THE dream of many people, especially Rastafarians, to take up an offer made more than 60 years ago by Emperor Haile Selassie I to settle on 500 acres of fertile land in Shashemene, Ethiopia has been shattered by political changes in that east-central African country.
According to Steven Golding, president of the Marcus Garvey-founded Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) Kingston Chapter who visited Ethiopia in May this year, the land offer no longer exists.
"Going there, we found in actuality, there is not a land grant offer to take up," Golding, whose father, Bruce, is Jamaica's prime minister, told the Sunday Observer.
In fact, according to the younger Golding, persons who actually took up Selassie's offer many years ago have lost some of the land and are now living in unacceptable conditions.
Shashemene gained international attention in the African diaspora when 500 acres of its fertile land was granted to the 'Black People of the West' in 1948 by Selassie, the Ethiopian emperor at the time. It was a gesture of appreciation for their massive support to Ethiopia during the Italian occupation of 1935-1941.
Over the past 40 years, the global Rastafari community established a community at Shashemene with several individuals and families settling on the land, some raising children and grandchildren.
However, problems arose during the reign of Haile Mariam Mengistu who became head of state in 1977, three years after Selassie was deposed and the country's new military rulers declared it a Socialist state.
Mengistu's military dictatorship — known as the Provisional Military Administrative Council or the Derg — encouraged Ethiopians to capture land occupied by supporters of Selassie. The situation deteriorated further under the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who assumed office in 1995, and more land has been taken from the settlers.
Golding recalled that after Selassie visited Jamaica in 1966, a number of people, particularly among the Rastafarian movement, began sending people to Ethiopia to take up the land offer.
"I think when I visited there the eldest person had been there since 1973. Not eldest in age, but in terms of time being in Ethiopia," Golding said.
"We know, of course, that in 1974-75 there was the military overthrow of the monarchy in Ethiopia, which then brought up some questions for those who had taken up the land grant offer as to what was going to happen to them. And the members who had been there now, coming up to 20 years, were forced to sort of lose parts of the land that they had occupied to development being brought by the government," said Golding. "That is what affected the first set of groups when it came to the land grant, and why they will tell you, according to them, there is no longer any 500 acres."
Golding said that during his fact-finding mission, he learnt that Government policy now forbids the sale of land in Ethiopia. However, Ethiopians are selling buildings on their properties "for the purpose of having a legal transaction to the Africans from the diaspora who are coming there to take up this offer".
"So you are buying a small hut... not at the value of the hut, but the value of the land. Even though legally they can't sell you the land, they sell you the hut for the value of the land, you can then knock down the hut and build a permanent structure which you can get a title to. That is what has been happening, and it is not restricted to just Shashemene. You can do this wherever you are in Ethiopia," he explained.
Golding's trip had its genesis in an appeal made a year ago by the Shashemene-based Ethiopian World Federation Incorporated to the Jamaican prime minister in his capacity as the then chairman of Caricom to investigate the matter of the settlers of Shashemene and to look at establishing a Caricom Embassy in Ethiopia.
The appeal was contained in a document presented to the prime minister's son at a meeting of the UNIA by Barbara Blake-Hannah on behalf of the Rastafari Think-Tank.
Golding's trip, which also took him and his fiancée Empress to Kenya and Tanzania, was a re-enactment of sorts of the 1961 original back-to-Africa fact-finding mission to several African nations by a local delegation sent by Norman Manley to discuss repatriation.
That delegation comprised representatives from a number of organisations, including the Ethiopian World Federation, the local Rastafari Movement, as well as the UNIA. The mission emerged from a study on the Rastafari movement in 1960 undertaken by a team of University of the West Indies professors, led by the late Rex Nettleford and including MG Smith and Roy Augier.
"The idea was to recreate the trip and to reinvestigate what has happened in the past 50 years," Golding told the Sunday Observer. "I found out coming now, 50 years after, you cannot appear in Ethiopia and present yourself saying, 'I am a black person. I am an Africa from the diaspora. It was written in your constitution at one point, this land grant, and I am here to take up the offer'."
Golding also used his trip to help organise branches of the UNIA on the continent. "We organised a group in Nairobi, we organised a group in Arusha, Tanzania. And also we re-strengthened our group in the United Kingdom," he said.
"I must say this is not that I went to Africa and created these divisions. These divisions were already sort of creating themselves. I was just fortunate being the president of the first division formed here in Jamaica in 1914 to go and give them some direction and to plug them into the wider international network," he said.
"There were already Garveyites there. Now we have UNIA divisions there. So they are aware that they are not alone and that there are other divisions organised around the world that they can now count as part of their fraternity," Golding told the Sunday Observer.
"Before going over to Africa we did canvas our people on the ground. Marcus Garvey is very popular and he has followers everywhere," said Golding. "So what we were able to do in East Africa was to bring them together, share with them the constitution of the UNIA, re-energise them and put them back on the right path towards organising themselves and functioning as a constitutional part of the global organisation."
— Basil Walters