Travel Weekly editor-at-large Arnie Weissmann continues his
journeys through Ethiopia. Following is the seventh in an
eight-part series telling the tales of his travels and travails:
hy do you want to talk to me?" Gladstone Robinson
raised his sunglasses and gave me a level stare. He was a tall,
thin man, 70 years old. Dreadlocks hung three-quarters of the way
doclwn his back.
"I'm interested in how you ended up here," I said.
"Here" was Shashemane, a
midsize town in south-central Ethiopia. Thirty-six years ago, Haile
Selassie, the last emperor of what was then the empire of Ethiopia,
distributed land to any non-African black person who wanted to
settle there. Gladstone Robinson was among the first group of 12 to
"Brother Robinson" softened, shook my hand and invited me
through a high corrugated-metal gate and into his home.
We sat down at a small table in his front
room, and he asked his young wife, who was holding their
one-and-a-half-month-old child, if she would get us some tea and
biscuits. There were two photos of Haile Selassie on the walls, a
calendar with Haile Selassie's photo, and a portrait of the former
emperor painted on a goatskin.
He asked where I was from. "Texas," I said.
His eyebrows raised. "I was stationed in Fort Sam Houston and
married a woman from Texas. My first wife." He was from Brooklyn
originally, he said.
I learned his life story with the aid of well-thumbed
scrapbooks. He was, in the 1950s, "regular army," stationed in
Tokyo and working as a pharmacist's assistant. He was deeply
affected, he said, by observing the strong connection that the
Japanese seemed to have with their culture and national identity.
He felt it was something that was lacking in the way he felt about
living in the U.S.
He pulled out a newspaper clipping published when he graduated
in 1963 from Texas Southern University, with a degree in pharmacy
science. He was on the honor role every semester, worked three jobs
and was serving as president of the Afro-Asian Cultural Society,
the reporter wrote. But the focus of the story was on his being
accepted into an "Experiment in International Living" program in
which he would spend two months in Ghana. In the article, he said
he hoped to live in Ethiopia one day and teach.
Gladstone Robinson looks every inch a Rastafarian, but his
actions belie the laid-back stereotype. He has, his whole life,
been one hard-working, highly-focused Rasta.
Soon after graduation, he headed up the American chapter of the
Ethiopian World Federation. The EWF was originally formed during
World War II in reaction to the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, an
act seen as emblematic of attacks on black people by European
cultures throughout the world. The EWF's broader purpose, in fact,
was to secure political, economic, religious and social freedom for
black people everywhere.
It took hold most strongly in Jamaica. Robinson showed me a
photo of himself with other EWF officers in the early 1960s, taken
in Kingston, and the group looked as strait-laced as a church
Yet the EWF was the precursor of the Rastafarian movement, the
culture of long muddy dreadlocks, reggae music and ganga
(marijuana). The name comes from Haile Selassie's pre-imperial
name: Ras (his rank) Tafari (his family name). Haile Selassie (his
chosen royal name means "Power of the Trinity") became the EWF's
benefactor, and somewhere along the line, he became regarded as
literally divine by its membership.
Haile Selassie must have reckoned that it
wouldn't be such a bad thing to have a group of people who thought
he was God living right in Ethiopia, so he invited any blacks who
wanted to return to Africa to settle in Shashemene. Brother
Robinson showed me his original land grant, signed by Haile
Selassie. He built a school on part of the land and taught,
fulfilling the dream expressed in the article a year earlier.
He subsequently opened a pharmacy in town, and ones in Addis
Ababa and Asmara (now in Eritrea) on behalf of the movement.
Everything was going well for him until 1974, the year that Haile
Selassie was overthrown and Ethiopia began down the road to
The communists didn't care
much for a group that thought the man they had deposed (and
subsequently killed) was divine, and, according to Robinson, they
took back much of the land, and harassed, beat and imprisoned the
Rastas who remained. Robinson spent 11 days in a jail in Addis
Ababa. (When he described the conditions, my Ethiopian guide, Mr.
Ahmed, said, "I know, brother, I was there." (To read Mr.
Ahmed's experiences, section below "I was there.')
Robinson said he just kept to himself at first, but then
thought, "Why would Haile Selassie put me here unless it served a
greater purpose?" He began trying to give what medical help he
could to tortured prisoners.
When released, he returned to the U.S. for 10 years, waiting for
the collapse of the communist government. He visited Ethiopia and
Shashemane several times during that period, however, bringing
supplies to those who kept the settlement going. When he himself
finally re-settled, he found that the size of the settlement, and
his amount of land, had been greatly reduced. The communists had
torn down his school and pharmacy.
Today he serves as "administrator" of the settlement, but said
the current group was somewhat divided against itself. Land had
been given to some white Rastas, a policy he opposed. "All people
are brothers, but the original charter specifically says the land
is to go to blacks who want to return to Africa," he said.
Age hasn't slowed him down one bit. He took me on a tour and
showed where he had erected the walls for a new three-room pharmacy
and had installed two basketball hoops as the beginning of a
"sports stadium" he wants to develop. He also had built a little
store in front of his house that he rented out ("Something to give
money for the wife and baby when I die.") And he was adding toilets
and showers to his house and another that he rented out.
I met some of the other Rasta settlers. One young man said he
was from New Orleans but nonetheless had a thicker-than-thick
Jamaican accent, as did a young man from England (whose speech
became almost Cockney when he started describing how he got
As we walked back to the car, Mr. Ahmed, my
Ethiopian guide, said, "The Rastas are a great example, truly. They
chose to come here, and are committed to this country. They put to
shame the Ethiopians who leave to get an education elsewhere and
We found our driver, Mr. Tamrat, outside a shop where the
Cockney Rasta sold clothing and Rasta souvenirs. Mr. Tamrat was now
wearing a Haile Selassie medallion on a ribbon the colors of the
For the next few days Mr. Ahmed and I teased Mr. Tamrat about
his purchases, to which Mr. Tamrat replied, in the fashion of the
Rastas, "Respect, mon." And indeed, despite the teasing, we all
ended up with a great deal of respect for the deeds and words of
Brother Gladstone Robinson.I was there
My guide Mr. Ahmed was jailed three times by "The Dergue,"
(communist government). The longest, for six months, was for
belonging to a communist association that was deemed "too
intellectual" by the Durgue.
"I was lucky," he said. "They killed everyone educated they
Another time, he was leading a French tour group at a church
within sight of the Durgue headquarters in Addis Ababa. Their chief
of security -- "drunk," Mr. Ahmed said -- accused one of the
tourists of trying to photograph the headquarters building. When
Mr. Ahmed tried to intervene, he was beaten and ended up in jail
with a broken rib.
The third time he also got in trouble for intervening on behalf
of his tour group. His bus was stopped and a soldier accused a
tourist of photographing a bridge. "I pointed out that, in town,
they even sold postcards with the bridge on it." For his
interference, he was once again arrested.
" " "
Arnie did the traveling, but you
can win the souvenirs.
This week's prize, pictured here, is the Emperor Collection, and
includes a 100-year-old silver coin with the image of Emperor
Melenik, and a medal and a stamp with the image of Emperor Haile
Just send an e-mail to Arnie at [email protected] for your chance to win the final
of four prize groups. (Editors' note: This contest is closed.)
Be sure to check back Thursday, Aug. 2, where in his final
installment, Arnie will visit the villages of the Konso tribe.
For the complete archive of Arnie's Adventures in Ethiopia,