rastafarian confusion

This summer while in Ghana, I befriended a group of Rastafarian drum makers and performers. The Rastafarians became the good friends and highlight of my study abroad group’s time in Ghana, but I remained skeptical. The day that I first met the Rastas was a day in the market. I am an avid (extreme amateur) hand drummer and was drawn to their drum stand in the National Market for Art and Culture in the capital of Accra. Well these Rastas became our good friends and guides around the city we were constantly warned by others to be wary because Rastas are known to steal your things and women. I remained wary as the talks of their beliefs did not match up with their actions. I began to wonder what exactly were the beliefs of a Rastafarian and why? Why did they always seem high with happiness and love? “One love” was their favorite phrase. They would always tell us that we were all brothers ans sisters, no matter the color of our skin because we bleed the same underneath and we had the same color pupils. While many told us to be wary others revered the Rastas for the skills that they shared and the knowledge they imparted. With the great rhetoric they spoke, there always seemed to be an underlying end goal.

Upon returning to Ghana I immediately jumped on the knowledge train that we call the internet to learn more about the Rastafarian movement. Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I is considered God incarnate and also as the Messiah of the Holy Trinity (in the Bible), since he is the only black leader of an independent African country. Rastafari comes from the Ethiopian term “Ras” which means head or the equivalent of duke. The religion employs the spiritual use of cannabis and a number of afrocentric teachings, inspired by the works of Jamaican, Marcus Garvey well known for his “Back to Africa movement in the US, 1920s. The Rastafari movement gained popularity through reggae music and well known artist, Bob Marley (his wife still lives in Ghana). The “first Rasta,” Leonard Howell, built a commune that grew to over 5000 in Jamaica.

The teachings of Rastafari focus on love and respect for all living things. Born of an oppressed people, forced into slavery, Rastafari is seen as a response to the racist negation to black people. It gave cause for black people to have pride in themselves and their heritage. Stressing closeness to nature ganja, dreadlocks and ital foods are common characteristics of Rastas. Well there is a lot more to the belief systems of the Rastafari, one of my favorite teachings is the rejection of -isms because they have created so many schisms in modern society.

Back to my experience in Ghana – I saw some of these teachings espoused by the Rastas we met. However there was a gap in the actions and it seemed there was an undertone of making a profit off of the American students and getting close to the American ladies. But I cannot say that I have met anyone who has abided by the creed they profess in the lives they lead. No Christian, Muslim, Rastafarian, or any other follower of a doctrine (that I have met) has never swayed from their belief system. So well the Rastas in Ghana may have seemed to be shady individuals, they really taught me more than I could have imagined. From drumming and advice in Ghana, to my later pondering back in the US.

Index of blog post series on Ghana.

how do you unite a continent?

A term first coined by the African activist, Marcus Garvey, the United States of Africa is far from a new idea. As a staunch Pan-Africanist, Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, was a strong supporter of African unity. Now the push for “One Africa” is being lead by Liyba’s coup empowered leader, Muammar Gaddafi. In July of 2007 the African Union (AU) met to discuss the idea of one union government for the continent. Gaddafi traveled by land to drum up the support of the people on his way to the summit in Ghana. Countries such as Ghana and Senegal, symbols of democracy and stability, are in support of the idea. Among the supporters is another African leader with a reputation, President Mugabe of Zimbabwe.

In 2002 the Organization for African Unity (OAU) was rebranded as the AU, it has continued to struggle to be more than a place of all talk and no action. Most recently its inability to persuade any country other than Uganda to send troops into Mogadishu to patrol the streets and the lack of pressure placed on Sudan to end the Darfur crisis have weakened its credibility. The lavish sums spent by the rotating hosts of the twice-yearly summits have also done little to make the organization feel close to the 850 million ordinary Africans it is supposed to represent. Many leaders want to see African unity grow regionally before it is tackled as an umbrella political entity for the continent.

Gaddafi has been promoting the idea as the only way that the continent can deal with extreme poverty and a variety of other problems including the challenges of globalization. Supporters look to the creation of the European Union (EU). It took many years for the EU to form. If a United States of Africa is to be successful the continent will need key countries that are politically and economically strong with regional economic and infrastructure-building projects in place. The EU is a union of relatively wealthy and stable countries, as opposed to Africa where it is a continent of the poorest and least stable countries making the task seem to be much more daunting. However, many see signs of great hope with the increase in freedoms: expression, movement across the continent, elections, and the growth of democracy.

This coming March I will be Chairing a simulation committee on the African Union and the crises they face. From the economic crisis in Zimbabwe, to the on-going conflict in the DRC, child soldiers in Uganda, building health infrastructures, to the new US military presence through AFRICOM. In my opinion the United States of Africa will not work. In my limited travels of the continent I have seen so much. Africa is a land full of so much culture, so many peoples with so many varying l languages and traditions. In my six weeks studying in Ghana I traveled south, east, west, and central. Each time I embarked on those limited travels I was told that I would experience something that I had never yet seen in Ghana – and it was true. Even the small country of Ghana had so many differences. How can an entire continent be unified under one government? I would venture to say that Africa is far less homogeneous – in cultural, geography, religion, and politics – than either the USA or Europe. Nkrumah, Appiah, the Rastafarians, Pan-Africanists, and even the West would like to see Africa as one united entity. This idea could not be more rooted in imperialist thought. To quote John Ryle, “The very word Africa—that sonorous trisyllable—seems to invite grandiloquence.”