Italian filmmaker, Giulia Amati, prompted by the only existing book documenting the episode, Exodus!: Heirs and Pioneers, Rastafari Return to Ethiopia by Giulia Bonacci, set out on. a three year journey to document the existence of the almost forgotten community of Shashamane, located 250 kilometres south of Addis Ababa.
In 1948, in gratitude to those from the African diaspora who rushed to the defence of Ethiopia when it was invaded by Italy during Mussolini’s fascist rule, Emperor Hailé Selassié granted 200 hectares of land and the right of return to Africans around the world.
Initially, Rastafari from Jamaica were the first to take up the offer. More followed and from diverse places, answering to the spiritual call epitomised in the song Exodus by Bob Marley (1977) — “Open your eyes and look within: Are you satisfied (with the life you’re living)? Uh! We know where we’re going, uh! We know where we’re from. We’re leaving Babylon, We’re going to our Father land.”
Shashamane is now home to three generations of people who came from France, Jamaica, the United States, the United Kingdom, and a number of Caribbean islands. Many of the original arrivals gave up, while some returned after the genocidal Derg regime ousted the monarchy in 1974. The Derg soon after revoked the land grant. A mere 11 hectares was later “returned”.
Those who remained and endured in Shashamane have turned their back on the so-called developed world, where their ancestors were forcefully brought under slavery and where that legacy remains oppressive and tangible through systemic racism that stifles the advancement of black citizens.
As one interviewee says, one can work for 40, 50, 60 years and get nowhere in the West.
The question of reparations, as opposed to charity and aid with strings attached, is a recurring theme in the documentary.
The return to Africa is a deeply personal, mythical and spiritual quest, a crucial aspect that Amati captures with great sensitivity, allowing the story to be told from the point of view of the people in Shashamane. They talk freely and often lyrically about their lives.
It becomes clear that faith sustains the community. But there is also admirable, hard-nosed realism about their predicament and its internal contradictions, the honest acknowledgement that: “We are coming back here now as foreigners. People don’t remember who we are, or forget that they sold us into slavery, or how we left here. It is a hard task of re-integration with the people on all levels.”
The result is that the people of Shashamane remain in limbo.
Amati has a keen cinematographic eye, and effortlessly evokes the rich fertility and paradisiacal beauty of the land. A sense of calm stoicism pervades the community. But the people are poor. Living conditions are very basic; far better than it is for millions in Africa, it is true, but also very far from the comfortable, middle-class homes in which Amati interviews one of the Jamaicans who gave up and returned to the Caribbean when the Derg took power. A strength of the film is that it reveals these contradictions and paradoxes without passing comment.
Although the Rastafari are not persecuted, they are also not fully acknowledged. One has a sense the community would thrive were it not hamstrung by the red tape and marginalised by the authorities. The community does not have title papers to the land and their businesses and therefore no access to credit. They do not even have the freedom to leave Ethiopia, which requires its citizens to have valid papers to obtain exit permits or face punitive and prohibitive fines.
But at least here, the struggle is one of subsistence and family, not a daily struggle with the enslaving racist gaze. The Rastafari of Shashamane have bravely defined themselves in the face of great challenges, and in that context, they have freed themselves.