November 11, 2012

No fire in Zion

The Rastafarians of Ethiopia play the game that links them to their Caribbean past, but the future looks bleak

Cricket in Ethiopia is not played by expats. It is not played by locals. It is played by a people stuck in between. The community of Rastafarians who play the game in this grey zone have been locked for decades in a purgatory of stateless uncertainty, and their legal status in the country is more often than not described as "unresolved". In Shashamane, cricket is a game played by shadows.

It would be easy to say that cricket as played in this nondescript town, which lies some 250 kilometres south of Addis Ababa and 12,000km west of Kingston, Jamaica, is a microcosm of the larger problems faced by its ex-Caribbean community, and it would not be too far off the mark.

The game came with the first major wave of Rastafarians, who arrived here from the Caribbean in the 1960s (and later, from other parts of the world as well, including Britain), in answer to Emperor Haile Selassie's invitation, in 1948, to realise what every Rasta holds dear as a classic dream - repatriation to Africa. Selassie had donated around 500 acres of his private land for a Rasta community in the town, though a lot of it has since been appropriated by the local Ethiopians, who consider the land theirs by birthright.

It has been a slippery slope ever since, and despite doing a lot of good for the community, cricket-wise and otherwise, many Rastafarians have fallen on hard times. Denied Ethiopian citizenship and other benefits, the Rastas, who currently account for only about 2% of the town's population, attempt to eke their living through various tradesman skills. Some make and sell art. Others try and teach cricket. But it is easy to slip between the cracks. There is a growing concern that Rastafari youth are falling prey to the vices of life on the street.

One of the other concerns with Rastafari youth is that they are becoming increasingly disenchanted with the one sport that connects them to their West Indian roots. Just as the Rastas are deprived of some of their basic rights and opportunities to make a living, their cricket team is deprived of its basic requirements to take the game forward. Almost every person you talk to in Shashamane about the game they remain so clearly passionate about talks about the great need for professional equipment.

"The embassy has promised us real equipment," says Jasmine Rowe, who uses her position as the community's representative warden for the British embassy to help organise matches for the team. "But it still hasn't been dispatched from London."

There are 22 active players in the community who meet about twice a week for practice, and they make do with tennis balls and the child-sized plywood bats and stumps donated by the British embassy. When they play, there is an air of carefree abandon about them, but there is no denying the skill. Some of the older players do not even bother with a run-up, preferring instead to roll their arms over from a stationary position. Somehow the taped tennis ball fizzes and hisses off the pitch.

"Young people might be more inclined to take up the game if they could hold a real bat, if they could feel the weight of a real cricket ball," says Ras Hailu Tefari, a septuagenarian artist who migrated to Ethiopia in 2000 from St Vincent.

The first Rastas to seriously organise the game in Shashamane, according to Tefari, probably played the game with equipment they had had sent to them after they arrived. After a brief renaissance in the seventies, however, the game petered out in the face of continuing difficulties.

"People had enough to worry about just trying to get by, you know?" he said, seated in the dark, mostly empty, gallery he runs to showcase his distinctive brand of banana-leaf art. "People still do."

Aside from artists and musicians, the team has carpenters, builders, metal workers, students, a shoemaker, charity workers, teachers, a plumber, ketchup makers, and others. The lack of official work permits doesn't stop the Rastas from contributing to the community and, when they can, making a little money from the skills they brought with them and continue to hone and improvise. It is a philosophy and discipline they bring to their cricket.

The team is currently training for a return match against the British embassy, having lost the first one by 35 runs.

"We lost the first match only because we let go too many byes," laughs Teddy Dan, who captains the side. Dressed in a resplendent blue silk outfit, with his dreads pulled back in a broad ponytail, Teddy maintains about him the gentle air of a Zen master. He counts among his duties as captain time spent trying to get embassies in Addis to host them for a game. So far, the British embassy has been the only one to respond favourably.

"It was good fun," Teddy says of the match. "All the guys had a great time. They sent a van for us. We were singing all the way to Addis, and then all the way back again, even though we lost."

When asked about the state of the game in Shashamane and its future, Teddy, who is also a qualified youth worker and teacher, becomes serious. "Cricket is interlinked with our past and we are in danger of forgetting who we are." But he is keen to emphasise that it would be a mistake to think of the game in Shashamane as the preserve of the Caribbean community. For him, it is vital that the relationship between the Rastafarian and Ethiopian communities be encouraged and improved, and cricket is a way to do it. "Without engaging the Ethiopian youth, the game has no future in this country."

As such, the team and its organisers have actively tried to encourage the locals to play the game. "A lot of them know baseball, so the transition shouldn't be that difficult," says Teddy.

"Cricket played a big part in helping me overcome racism when I was studying in England. The game forces you to stand shoulder to shoulder with people you would not normally associate with. You are forced into acceptance, both ways." Given that there is not nearly enough interaction between the two communities, this is exactly the kind of thing, he stressed, Shashamane needs now.

But we go back to the problem of lack of equipment. "We can't teach the kids without the right kits. We need the Ethiopians to join us in helping bring the game forward in the country, so it can spread to other parts. But without the right equipment, we're going nowhere." One of the problems, of course, is the cost involved in buying new gear of professional quality. "We don't have Bob Marley money, man," says Teddy.

We stroll around the grounds where the team has been practising. It is little more than a clumpy square of grass with some cows grazing to one side. "Look at these guys," Teddy says, waving over some children who have wandered up to us. "These are Ethiopian kids," he says, crouching down and urging me to take some photos of them in front of the plywood stumps. "These guys are the future of the sport in this country."

After the photos are taken, Teddy takes the stumps, which are all of one piece, and places them at one end of the square. "Go on, bowl at me," he says.

I grin. "Where's the ball?"

"Don't worry about the ball, just mark your run up and bowl me one."

I walk to my mark. I turn and jog up to the crease. I make the jump and hurl one down, surprising myself at the intensity with which I bring my empty fist through the air.

Teddy rears back, and the plywood bat comes down with a flash to meet air. It is as exquisite a wasted cover drive as you could hope to see.

To donate equipment to the Shashamane cricket team, please contact Benjamin Wastnage or Stuart Taylor at the British Embassy, Comoros Street, PO Box 858, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Tel 251-11-661-2354. Teddy Dan can be contacted at 251-916826753

R Rajkumar tweets here