Ethiopian Excursion: Haile, Gladstone and Me

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 arrive.

"Brother Robinson" softened, shook my hand and invited me through a high corrugated-metal gate and into his home.

Seventy-year-old Gladstone Robinson and his one-and-a-half month old baby daughter.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 committee.

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.

Gladstone Robinson in his home. A portait of Haile Selassie is over his left shoulder.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 communism.

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 there).

Driver Tamrat and guide Ahmed pose in front of the Lion of Judah, painted on the wall of Gladstone Robinson's juice stand in Shashemane.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 never return."

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 Ethiopian flag.

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 could find."

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.

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The Emperor Collection.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 Selassie.

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, click here.

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