Despite a year-long conflict that has made Ethiopia a bloody battlefield, Ricaldo “Rusty Zebulun” Marsh has no regrets about moving to the East African country. In fact, he said living there “is my childhood dream fulfilled”.
Marsh spoke to the Jamaica Observer in October at the height of fighting between Government forces and rebels loyal to the Tigray People's Liberation Front. Hostilities began in November last year when the rebels raided army camps in northern Tigray; since then, thousands of people have been killed, wounded, or missing.
The 73-year-old Marsh has lived in Shashamane since 2011. Among an estimated 700 Jamaican Rastafarians who call the fertile town home, he said the dispute has not affected them.
“As far as the hostilities are concerned we have no problems in Shashamane. Shashamane is peaceful and tranquil and there is no adverse effect on the Rasta community,” he said.
There has been a Rasta presence in Shashamane since 1966, the year Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I visited Jamaica. Many Rastafarians considered the now late Selassie God and had accepted his offer of land in 1967 to farm and live in his country.
In 1970, Ethiopia's Imperial Court ordered that 10 hectares of land be given to 12 Jamaican Rastafarians in Shashamane, which lies about 150 miles from the capital Addis Ababa. Among the residents in the current settlement is Desi Martin, a former Manning Cup footballer for St Andrew Technical High School, who has lived there since 1976.
Over the years, some famous names have lived or visited Shashamane. Allan “Skill” Cole coached the Ethiopian national football team while his close friend, reggae superstar Bob Marley, visited the area in 1978.
Marsh told the Observer that the Rasta commune has representatives from various 'houses' — Twelve Tribes of Israel, Nyahbingi, Boboshanti and the Ethiopian World Federation. They enjoy all government benefits except the right to vote and join the army.
“We, more or less, live in unity. We have joint projects, support each other's celebrations and work with the Ethiopian community as good as we can,” he said.
While most of the Rastafarians are from Jamaica, there are pockets from Barbados, Grenada, Trinidad & Tobago, Guadeloupe, the United States, and United Kingdom.
Ethiopia is the final stop in Marsh's nomadic life. Born in Kingston, he was raised in St Mary until he was 12 years old when he returned to the Jamaican capital to attend Kingston Technical High School where one of his teachers was Marcus Garvey Jr.
At the time, Garvey Jr revived his father's Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Marsh began attending UNIA meetings at Wildman Street in Kingston and in 1971 became a member of the Twelve Tribes of Israel.
The following year he graduated from Mico Teachers' College and in 1977 moved to Turks and Caicos Islands where he taught school for four years.
After one year in Jamaica, Marsh migrated to the United States where he continued his educational career by earning a bachelor's degree in education from City College of New York. His next stop was Ghana where he taught for four years, then moved back to the US.
He visited Ethiopia for the first time in 2000, went back in 2007, and finally settled there four years later. Marsh is married and has an eight-year-old daughter.
Of all his travels, he feels most at home in Ethiopia, a country that has been ravaged for many years by civil war and devastated by famine.
“For the Lord to afford me the opportunity to return to the land of our fathers, and also a piece of land where I can eat from my own vineyard, is nice indeed. I have made a total circle and feel quite contented,” he said.
Marsh, a trained agriculturalist, produces avocados, bananas, yams, red peas, mangos, and corn on his land. He said Shashamane has improved in terms of transportation and infrastructure since he moved there.
He has not been to Jamaica since moving to Ethiopia, but has a son, grandchildren, two sisters and three brothers living here.
Last week, Tigrayan rebels announced a retreat to their stronghold in northernmost Ethiopia, triggering fresh hopes of a possible end to the 13-month war marked by allegations of massacres and mass rapes.