17 September 1964
Noel Dyer sets out to walk to Ethiopia
Noel Dyer in his home in Shashemene, 1981 © derek bishton
I MET NOEL DYER during my stay in Ethiopia in 1981. One evening, early in February, we sat down in his modestly furnished front room, with just a small oil lamp for light. He scrabbled around in the drawer of his desk, scooped together the last remains of his supply of ganja, built a spliff and started on his tale.
I got my understanding of Rasta from the cricket field. In 1959 I was bowling for Jamaica railways team and the Rastas had a meeting, on Spanish Town Road in Kingston. When the meeting started, a young man called Martin Planner (later known as Mortimo Planno) started to prophesise and I listened.
From that day I changed. I used to drink alcohol and eat meat and have lots of girls, but all that stop. On the cricket field I found myself more in control. But when I started to grown my hair and stopped shaving, the captain refused to have me in the team.
I had left St Thomas, where I was born, in 1950 and when I went back in 1961 and started preaching the religion of Rasta a lot of people think that I have gone mad. It was Planner who went on a fact-finding mission to Ethiopia and Africa to find out about the possibility of Rasta going back.
So, I decided my mind from Jamaica that London is a next for me to fulfill my whole aim and object, my ideas and destiny.
The English are the ones who take I away from the motherland and they’s the only ones who can understand our ways in Jamaica and we can understand them being among them in England and understand the whole thing about the slave trade and being a captive. London was the most suitable place to go. It was the most appropriate place to go to find out about myself. I spent three years in London. After three years in England I got this right leg broken in England. When I was almost better – I was painting in a corridor and the trestle table broke. There were three of us who planned to leave from London and it was put off three times and I decided one morning when everyone was in the house and even if it means walking from London, I’m walking next week.
When the end of the week came, I called them up and said ‘This morning is my last morning in England. I can’t take any more of this. The winter is coming and I went and had a bath and put on my Wrangler denim suit and took my bag and my stick – I was living in Peckham, and I went down the street and took a bus and reached Victoria station. It was 17 September 1964.
In those days I couldn’t read and write, and I wasn’t too proud to ask questions but I started to use my thoughts, in other words telepathy, and I stood there for a good while with my bag and my stick and watched the trains coming and going and I noticed the people going to the ticket office so I went over and I bought a ticket to Dover. I paid £1 2s 6d. When I paid that I only had £5 5s 51/2d left. When I reached Dover I stood by the sea and looked out across the ocean. No one to talk to. Nobody knew who I was. I felt like a stranger. Finally a white woman from Holland came up and says to me: ‘Young man, what’s in your mind?’ I replied: ‘I’m looking for Ethiopia. I’m going home to my King and God, Haile Selassie.’ She asked me ‘Are you sure Haile Selassie is God?’ and I replied ‘It can’t be disputed, and I quoted to her from Revelation 5 “Weep not: behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, hath prevailed to open the book, and to loose the seven seals thereof.”
In those days I had dreadlocks down to my shoulders. I said: ‘I’m the son of a slave and I was taken from Africa in the 17th century and carried beyond the sea.’
It was about 6.30 and she asked if I had a hotel. I said ‘no’. Finally she said: ‘Come I’ll take you somewhere,’ and she took me to a hotel and they turned me down, and she took me to another and the same thing happened. Finally she took me to the YMCA and they took me in.
In the morning I went to the Labour Exchange to seek a job because the money I had wasn’t enough to take me on the boat across the Channel. Finally I met an Englishman, a young man, and I said I’m a painter and I need a job. He picked me up and took me to a building site and gave me a shovel and I worked for five days. Earned £13 17s 6d wages and I paid my bill at the YMCA, that was 30s. Then I bought my ticket from Dover to Dunkirk. As I went through immigration I said ‘Ethiopia here I come’.
In Dunkirk I met three English blokes and I told them I’m going to Ethiopia and I’m hitching. They were just travelling about and we decided to stay together. We found an old farmhouse and decided to sleep there. I finally bought a ticket and travelled to Paris by train. It wasn’t my own wisdom that took me through that night it was the power of God. Tried to get a ticket to go to Spain, but I had to go to another station but I went to the wrong one and then I met a woman from the Congo and she put me on the Metro to the station where I could buy a ticket for Spain. But when I got there it was too late, so I slept at the station that Saturday night and in the morning when I woke up I thought the only way is to hitch hike.
I walked for hours! Finally I got a lift when a car passed me and then ran out of petrol and the driver had to walk back towards me. He gave me a lift for several hours, and we covered about 250km. Then I was dropped off at another gas station and I told the owner what I was doing and he said I could sleep in one of the cars. There was an American car with a bad scratch on the paintwork and the owner said they couldn’t get the right colour match. I told them I could do it. And I did. The owner said I could have a job and they rented a little room for me that night and picked me up the following morning. I worked there for three months – September to November and I decided to move on around December 1, 1964. I took a train to Madrid, and then another to Vigo and from there I got a ship to Morocco and then another train to Algiers. I spent a week there, by which time all my money had gone.
I happened to go to the Cuban embassy – there wasn’t a Jamaican one – and I met a white bloke there and when I told him I needed some money for a visa to continue my journey, he gave me some dollars and said: “Take this and hit the road Jack.”
So I went to the Tunisian embassy with my dollars and there I met a Canadian woman called Phyllis and a German called Paul. I asked Phyllis to fill in the form for me, and I told them I was going to Ethiopia. This was Christmas Eve 1964. I tried to hitch a lift that night but no one would stop and when I tried to get into a hotel they refused me. So in the end I went to a police station to get a bed and it turned out the policeman was born in Cuba, so he was more sympathetic to me.
On Christmas morning, when I came out of the police station I saw Phyllis and Peter in their VW van and Phyllis said to me: “Happy Christmas. You’re our first Noel!” And they offered me a lift and we drove to Egypt.
I got a three-month visa to stay in Egypt and I decided to hitch to Aswan and get a boat to the Sudan and I went to the Sudanese embassy but they refused me. I went to the Ethiopian embassy. So I decided to hitch from Cairo to the Aswan dam which is more than 2,000 kilometres. It took me about two weeks. But when I reached there, there was no boat going up the Nile to Sudan because for some reason they had ceased operations for a while. They said you have to go back to Port Suez, so I had to go all the way back to Cairo. When I finally reached Suez, I was told there was no boat from there either and I was advised to go to Port Said. I got there and went round all the shipping companies but no one will take me. Then I had an accident. One night I was running and I fell into a pothole full of water. My leg swelled up and I couldn’t walk, and then it became infected and I couldn’t leave Port Said for three months because of it. But people were really kind to me.
I stayed in a back room at the Muhhamad Ali Hotel for three months and they didn’t charge me a cent. Finally I went back to Cairo and asked for a three-month extension on my visa, but they said no. The police took away my passport and drove me to the police HQ. They locked me up in Taksheeba jail. It was a dungeon and when I realised they were going to lock me up I rebelled. I spent a night there. The place was infested with lice, but there were two girls there and they comforted me, and they explained to one of the guards what had happened to me and how far I had come. Then he came up to me and asked if I smoked hash, and gave me some and I built two spliffs and we all had a good smoke.
The following morning I was taken out because they had decided to deport me to Sudan. The shipping line at Aswan had opened, and I was handcuffed to a policeman and taken by train to Aswan. There I was handed over to immigration officers. I was locked up for two weeks and when the boat came I was put in the hold. We sailed for several hours, going up the Nile and we could see the villages slowly being drowned by the rising level of the lake (The dam was constructed between 1960 – 1970). You know I didn’t sleep man, my body was resting but my eyes were wide open the whole time.
I disembarked close to the border with Sudan and started to walk down the banks of the Nile. Three dogs came up to me and I gave them a bit of bread and they started to follow me.
Finally I stopped at a place where the people had been evacuated but the houses were still there and they were really nice. I made a bed and spread out my clothes, and there I was sitting, looking down on the Nile. I recited my Psalm (87). I couldn’t read then but I knew it by heart
His foundation is in the holy mountains,
The Lord loveth the gates of Zion
More than all the dwellings of Jacob,
Glorious things are spoken of thee,
O city of God. Selah.
I will make mention of Rahab and Babylon to them that know me:
Behold Philistia, and Tyre, with Ethiopia;
This man was born there.
And of Zion it shall be said, This and that man was born in her:
And the highest himself shall establish her.
The Lord shall count, when he writeth up the people,
That this man was born there. Selah.
As well the singers as the players on instruments shall be there:
All my springs are in thee.
Noel Dyer and his daughter, Meme, in Shashemene, 1981 © derek bishton
The following day as I was walking along I stumbled – the wild dogs were now so tame they would take the bread from hand – and one of the dogs ran in front of me wagging his tale, as if he was trying to warn me of something. I kept going and then stumbled again. Then I realised I was walking through a graveyard, on the beds of the dead. ‘Hail Rastafari and blood claart’ I said to myself.
It was night and then I saw a little light, knocked on the door and used the few words of Arabic I had learned to tell the man who I was and where I was going.
He gave me some bread and milk, and I slept in a shed outside. The following day I set off with my dogs and the same thing happened as the day before – they were running in front of me as if to warn me of something. So I went back to the house and told the man that I wasn’t going to carry on this side, and wanted to cross over. He had a small boat and agreed to take me. The boat was full of holes and his two sons had to bale in out the whole time. On the other side I walked to a little village and another kind man took me in, fed me, and then took me to the railway station to see if I could get a train to Khartoum.
At the station I was looking for a drink when two Immigration officers approached me and they decided to deport me back to Egypt. As soon as I realised what was happening I called down fire pon their heads and there was a man nearby who spoke English and he said they can’t deport you but they may be able to lock you up because you don’t have an entry visa.
I spent two weeks in jail and then they take me to a court and the judge said to me, ‘You are charged with entry into Sudan without a visa.’ I said it wasn’t my fault but the fault of the Sudanese embassy in Cairo, but he replied: ‘You have to go to jail because you’re an alien.’
I said to the judge: ‘How can a black man be an alien in the Sudan? Four hundred years ago I was taken away from Africa and sold to an Englishman. How is it that when I come back to my homeland that I’m an alien?’ Got some more weeks in jail for saying that. I went to jail seven times in Sudan. The last time I was sent to a place where everyone was in chains.
But my passport had been sent to Khartoum and finally they let me go to Khartoum. I went to the Ethiopian embassy and they said I could have a visa, but I still couldn’t get my passport back from the Sudanese authorities. I was standing on the wall where the two Niles meet and I prayed for help from Jah. When I had done the meditation and I walked around, shaking my locks. People on their way to work were looking at me.
They didn’t want to give me back my passport because I was a rebel. But you know what happen? One chief police officer realise that he is Rasta in his heart, and he get my passport and they put me on a train with two policemen with guns to Kassala. There they put me on a bus to Teseney in Eritrea.
I had a vision of the Emperor who gave me a little bit of herb. In the vision I smoked the herb. Then when I woke up I felt well charged. The police put me on a truck which stopped a few kilometres from Asmera (still in Eritrea). I spent three days there then I hitched a lift on a truck as far as Dessie. I spent a week there, and then it took me another three days to get to Addis Ababa. When I checked the dates in my passport I found that it had taken me one year and two weeks to reach Addis.
People call me stubborn. I’m not. I’m a man who doesn’t bow to ignorance, only the truth. I’m only bowing to truth and love.
When Noel Dyer finally arrived in Shashemene he discovered James Piper and his wife Helen who had arrived in 1955 as the first Ethiopian World Federation land grant administrators living there along with Gladstone Robinson, the first Rasta brother to arrive on the land in 1964.