Bob Marley celebrations throw spotlight on Rastafarian 'promised land'

As thousands of Bob Marley fans flock here for celebrations for what would have been the late reggae legend's 60th birthday, the spotlight has fallen again on Ethiopia, a "promised land" for Rastafarians that is perhaps better known for disastrous famines.

Marley, arguably the world's most famous "rasta," held, as other members of the sect still do, that Ethiopia's former emperor Haile Selassie is a "living god" and regard his impoverished Horn of Africa nation as their Jerusalem.

Born from a blend of colonial hatred and Biblical prophecy in the slums of Jamaica in the first half of the 20th century, Rastafarianism is a tribute to Ras Tafari Mekonen, Haile Selassie's name until he was crowned emperor in 1930.

"Rastafarians emerged at a time when education in Jamaica was mainly the province of missionaries," said Richard Panckhurst, an authority on Ethiopian history.

"Kings coming out of Africa and Ethiopia will stretch their hands to God is what they were reading in the Bible in 1928," he said. "Two years later, Haile Selassie would become the emperor of Ethiopia, the only (African) country that has never been colonised."

Thus, Ras Tafari Mekonen's coronation as "His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie the First, King of Kings, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Elect of God, Emperor of Ethiopia" had a powerful effect.

Despite the grand title, Haile Selassie was always uncomfortable with the Rastafarians' belief in his divinity, but was careful not to alienate the movement which was picking up steam as North American and Caribbean blacks slowly began to agitate for their rights.

Having offered land to Armenian victims of Turkish massacres in the 1920s, Haile Selassie was predisposed to making a similar donation when approached by Rastafarians who believed their past and future destiny lay in Ethiopia.

"Hearing from the Rastafarians who wanted to come back to Africa, he gave them land but he didn't accept the belief that he was God," Panckhurst said.

To this day, several hundred Rastafarians live in the community of Shashamane built about 250 kilometers (150 miles) south of the Ethiopian capital on land that Haile Selassie gave to the movement in 1948.

Sporting dreadlocks and outfits of green, yellow and red -- the colors that also make up Ethiopia's national flag -- Rastafarians in the country are regarded as curiousities by most natives of their adopted country.

"The average Ethiopian doesn't know that they exist and (if they do) regard them as a bit unusual," Panckhurst said.

And, of the little most people know of the movement, the one thing they are all aware of is the fact that many Rastafarians consider marijuana smoking to be a sacrament.

Marijuana possession is a crime in Ethiopia -- a fact the US State Department deemed important enough to point out to Americans planning to attend the Bob Marley festivities here -- and there have been spats over the weed between the authorities and Shashamane residents in the past.

Yet the community has persevered for more than 50 years, through hardship, official harassment, revolution and reaction, and numerous natural disasters including devastating droughts, famines and pestilence.

Some Rastafarians complain they are unable to get Ethiopian nationality and others believe authorities harbor desires to take their land away, but few doubt Haile Selassie's divinity or the religious significance of Shashamane.

"Haile Selassie descended from King David of Israel," says Desmond Martin, the head of Rastafarian Development Committee who has lived in Shashamane for nearly two decades.

"We believe that God has revealed himself to us in the form of Haile Selassie and we want to be as close to the creator as possible," he says flatly.

"Shashamane is the promised land for us," says Teddy Dan, a musician from Manchester, England who has lived in Shashamane for four years. "It was given by His Majesty the emperor so that we could return somewhere in Africa.

"It is our Jerusalem."

Leah Issachar, a Briton who decided to move to Shashamane a year ago at the age of 65, said she left home after learning about Haile Selassie and adopting the precepts of the Rastafarian movement.

"If it wasn't for Haile Selassie I wouldn't be here," she says. "He made it very clear that color, racism are not necessary, we don't need them."

Issachar is hopeful the Bob Marley celebrations will provide an opportunity for the world to learn more about Ethiopia and Haile Selassie, and Rastafarians as more than pot-smoking deadbeats.

"I hope this big event will be the occasion to give a more positive image of Ethiopia but also a way to demonstrate that being a rasta means to believe in the Bible and not only to smoke marijuana," she said.