jamaica cast a big spell over this relationship.
Ethiopian academic Alemseghed Kebede, who analyzed various Rastafari thinkers for his Ph.D., was led to his research topic on the role of cultural understanding among Rastafari by his immense curiosity about Rastafari and their view of Haile Selassie. According to Alem, the way Ethiopians view Rastafari is colored by the fact that the latter have a different way of looking at the figure of Haile Selassie:
I was one of those people who was saying to myself, “Why would they consider Haile Selassie as God?” And, secondly, why would Ethiopia, which is a very poor nation, why would they take it as and consider it as the Promised Land? . . . I was dismissing their movement. I was saying that there is no way someone in their right mind could believe that Haile Selassie was a living God. I think there is misconception of the Rastafari when they talk about Haile Selassie. They are not talking about what you and I or the rest of people know. They don’t have this kind of historical view of this person. They have this symbolic understanding about the living God. Then, at that time, during the 1930s, you see Haile Selassie emerging as a very important figure and of course afterwards he is one of the founders of the Organization for African Unity and internationally he is a very interesting figure. All of those things were very important symbolic elements, in order for [Rastafari] to make a decision in terms of who this person was, so I think that is how they came to the conclusion that Haile Selassie was God, and Ethiopia, heaven on earth.
Alemseghed’s explanation points to a gap between what he refers to as an Ethiopian, “historic” notion of Haile Selassie, and the Rastafari “symbolic” view. There is a perceived divide between Rastafari and everyone else—Rastafari have one view and “the rest of the people” have another. His immediate reaction to Rastafari, namely, asking why Haile Selassie and why Ethiopia, demonstrates that the answer and framework of understanding for Ethiopians is very different from that of Rastafari. Exemplifying this situation is a narrative that I have come to term the “Miracle Story,” which describes the April 1966 visit of Haile Selassie to Jamaica in very different ways, depending on the perspective of the storyteller.
“I know that the Jamaicans are here because of our king,” Daniel Wogu, an eighteen-year-old student and Shashemene inhabitant working toward acceptance in a medical program, told me. “They believe that he is sent from God to save them or make the black people free from slavery. They have their own history,” he continued. “As I have learned from Ethiopian history, they say that our king went to their country to visit and there were some unexpected happenings. There was rainfall or something. They say then that this proves that Haile Selassie is not actually a man, but is God.”
Henock Mahari, an Ethiopian reggae musician born and raised in Addis Ababa, the city where he still lives and works, said something similar: “He was once in Jamaica and it hadn’t rained, and then it did rain. They accepted him as a God because of this miracle. They see him as a messiah and call Ethiopia their Promised Land and leave their home to come here and finish their life here.” In a general discussion with my hundred-strong English language class at the Afrika Beza College, a female student told me that “Jamaican people live in Shashemene and they like Ethiopian people very much because Haile Selassie went to their town and at that time there is no rain. When Haile Selassie got there, there was rain. So, after that day, Jamaican people like Ethiopia very much.” Shemelis Safa, a high school teacher in the town, had a similar explanation for why Rastafari move to Shashemene: “As I know, Haile Selassie went to Jamaica. It was very dry and they needed rain. Unfortunately, when this king arrived in Jamaica, the rain came.”
At the patriarchate in Addis Ababa, a scholar of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church described a similar phenomenon and how this divided the perceptions of Rastafari from Ethiopians: “Generally speaking, the understanding we have on [the] issue [of Haile Selassie] between us and the Jamaicans is different. The Rastafarians believe in once upon a time when Haile Selassie visited Jamaica, the country was suffering from drought. And right after his arrival, the rain fall. They consider him a god, because they associate him with what happened.” And a Shashemene-based Orthodox priest also told me of the rain starting when the emperor arrived. Even Haile Selassie’s grandson, Prince Ermias Sahle Selassie, told me that he had also always been told that story. I could recount many more of the same narrative, but they all generally amount to the same thing. There was a drought in Jamaica, and when Haile Selassie arrived in the country the rains started and the people of Jamaica were thankful. No individual I spoke with could provide further information about when or where this occurred or any other aspect of Haile Selassie’s visit. Most importantly, however, no storyteller could provide any specific source for the story. I tried to track down some semblance of source material, but to no avail. The essence of the tale, however, is significant: the miracle of rain directly relates to the consideration of the emperor as divine.
Each of these stories underlines the importance of rain in Ethiopia, given the high numbers of subsistence farmers and the historic prevalence of famine-causing drought. Drought is perhaps mentioned because it makes sense to Ethiopians. In addition, acknowledging a perception of Haile Selassie performing a miracle can justify belief that the emperor is divine by linking him to the Orthodox Christian tradition of reading the miracles of Mary as part of the church service. As philologist Getatchew Haile has written, “miracle stories were designed to be read in the churches and monasteries of the empire, as indeed they still are, during daily church services like the reading of the gospel.” Given the role of miracle stories in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, this reading of the Rastafari faith can be viewed as inserting Rastafari into an Ethiopian understanding of religion. Thus the otherwise strange belief in the former emperor as God can be placed in the context of Ethiopian realities and an Ethiopian narrative of faith. Relief from drought and divine intervention are relevant to Ethiopian culture and belief. This provides an opening for Ethiopians to welcome Rastafari into the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
Watching the documentary footage by Vin Kelly of the Jamaica Information Service of Haile Selassie’s arrival in Jamaica on April 21, 1966, it is obvious from the wet tarmac that something quite different occurred when Haile Selassie arrived in Jamaica. As observer Dr. M. B. Douglas reported to Leonard Barrett, “The morning was rainy and many people were soaking wet. Before the arrival of the plane the Rastafarians said that ‘as soon as our God comes, the rain will stop.’ This turned out something like a miracle, because the rain stopped as soon as the plane landed.” Though this description also described the event as a miracle, it is the complete opposite of the miracle outlined by my Ethiopian informants. Instead of Haile Selassie causing the rain to start, here he stops the rain so the celebration of his arrival can begin.
I see these conflicting narratives of Haile Selassie’s arrival as emblematic of the conflicting narratives of Ethiopian identity—one on behalf of Rastafari, the other on behalf of Ethiopians themselves. Each conception of identity is based on history, faith, and cultural realities which are different for both groups. In addition, there is more than a single sense of Ethiopianness for Ethiopia itself. The various and varied ethnic groups each have their own history, faith, and cultural reality that together work to piece together what it means to be Ethiopian.
Though Daniel Wogu and Shemelis Safa mention the connection to freedom from enslavement and the Solomonic dynasty respectively, the main thrust of the stories is that of the rain falling, a miracle made possible by the man Rastafari revere. It is the only explanation for the Rastafari belief. A story like this does not take into account any of the “symbolic” aspects contributing to a belief in Haile Selassie as divine, discussed by Alemseghed Kebede. However, despite the difference of perspective, the fact that the miracle story can be understood according to an Ethiopian Orthodox narrative underlines the importance of the church as a unique point of integration between Rastafari and the Ethiopian population. Haile Selassie himself seems to have felt this way too, as demonstrated by his reacting to Rastafari by shifting the focus away from his divinity and onto his faith in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
*This post is adapted from MacLeod’s book Visions of Zion: Ethiopians and Rastafari in the Search for the Promised Land, published by NYU Press and available here.