Rastafarians and Pan-Africanism in the Age of Decolonization

“Rasta” (Photo: grooble, Flickr).

Monique Bedasse’s Jah Kingdom: Rastafarians, Tanzania, and Pan-Africanism in the Age of Decolonization makes a commendable and sterling contribution to the body of Rastafari literature by focusing on an often under emphasized dimension of the movement–that of repatriation. While many Rastafari texts detail the cultural and theological aspects of the movement, few consider the repatriation aspirations and exploits of the movement in significant depth, such as this text. Notably, another Rastafari text that shares this characteristic with Bedasse’s Jah Kingdom is Guilia Bonacci’s Exodus. Bonacci’s book looks squarely at the repatriation of Rastafari to Ethiopia, which has widely been considered as the central geographical location for Rastafari repatriation. However, Bedasse’s book has the distinction of being the pioneering text on Rastafari repatriation to Tanzania.

Significantly, Bedasse frames the repatriation efforts of the Rastafari Movement as an additional significant contributor to the globalization of the movement, alongside the arguably more emphasized contribution of reggae music in much of the Rastafari literature. She articulates clearly how the Rastafari concept of repatriation stems from the distinct Pan-African ethos that undergirds much of the movement; namely that all Black people are Africans, no matter where they are born on the globe. If they are born outside of Africa they are termed Diasporic- Africans, and if they are born on the continent, they are termed Continental Africans, but what is of ultimate importance, all said and done, is that they are Africans. In the immortal words of Rastafari Reggae icon Peter Tosh, “No matter where you come from, so long as you’re a Black man [and Black Woman] you’re an African. Profoundly, Bedasse argues that repatriation and not popular culture constitutes the most meaningful vehicle of Rastafari’s international growth in the introduction of her book.

The structural organization as well as the conceptual development of the book is most commendable and demonstrates not only the author’s unbridled expertise and familiarity with Rastafari, but also with the historical development of Pan-Africanism in the twentieth century and the related African anti-colonialist struggles during both the pre-independence and post-independence eras. Important political and personal linkages between Pan-African players such as Michael Manley (former Prime Minister of Jamaica) and Julius Nyerere (Tanzania’s first President) are highlighted by the author, emphasizing how strong ties between Jamaica and Tanzania during the 1970s laid the foundation for a repatriation program of Rastafari to Tanzania. Bedasse also shows the pan-African linkages with other key Pan-African players who not only play a role in the decolonization movement in Tanzania, but also who work to aid the Rastafari movement in achieving its Pan-African agenda and repatriation goals; luminaries such as Walter Rodney, Dudley Thompson, and C.L.R. James, for instance, are discussed in the text.

In this regard, the book fills a gap in Pan-African literature and highlights just how central, nurturing and inspirational Tanzania was in the development of Pan-Africanism during the twentieth century. The author convincingly argues that with the removal of Kwame Nkrumah from Ghana via a coup in 1966, and Julius Nyerere’s adoption of Ujamaa (African Socialism),Tanzania effectively became the new Pan-African centre/center in Africa, attracting cultural Nationalists, Marxist-oriented Pan-Africanists and Black Power advocates from all across the African Diaspora. Walter Rodney, for example, spent much of his early activist years in Tanzania. The African American cultural Nationalist Maulana Karenga was inspired by Nyerere’s embrace of pre-colonial cultural practices such as the adoption of the African language Swahili and started to promote this himself to his fellow African Americans. Because of its positionality as a Pan-African center, under Nyerere’s leadership it is no accident that Tanzania became the venue for the sixth Pan-African Congress in 1974; the first time that a Pan-African Congress was held on the continent of Africa. This conference received mixed reviews and even today there are varying perspectives in regards to how much of a contribution it made to the Pan-Africanist movement. The sentiment expressed by the author, in a notably discreet manner, is that the conference was geared more for governmental and state actors rather than grass-roots activists, and therefore never fulfilled its full potential.

Although not the focus of the book, the author could have elaborated more on the sixth Pan-African Congress of 1974, and detailed exactly why such notable restrictions on the delegates invited to the conference came to be enacted in the first place. She could also have mentioned that, significantly, Walter Rodney, who was present in Tanzania at the time, did not attend the conference because of illness, but was able to have a paper that he authored, (“Aspects of the International Class Struggle in Africa, the Caribbean and America”), circulated widely at the conference.

Commendably, the author incorporates a wide array of sources in her book. She utilizes primary documents from Jamaica, Tanzania, England, Trinidad, and the United States. Amongst these documents were state documents and cables from Tanzania, the British Archives, and the U.S. State Department, along with documents detailing correspondence between Rastafari and non-state actors across the Black world. Additionally, in gaining the trust of her key Rastafari respondents in Tanzania who emerged as the leaders of the Tanzanian Rastafari Repatriation project, (Ras Bupe Karudi and Joshua Mkhulili), she is able to obtain their personal writings and previously unseen well protected documents that reveal their struggles with the project and their conflicted responses to the realities of life in Tanzania. Then there are the rich oral testimonies of the fairly large group of Rastafari respondents that she interacts with in Tanzania as a whole, particularly that of Kisembo Karudi, (wife of Ras Bupe Karudi), that reveals much about the gendered nuances of the Rastafari movement, at least for those members of the movement that originate from Jamaica.

In examining the specific case study of Rastafari Repatriation to Tanzania Bedasse’s book sheds light on how Pan-African theory, activism and  praxis took shape after flag independence in Africa and the Caribbean. This is a notable contribution that Bedasse makes to Black Studies and Rastafari Studies. It also fills an important gap in Rastafari (as well as Pan-African) history, by detailing the repatriation to Tanzania of key Rastafari brethren and sistren, including Rastafari icon Ras Daniel Heartman and his son, Ras Ato Kidani Roberts (who famously appeared to a worldwide audience, in the first ever Jamaican film, The Harder They Come, starring Jimmy Cliff). Sadly, Ras Daniel Heartman died only a couple of years after arriving on the continent, but to his credit he achieved his lifelong dream of repatriation.

Whilst the repatriation of Rastafari to Ethiopia is relatively well documented, the same cannot be said for the repatriation efforts of Rastafari in Tanzania. Bedasse fills in the dots here and also documents the fascinating schism between the diasporian Rastafari repatriates, (largely of Jamaican origin), and the indigenous Tanzanian Rastafari, along the lines of authenticity. In a rare occurrence, Jamaican Rastafari found themselves competing, in terms of their authenticity, with the local Rastafari. In most cases regarding the globalization of Rastafari, it is the Jamaican Rastafari who are treated with deference as they interact with local Rastafari in the course of their pilgrimages and travels across the globe, but notably this was not the case in Tanzania.

Bedasse’s book successfully details how historical currents of Pan-Africanism established by the mid-twentieth century have served to embolden the Pan-African project of Rastafari Repatriation by highlighting how members of the Pan-African old guard such as C.L.R. James and Julius Nyerere bought into such aspirations, at least as far as Tanzania was concerned, even though they did not buy into the theological aspects of the Rastafari movement.

In summary, Bedasse’s Jah Kingdom, Rastafarians, Tanzania, and Pan-Africanism, in the age of Decolonization demonstrates a grounding in Rastafari history, hermeneutics, culture, organizational structure, and Mansional particularities (especially that of the Twelve Tribes of Israel Mansion) that can be credited to her decades of Rastafari scholarship, as well as close ties to Rastafari adherents. Her historical knowledge and scholarship of Pan-Africanism I find to be impeccable. Additionally, so far as her analysis of the historical data that she has garnered for the book is concerned, she demonstrates an astuteness and clarity of thought that will ensure the relevance of this work for decades to come.

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Michael Barnett

Michael Barnett is a senior lecturer in the Department of Sociology, Psychology and Social Work, University of West Indies, Mona Campus, Kingston, Jamaica. He holds a PhD in sociology from Florida International University in Miami. He has authored numerous articles and notably the book on Rastafari, entitled: 'The Rastafari Movement: A North American and Caribbean Perspective,' and co-edited and edited two additional books on Rastafari.