Ras Quintseb met me in Addis and treated me to a lunch of avocados and other greens in a local migib bet. ‘I am vegetarian. In the Bible it clearly says that Adam and Eve are vegetarians, too: God had given them animals to live with, not for slaughter,’ he started. I thought that he was a perfect interviewee: both vegetarian and speaks before I even start asking questions.
Ras took off his shoes 17 years ago when he arrived to his motherland. He never put them back on since and never left Ethiopia. Ras is a person you can’t forget once you meet him. I played ‘Let it be’ with him and the band Ge’ez Roots on the stage of Zanzibar club the night before, and from that moment on I knew that I wanted a proper interview with the guy.
– Did you trace your ancestry somehow? – I asked: Ras was originally born in Trinidad y Tobago, then moved to Europe where he studied and became a musician. – How do you know you are from Ethiopia?
– We are all from Ethiopia. Ethiopia is the cradle of civilisation: you know, some of the oldest human remains were found here. I don’t know where your curly hair comes from, but I bet it is your Ethiopian blood talking!’ Ras replied. I laughed. However, the curliness of my hair has always been of doubtful origin.
Ethiopia proudly displays in its History Museum the remains of Lucy, one of the oldest human remains of a female, discovered in Afar Region of Ethiopia in 1974. She’s as tall as hobbit and has enormous jaws. Looks nothing like Hera from ‘Battlestar Galactica’.
– So Ethiopia is your home just because it’s everyone’s home?
– We all have common ancestors, and they come from Africa… But Ethiopia for me started as an idea. When I was young, I was reading – and I started reading very small – ancient myths and legends, Egyptian and Greek and so on. And they all had Ethiopia in them, so I believed that Ethiopia is a magical land of gods or something like that. Only in 1960 when Emperor Haile Selassie was visiting Trinidad y Tobago – and by then my family had already left it – I found out that Ethiopia does really exist!
– Haile Selassie actually made your myth a reality.
– He was the most travelled and most educated king in the world, you know. He was the one who dared to stand against the rules that Western world tried dictating to Africa. Western world has always viewed Africans as second sort, and Haile Selassie was the one who changed it, by being the most down-to-earth royalty on the planet. We believe that not only he was from the line of Biblical kings (from the lineage of Solomon and Queen of Sheba), but he was actually a manifestation of Jesus Christ. He is said to have died in 1975, but there has never been any proof of it. He died in Addis and many years later his remains were taken for expertise by Western scientists. And all those scientists agreed that the bones were too short to belong to Haile Selassie – he was quite a tall guy. However, the government ignored those allegations and organised a burial ceremony for the king’s remains. But no one actually believes it was him, we know that Haile Selassie lived on.
The Emperor Haile Selassie is considered one of the most important political and ideological figures of the 20th century. He secured Ethiopia’s position in the League of Nations by promising to eradicate slavery. Many historians, however, indicate that slavery has come nowhere near eradication in Ethiopia during his reign, and human rights abuses continued in various parts of the country, particularly Afar region and in the North. Haile Selassie’s famous speech at League of Nations assembly in 1936 revealed to the world how Italian troops under Mussolini invaded Ethiopia and used chemical weapons for mass extermination of the local population, and although the League of Nations in end did only half of what they could’ve done against the blossoming fascism in Italy, Haile Selassie became an internationally acclaimed idol of anti-fascist movement.
Haile Selassie was the one who gave the town of Shashemene as a gift to Africans who wanted to return to Ethiopia from overseas, in search of their roots and long-lost home. He perhaps never considered the fact that the area was populated by local Oromo people, not all of whom were ready to embrace a huge intake of happy dreadlocked people singing Bob Marley and growing pot in their gardens.
Nowadays, Shashemene is a living Rastafarian community, where people from all over the globe arrive, leave and arrive again to stay. Where 7-year-olds will sell you marijuana in the street. Where people are trying to use the fertile lands to grow organic produce instead of following the call of consumerism. I wondered about the legal status they have in the country, and Ras shrugged. It doesn’t really matter. Most of them never intend to leave and go back to their respective countries, so long-expired passports do not seem to be an issue. Not many expat Rastafarians manage to ’naturalise’ on paper, and not many of them ever obtain Ethiopian citizenship, but the community is trying to become as sustainable as possible.
Sustainability comes in many unpredictable forms. Sometimes it comes in form of a banana, like this guy, who owns a Banana Leaf Art Gallery, a unique place that even made it onto the pages of latest Lonely Planet guide to Ethiopia, Somaliland and Djibouti.
– The government policies are changing, the government has recently changed. What is their general attitude towards people like yourself and the community in Shashemene?
– I’d say that… They are not ready to deal with us yet. When I just arrived to the country, the immigration asked me why did I want to visit and stay in Ethiopia. I explained to them that it is my motherland, and that I belong here. Shash people do not present any political threat, we just need to be left alone. You know that they don’t even teach history here in schools? What kind of country doesn’t teach history to children?!
I guess it’s the same kind of country that sends all school graduates with the lowest grades to Teachers Colleges – so that they’d become teachers in the future. Since the are so dumb for a ‘proper’ career.
Now back to your question. How would anybody spend 17 years never ever wearing shoes? What if you step on a rusty nail and get a rusty nail disease? What if the soles of your feet grow hair and you become a hobbit? What if a horse steps on your shoeless foot (happened to me once, not cool) and doesn’t apologise? I guess you’ll never know until you try it.
Think of walking barefoot as a way to reconnect with Earth and all its elements. Think of travelling as a way to reconnect with your nomadic self – after all, our ancestors centuries ago loved (and were forced to) move around, driven by the necessity to find food and escape from more aggressive neighbors. Later on, people started to move around in order to find new lands (and exploit them). We move around to find new stories.
And travelling is not just running from something. Travelling is running towards something new. It is not escaping from home. It is, in fact, a search for home that we never had.