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.
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, 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 artwork and the plants at the Lodge reflect brightness that both calms and activates the spirit.
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.
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.
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.
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 at 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 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.
How is life here in Shashamane, and has the town changed a lot since you arrived?
Sandrine: The life is not very easy in Shashamane, because it’s countryside. It’s now a little better but when we arrived thirteen years ago, they had nothing. The place where we live now and where the lodge is established; it was farmer land. We had nothing at this place and when we wanted to eat something special or a special vegetable like courgette, we went to Addis Ababa, but now it’s very different because Shashamane has grown very fast and Ethiopia is very developed now.
They used to cut the water every time and we stayed four years without good power or electricity, because the transformer was very small and not enough for all the area. It was very difficult to run a lodge in this condition. In the night, it was impossible to see correctly; we had only the small light of the lamp and it was very difficult. Now it’s better; they put a new transformer and we have water sometimes. It’s a dry season and it’s very difficult to have to bring jerry cans, but the life here is real. The real life is here.
It’s not like in Babylon where we have everything we need. Water; just turn on the tap. Here it's a real, real life and we can feel it with all the people around us. We have more communication with the people and for me, that's very important. When I go back to France it’s difficult for me - I’m hurried to come back here, really!
We know all the people of the village now because one day we met each of them to do something here; that’s why it’s very important to work together. Now we try to help the people; Alex gives kung-fu lessons for the young children because they are on the street with nothing to do, and there are not many sports in Shashamane. It’s manual to help them and to show them what is Rasta, also, because the local people have to know that we live here.
For me, I try to help the people to heal when they need it. I try to help them every day like this and through this, I know many people in the village. They respect us and we respect them in the same way; it’s a good exchange.
Alex: Shashamane has changed a lot. All of Ethiopia. Ethiopia has the fastest growing economy [in Africa], and it’s a huge development and progress. In Shashamane, when I came, the Ras were like up-class, but now, they’re completely lost. The first shall be the last; the last shall be the first. That’s what happened in Shashamane. Ethiopia was so poor ten years ago, only ten years ago, and now they became rich. On the way, [however], Rasta, they became poor. I see it; the balance. Just so you know, Ethiopians are working hard. They work hard to develop and to uplift their life. We, coming from the West, sometimes we get lazy; we just sleep and relax. That’s why they’re faster than InI.
[For us], we set up the business, but it’s not so easy because you don’t get so much co-operation from the authorities when you’re Rasta. Anywhere is the same way; they fight against Rasta; in Ethiopia as well; it’s not only in the West. Everywhere in the world, it’s the same. When they see Rasta, they try to mash you down. That’s what happened to us. They cut the water all the time, the electricity; they boycott us in different ways. They try to sabotage, but again, with Jah, we survive and we keep on surfacing.
It’s not an easy road, for sure, but through the powers of the Most High, Jah just paves the way. When Jah is by your side, everything seems easy in a sense. All obstacles have to be overcome. All challenges, same way, because Jah is waking with you. Evil forces can’t stop you, because the Almighty shall prevail. That’s what happened to us.
Laura: As a white, young Rasta woman, I’ve been raised in certain contexts because I was the only white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl in Shashamane, so I was quite different to everyone. Although I’ve been different, I got into this circle very easily and very quickly because I’ve learnt the language in only eight months. It was quite fast because I had to learn it. It was a survival case. I had to learn the basic skills to live in a foreign country, in an African country.
Since then, I’ve been totally into the society and it’s not a problem for me. Being of French nationality, I’ve learnt English and Amharic at school in Ethiopia, so I’m glad I got my education in an Ethiopian school because I couldn’t get this chance in any other French city. I’m glad about it. It's a great thing.
What can people expect from their visit to the Zion Train Lodge?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Laura: There’s no doubt about the fact that I’m willing to live in Ethiopia. As you know, the Ethiopian government released new information [regarding] the legal ID, which is a legal way to live in Ethiopia, so that’s a great thing for me and my family. Even though we are legal in Ethiopia, owning this business, a lot of Rasta don’t have the same chance, so that’s why the fact that having an Ethiopian ID will be very good for every Rasta that lives here. That’s a great opportunity.
Sandrine: We have a plan but I don’t know if we can realise that because alone, it’s difficult to do. Our plan is to do something in the lodge. Not only the lodge, but a place of life for all people in Shashamane; like a cultural place where everybody can come to learn. Learn to sew, to work the wood, to sing, to do many things, to paint, but we need people for that. We need people to teach the wood, to sing, and everything.
Can you tell us about Rastafari livity and the significance of His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I in Ethiopia?
Alex: We as Rasta consider Ethiopia to be the Promised Land, meaning divine place on Earth. [This is] because of the Ark of the Covenant who dwells in Ethiopia, in Axum, and not only that - even in a scientific approach, the whole world recognises that Ethiopia is the beginning of creation. The first human being appeared in Ethiopia, and Ethiopia is the beginning of civilisation. In Ethiopia, you have the foundation of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Ethiopia is the beginning of life, of everything, for human beings. It’s the cornerstone. It’s the head cornerstone.
Ethiopia has never been colonised. It’s kind of a wonder; a miracle. The whole of Africa was colonised, and only Ethiopia escaped from that and managed to resist the invaders! Wow! And Haile Selassie, of course. Haile Selassie, the true and living God; the Messiah, was born in Ethiopia. He is an Ethiopian. This means Ethiopia is the cornerstone! How else can I say it?
Laura: Haile Selassie was the greatest Emperor for Ethiopia. He did a lot of things to develop His country in every way; in technology, infrastructures; a lot of things. That’s a fact that no-one can deny in Ethiopia, but being a Rasta - because everyone should know that Rasta believe that His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie is the Messiah - that’s quite a challenging thing for Ethiopian people who are not Rasta, and who do not believe in His Majesty as the Messiah.
They’re interested in knowing that foreigners come to their country and see their King as their Messiah, so they do take it seriously and ask a lot of questions when they meet us, for example ‘What do you think His Majesty is? Who is He to you? What does He mean to you?’. They do ask a lot of questions and nowadays that Rasta have expanded all over Ethiopia, whenever they see dreads they’ll be like ‘Rasta! Rastafari!’ and stuff like that, especially in Shashamane, because it’s the place where every Rasta should be normally; it’s the Promised Land.
Now, we are very much in the society. I’m talking about Shasha’. For example, people are used to me. Although I’m white, there’s no big deal. I mean, they still see the dreads and know that I’m Rasta. There’s no doubt about it. They are getting used to us. I mean, yeah - we’re a part of the Shashamane society now.
Sandrine: Before I knew Alex, I knew nothing about Rastafari. Only the music, like many people, and Alex showed me the way. At this time, I was searching for my way and it was a good period, and Jah did provide for me and make sense of life for me. It’s Rastafari. It’s a life. We have no life without Him. Even if it’s not easy to be accepted by other people, it’s a big strength, because when you have dreadlocks, you are different.
The people, they look at you in a certain way but for me it’s a big force because you have to testify your faith. If you have no locks, the people don’t look at you as Rasta people. For Rasta, you have to testify your faith every time. I think it’s very important because Jah asked us to do that. That’s my experience in Rastafari, and I continue my way here in Shashamane because I try to send the message to the people that visit us here.
As a livity, Rastafari livity is very natural. It’s very simple. You don’t have to complicate life. Just be simple, eat natural things. No alcohol, not too much ganja; sometimes, but only for celebration when we want to take a meditation, because if you smoke too much it’s difficult to work, to manage your life, and your children also. Children are a lot of work - you have to see them every time and we give lessons at home now by internet for them. For them, we have to be clear in the mind, and be love. Rastafari livity is love.
The first of all is to love each other, whatever colour, whatever age. We have to love each other and when we do that, life is very easy, because when you have love, Jah gives love for you in the same way. It’s very, very important.
Mikael: [Haile Selassie I] helps us to stay strong in Ethiopia, because it’s difficult.
Sandrine: Empress Menen; she is an example for me. Every woman is supposed to be like her. I think if everybody looked to the Emperor and Empress Menen, life would be very easy. We have to keep the example in mind and do the same because it was very perfect. They were very perfect. We never saw Empress Menen disrespect the Emperor, or do bad things. She doesn’t show her body too much. She was very proud and that’s what we need at this time, because we have too much decadence and too many problems in the world. If you don’t respect the way of life the Bible says to you, it’s a problem. That’s why I keep Empress Menen in my mind every day and I try to be like her, but it’s not easy sometimes.
His Majesty is always here. The first time we came to Ethiopia, we could feel Him everywhere; in the high mountains in Lalibela. In Addis Ababa, they have many monuments that remind you of His life, and Shashamane; it’s a place He granted to the people of the diaspora. It’s a special place for me. He didn’t give this place by accident.
It’s a special place because I think He knew that the people who were supposed to come at this time were coming from the Caribbean. Most of them come from the Caribbean, with the sea, the beach and everything - places like Jamaica, Guadeloupe or Martinique - and He placed us just between Wando Genet and the mountains, like in the islands in Jamaica. We have a lot of mountains like this, and between Langano, where you have the beach.
I think His spirit is just all over Earth and He lives with us every time, and that’s why it’s more easy to live here. Even if they have many problems sometimes, He’s here. We don’t have to be in fear. Just be confident. It’s very important to feel Him every time because He’s our God. He’s the highest man on Earth.
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 banners and gates.
For reservations and enquiries, contact the Zion Train Lodge on Facebook or on their website.
"Zion train is coming our way!" - Bob Marley