Hidden deep amongst the rifts and valleys of Ethiopia’s southern region, stands the Zion Train Lodge. The Zion Train Lodge is an eco-friendly guest house set up by Ras Alex and his wife, Sister Sandrine, in the town of Shashamane, around 500km from Addis. Shashamane is famous within certain communities because this is the place in which His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia, donated 500 acres of personal land for repatriates of the African diaspora to return to in 1955. Since that time, many have come, some have left and some have stayed.
Having first visited Ethiopia in 2004 and having set up the Zion Train Lodge the following year, the goal of Ras Alex & Sister Sandrine is to create a space in which one can feel at peace and ready to embrace traditional Ethiopian culture to it’s fullest extent. Traditional round huts, known locally as gojo-bet, adorn the gardens of the lodge, and bamboo lines the walls and ceilings. Cows, chickens, horses, cats and the family dog happily stroll the grounds or relax in the sun, while the vibrant artwork and plants at the Lodge reflect brightness that calms and activates the spirit simultaneously.
During my stay at the lodge earlier this year, I sat with the family to discuss life in Shashamane, and the process they undertook to set up this ideal way of life in Ethiopia.
Alex: Selassie I the First. Glory to Jah! Rastafari; ever living, ever faithful, ever sure. I’m Ras Alex, French citizen coming from Paris; repatriated to Ethiopia now thirteen years ago, so giving thanks for the blessing of the Almighty.
Laura: Greetings, everyone! My name is Laura. I’m eighteen years old, I’ve been living in Ethiopia [for] thirteen years, and I’m the daughter of Sandrine and Alex, who are the owners of the Zion Train Lodge.
Mikael: My name is Mikey. I’m twelve, I was born in Addis Ababa, and I speak Amharic, French, English and Creole.
Sandrine: Rastafari. I am Sister Sandrine, the wife of Ras Alex, and we have two children here in Shashamane.
As soon as one steps through the red, gold and green gates of the compound, one feels welcome, grounded and warm.
What is the Zion Train Lodge?
Alex: The Zion Train Lodge is a guest house, in a cultural way; in a traditional way. We promote the Ethiopian culture through it with the gojo bet, the traditional house of Ethiopia, and with the garden, the flowers, the plants. That makes the difference [between] a classic hotel, made of concrete. Zion Train Lodge is essentially bamboo, wood, natural furniture; because for me, repatriation means returning to Africa; to our homeland. We are supposed to promote African culture for real, and that’s the concept of the Zion Train Lodge; returning from Babylon to our Father’s land. We want to live a pure African way of life.
Shashamane wasn’t in my mind first of all. I chose to repatriate to Ethiopia. We started to visit the north of Ethiopia [via] the historical route; that means Lalibela, Mekele, Axum, Gondar, Bahir Dar. We stayed two months in the north and then we were baptised and married in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, fourteen years ago. That was my first step in Ethiopia, before Shashamane.
I knew Shashamane was a Caribbean community, but myself, I come from the Caribbean; [it’s] nothing new for me! I came to join Ethiopian people first of all. That’s why I entered in the Ethiopian Orthodox Tawahedo Church, to become a member of that church and to learn about African culture again and again. That’s the meaning of repatri-love for me. Return to home. We have to learn about our home culture, language, writing and everything; new life amongst InI.
I came without a plan but on the way, Jah just inspired us to the launch the lodge. Really and truly, we came without a plan. It’s just Jah. Through the powers of the Most High, everything happens.
Laura: The lodge is like a hotel, where we receive travellers from all over the world; from Ethiopia, from Europe, from USA, from Canada, from all over. It’s a great experience for me and my brother living here, because we get to receive many people and share many personal experiences with them. It’s very interesting and the lodge is quite unique because I think it’s one of the only places in Ethiopia where you can get to meet the owners and get to talk to them, and get to share experiences. It’s not just one side; it’s not only us talking. It’s also them, getting information and getting to know our family. It’s a very great experience and we are very glad living here in Shashamane.
Mikey: It’s a place where it’s green and cool. Everything is irie.
Zion Train Lodge really is a beautiful and green spot. Nature is present in abundance and cannot be ignored. However, setting up the Lodge did not come without its obstacles.
How did you set up the Lodge?
Sandrine: When we were in France, we [would] speak about Ethiopia every time, because as Rasta people, Ethiopia is very important, because of His Majesty and because of the Ark of the Covenant. It’s very important for Rasta people and it was very simple for us because I stopped working my job in France one year before we came here. We wanted to leave Babylon at this time and go to Zion, and we [went] directly without any doubt.
The first time we came, we were baptised and married in Lalibela. After three months, it was very difficult to find a job and we wanted to be legal in Ethiopia. Jah said it was not a good time, and we had to go back. At this time, we sold everything in France and after one year, we went back [to Ethiopia].
Alex: We first came to discover Ethiopia in 2004; most of my time was in church at that time, which means praying in church and worshipping Igziabhier Amlak, the one true God of Israel; New Israel; Ethiopia, the New Jerusalem. We tried to learn the Amharic language as well, [yet] after three months we had to go back to France because our visa expired. We looked for a job at that time but all doors were closed. As Rasta, it’s difficult to integrate into society. The second time we came, one year after, in 2005, we met someone who advised us to invest our capitol in our own project, and that’s what we did. It was the only solution to survive properly in Ethiopia; to manage your own enterprise without any chief or any Babylon above you. You’re your own entrepreneur. That’s the only way for a Rasta to survive in this here jungle. Zion Train Lodge came one year after.
Sandrine: In the beginning, when we arrived, we had nothing in this place. They had nothing; it was a farmer’s land with only one tree in the middle and when we began to build, we employed all of the village to do the work; to build the houses, to fix the plumbing and electricity; we worked with Rasta also at this time but we had many local people all around wanting to work.
What can visitors expect from their trip to the Zion Train Lodge?
Sandrine: When people come to Ethiopia or in Africa, especially in Ethiopia, they think that they have nothing. [They think] it’s a desert and they have nothing to eat, and the people have this image from a long time ago, from the famine, but when they arrive in Ethiopia, they can’t believe what they see.
It’s very different. When it’s the rainy season, it’s very green everywhere. People don’t believe that because they’re used to seeing, in their mind, desert and nothing. At the Lodge, we try to change this aspect of their mind. Tourism is very important now in Ethiopia. It is very new but it is very important, and when the people come here, they have to testify [on their experience]. From this, people can speak everywhere in the world about Ethiopia in a different manner.
Laura: It’s a must! Come visit us, everyone! The doors are wide open! Coming to Shashamane, for people who are interested in Rasta, in reggae, in everything linked to the Rastafari movement; it’s a must!
Even though our community isn’t as expanded as we expect it to be, it’s still very much there. I mean, we say you better have quality than quantity, so that’s what happens in Shashamane. You have a few people but who are all very interesting and who have extraordinary stories to share with everyone coming.
Sandrine: In Shashamane, it’s not easy; the living style. There are a lot of young people on the street (due to lack of opportunities). Sometimes they can harass you, so it’s not easy for the tourists sometimes.
Generally, though, the people we receive here are not like classic people. They are searching for something else. They know we have a Rasta community here. They like the music, they like the simple life of the Rasta. That’s why it’s easy for them to accept what’s outside. It’s not always easy but they accept that.
Laura: People who come around will love coming to the Zion Train Lodge and getting to talk to my father or my mother, or even me or my brother, and getting to know more about the Rasta movement.
Many people around the world know Rasta and might listen to reggae, but don’t know the real message of Rastafari, so I think they should know and come to Shashamane to know more about it.
What do you see in the future for the Zion Train Lodge?
Alex: I’m sure the future is ours. Through the powers of the Most High, prophecy has to be fulfilled. We just respond to the call of His Majesty by coming here in Ethiopia, in Shashamane. We’re not alone. We seem weak but through our weakness, the might of Jah shall manifest.
I don’t care about my weakness or my poverty. I know Jah is everything and everything ends in Jah. I’m very confident for the future, not only for the Zion Train Lodge but for Jah people all over the world.
I’m talking about the diaspora, the black diaspora, and not only black diaspora but all of Jah children, whether they’re white, yellow, or red; it doesn’t matter. If you’re Jah child, you will be saved. You will be redeemed. You know the everlasting Kingdom of Heavens will come. That’s my confidence.
I don’t really care about my situation right now, on Earth. It’s just for a while. I’m looking for everlasting life, through faith and determination. I’m just confident and I have no doubt about the promise of the Almighty.
Jah will not deceive us. That is my conviction. Selassie I.
The Zion Train Lodge can be found just off the King's Highway in Shashamane, Shewa, Ethiopia. Look out for the red, gold and green banner.
Follow the Zion Train Lodge on Facebook.
For more on the Zion Train Lodge and the livity of Rastafari in Ethiopia, look out for my upcoming article!