The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Lecture - Wednesday 7th November 2012

Rasta Livity

Given by - Tim Jacques

Reviewed by - Johnny Gumb

Around twenty of us gathered on a cold and windy evening to hear this refreshing society lecture by Tim Jacques. Many of us in the UK see Rastafarians regularly, know of their attachment to Ethiopia and Haile Selassie, but know very little of the origins and practices of this religion.

Mr Jacques is an Englishman, from East Anglia, who is one of many thousands of Rastafarians who do not fit our usual picture of these people. While we tend to associate Rasta with Jamaica, where the movement started, it has large numbers of followers from Copenhagen to Cape Town, from Bangkok to Boston, who do not necessarily fit the Caribbean stereotype.

Marcus Garvey in the early 20th century founded a Back to Africa movement, grounded in the extreme poverty of Jamaica. He prophesied that a great king would appear in Africa, who would be a saviour for the long suffering Black Diaspora. The coronation of Haile Selassie in 1930 perfectly fitted this picture, and prompted four leading Jamaicans to turn the prophecy into a religion, a philosophy, a way of life. The Ethiopian emperor became, and remains, God for Rastafarians.

Initially living as a community, some 20 miles outside Kingston, the movement gradually spread into the capital and beyond. In 1937 the Ethiopian World Federation was founded in New York, as a result of contacts between leading members of the black American community and Haile Selassie. It was through the auspices of this organization that the God/Emperor granted land rights in 1948 to the Rastafarian people, in Shashamane, some 150 miles south of Addis. While this never became a mass migration, a significant number of diaspora Africans did settle here, and their presence can still be seen in the town today.

In the same way that poverty fed the movement in 1930s Jamaica, so it acted as a catalyst wherever black communities felt shortchanged by the world they lived in - 1950s and 60s London, American cities, and African capitals where the poor felt oppressed by their newly emerging elites.

Always at loggerheads with the Jamaican authorities, Rastafarians received a tremendous boost from the visit in 1966 to Jamaica by His Imperial Majesty, the Lion of Judah. He received a tumultuous welcome at Kingston airport that completely swept away the planned official ceremonials. He stayed for four days, during which time members of the movement were invited to meet him in the Government House - normally hallowed ground to which they would never be admitted.

We learned from Mr Jacques that the beliefs and practices of Rastafarianism are varied, and by no means universally obligatory. Like all religions, it has its branches, or 'Houses', and adherents are free to take or leave the various outward signs which we are familiar with.

The dreadlocked hair started during the 1950s, and is said to have derived from various biblical references to the importance of hair and, possibly, from pictures which Jamaicans had seen of the Mau Mau rebels in Kenya, who wore their hair in this way. The smoking of ganja (marijuana) also derived from biblical references.

Reggae music, associated around the world with Rastafarians and now part of the world wide musical backdrop, developed in the 1960s with lyrics about Rastafari and biblical references.

Rastafarians do not believe that the bible should be taken too literally. It is there as a resource, with plenty of scope for different interpretations. The key points are peace, love, and unity, which are a feel-good fuel no matter how hard your material world may be.

Religion, philosophy, or cult? Christian or not Christian? How does a deified Haile Selassie sit alongside the Judeo-Christian-Moslem God? There were no easy answers to these questions, but Tim Jacques left us with plenty to think about.

First Published in News File Spring 2013

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