Embracing Ethiopia
by © Chester Higgins Jr.

Long before I set foot in Ethiopia, the name itself summoned images of Biblical proportion in me and, I believe, for many other African Americans as well. In the Bible "Ethiopia" is a place of refuge, an amazing mystical land.

Then with the advent of Marcus Garvey and African nationalists, who rallied against the Italian invasion of Ethiopia during the Second World War, Ethiopia became a symbol of resistance to Colonialism. In the 1960s when Emperor Haile Selassie appeared on national TV during a state visit to the US, millions more African American imaginations burned with the knowledge of an independent African people.

Not until the 1970s did the image and concept of Ethiopia, inspired by the reggae music of Bob Marley, gain extraordinary prominence in the minds of a young generation of African Americans. The Rastafarian Movement’s efforts to re-define the sanctity of Ethiopia and re-cast Emperor Selassie in a sacred light caught the imagination of the people, who swayed to reggae music. A new light had come out of Africa, but the beam started in the Diaspora, this time in Jamaica.

In 1969, I had the good fortune to make a portrait of the renowned Harlem historian and teacher, Dr. John Henrik Clarke. He was deeply committed to Africa and African people. My young mind was a parched field and the many hours I spent with him, asking questions and hearing his answers, caused a dry soil to be fertilized and watered. Through him, my knowledge and understanding of Ethiopia grew. Dr. Clarke had this effect on thousands of Harlem residents and on students at Hunter College and Cornell University.

In 1973, on my first journey to Ethiopia, I attended the 10th anniversary conference of the (OAU), the Organization of African Unity. That year the meeting was in Addis Ababa. I came to photograph African Heads of State; I wanted to share with African Americans my view of rulers responsible for African people.

For me the most significant ruler, the most interesting leader, turned out to be the Emperor Haile Selassie. In my new book, Echo of the Spirit: A Photographer’s Journey (Doubleday 2004), I wrote: "… as I waited at the Addis Ababa airport for a glimpse of arriving dignitaries, my attention was pulled from the action around the arriving airplanes to a group of men making their way across the tarmac. I could sense the power of one man in particular before I could even see him.

"Although he was a person of such small stature that he was dwarfed by the others alongside him, something about his aura so profoundly moved me that I lowered the camera so I could see with both eyes. Only after he passed me did I learn that I had been in the presence of His Majesty Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Ethiopia. "
Returning from that trip, I began to seek out Ethiopian students at Ethiopian restaurants and conferences to discuss my experience and encountered a mixed reception. I learned of political discontent but found the students receptive to my interest in their country, although none shared my enthusiasm for the Emperor. Through the many students I have met over the years, I have discovered informative books and attended Horn of Africa Conferences, that were once held at City College.

In July 1992, I returned to Ethiopia with my son Damani as my photography assistant. "The memory of being in his (Emperor Haile Selassie I) presence has remained an inspiration in my personal life. Damani, who has locked his hair, shares my love of His Majesty and reggae, the music of the Rastafarians who worship Selassie," I wrote in my book, Feeling the Spirit: Searching the World for the People of Africa (Bantam 1994).

So far I have been to Ethiopia about a dozen times. On each visit, I use my camera to make a record of contemporary and ancient Ethiopia. Spending weeks at a time, I have traveled in the North to the cities of Mekele, Gondar, Lalibela, Aksum, Bahir Dar, Dessie and Yeha. In the South, I have recorded ceremonies and sites in Nazareth, Bishoftu, Awassa, Tiya and Tutafella.

Ethiopia is indeed home to the earliest humans. In the National Museum in Addis are the bones of Dinquinesh or Lucy, dating to almost 4 million years ago. In Aksum, I have seen the monumental remains of tombs and obelisks from earliest kingdoms. Also, in Aksum in 1000 BCE, Makeda, Queen of Sheba, turned away from the old faith of the Nile River cultures — the worship of the Sun that climaxed as the Ancient Egyptian religion — and embraced the faith of the Hebrews. Here, too, Emperor Ezana converted to Christianity in 324 CE. The richness of the historic and photographic appeal of Ethiopia is revealed for me especially in the ancient monolithic stone churches of Lalibela and the more ancient Moon Temple in Yeha.

Today, Ethiopian people stand tall and proud, their feet planted securely on the land of their fathers and under the sky of their mothers. Ethiopians work hard, believe hard and are driven hard by the vicissitudes of nature and life to persevere.

It is a pleasure getting to know Ethiopia and her people.

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