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Ethiopia (and Africa)

The Rastafarian movement began in Jamaica, but it looks towards the African homeland. In this design, which I created using Photoshop, I have therefore overlaid the image of the island of Jamaica on Africa, particularly Ethiopia, to show this close association of ideas. Artwork by Lois Buelow-Osborne - loiscordelia.com

Ethiopia enjoys a very central significance in the Rastafarian tradition, for many reasons.

The country itself is situated in the 'Horn of Africa', slightly north of the Equator, and has borders with Eritrea, Sudan, Kenya, Somalia and Djibouti. Ethiopia has a human population of about 56 million, including various groups such as the Amhara and the Oromo. It is a land of diverse cultures - more than eighty different languages are spoken here. The capital city is Addis Ababa.

The Jamaican
Marcus Garvey supposedly prophesied in the early 1920's, 'Look to Africa for the crowning of a Black king - he shall be the Redeemer'. This inspiring statement formed the essence of Garvey's 'Back to Africa' movement and the messianic religious tradition that followed. When Haile Selassie was crowned king and later emperor of Ethiopia shortly thereafter, he was hailed as the saviour of the Black peoples, who were still at that time suffering much oppression, hardship and discrimination.

Ethiopia is also mentioned in
several passages in the Bible. (In some modern translations, you may find the name 'Cush', a more literal rendering of the Hebrew text, which is sometimes taken to mean south eastern Mesopotamia, or other areas in this region.) Of particular relevance to Rastafarians is Ethiopia's close association with the Garden of Eden, as described in Genesis 2:10-14, implying that Ethiopia is the cradle of humankind, and the site of the original lost Paradise planted by God.

Ethiopia is also claimed by some to be the present resting place of another famous lost relic of the Old Testament -
the Ark of the Covenant. Not to be confused with Noah's boat, the Ark of the Covenant was a hugely powerful and symbolic presence during the period of Israel's early history and also in the 'Golden Age' of the first monarchs. King Solomon built the first Temple in Jerusalem to house the Ark, which was in some ways considered almost as a physical manifestation of God. In recent years, there have been a number of inconclusive attempts by scholars to assess the truth of Ethiopia's claim. For example, the writer Graham Hancock has produced a very interesting and well researched study in this field (his very readable book is called 'The Sign And The Seal'). But whatever the case historically, the symbolism speaks for itself.

Often, Ethiopia represents the African continent as a whole. This seems to be largely due to the reasons of its special significance as outlined above. Some critics have argued that the Rastafarian preoccupation with repatriation to Ethiopia is based on a misconception, since the slave-trade mainly affected other parts of Africa, especially the Yoruba region of Nigeria. However, Ethiopia can and often does stand symbolically for the whole of Africa. Moreover, it may be precisely the fact that Ethiopia is the only African country that has never been occupied by colonies that accounts for its importance to Rastafarians who are inspired by Ethiopia's fierce sense of national pride.

Africa is frequently also referred to as '
Zion'. This name has a long history. Literally it means 'a very dry, sunny place'. Its first recorded use is as the name of one of the hills of Jerusalem, which became sacred when the Ark of the Covenant was installed there by King David. However, by extension, the name came to be applied to the Temple that later housed the Ark, to Jerusalem itself, to Israel as a whole, and even to the heavenly kingdom. In Rasta culture, 'Zion' has a similar spectrum of meanings, and so its application to Africa carries a rich and multilayered symbolism. Interestingly, a comparable phenomenon is found for example in many of the Black pentecostal churches in South Africa, which often incorporate the word 'Zion' in their names, apparently to evoke a similar feeling of national pride.

There is to this day a small community of Rastafarians living in Ethiopia, since Emperor Haile Selassie granted them 500 acres of fertile land in a small town called Shashamane, situated about 150 miles south of Addis Ababa. For these Rastas, repatriation has become a geographical reality; for most, however, repatriation is merely a dream, or it may be interpreted symbolically, or in psychological terms of rediscovering the
roots of one's cultural and spiritual heritage.

Increasingly, as the Rastafarian ideology is adopted by White people who are inspired by its emphasis on unity and love, the concept of the great African homeland must necessarily take on a new meaning. Today, Africa is often seen as the birthplace of humankind, whether in trendy terms of the scientific theory of human evolution from apes, or in mythological and religious terms of the Garden of Eden. Modern science seems to increasingly confirm the view that every human being can ultimately trace their ancestors back to a primeval African dawn.

Rastafarian inspired reggae is often termed 'roots reggae'. This undoubtedly is another indirect reference to Africa lying at the heart of our origins. As the saying goes: If you don't know where you're coming from, you won't know where you're going. The search for one's
roots is an acknowledgement of the wealth of one's heritage, a due respect and gratitude for those who have gone before, and a rediscovering of what may have been lost.



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