24 May 2014

Ethiopia: Exodus - the History of the Return of Rastafarians to Ethiopia

book review

Title: Exodus: L' history du retour des Rastafariens en Ethiopie

Author: Giulia Bonacci

Date of publication: 2008

Publishers: Scali

766 pp

Price: 32 euros

Edition: Paperback Reviewed by Yacob Wolde-Mariam A little known person, J. Albert Thorn, was born in Barbados in 1860 and lived in Jamaica. Between the years 1890 and 1920 he must have tried to organize the travel and settlement of Caribbeans in Central Africa, Nyasaland [now Malawi], but it seems the project had failed...

Another Caribbean played a decisive role in the development of nationalism, pan-Africanism and return to Africa. Marcus Garvey (1887-1940) was a fascinating personality of diverse nature. He was one of the first people to abandon purely intellectual talk in favour of touching the very hearts of the masses. He pushed holders of the principles of nationalism to the extreme end and the imprint that he left behind on the minds of the black members of the community is full of meaning to this day.

So writes Giulia Bonacci in her 766-page, highly researched and amply illustrated book entitled Exodus: The history of the return of Rastafarians to Ethiopia. Exodus is the title of a song composed by Bob Marley in 1977. The book in written in French and the author plans to have it translated into English in due course of time. Giulia Bonacci is head of a French cultural outfit in Addis carrying out works of research in Eastern Africa. She is a historian specializing in Africans in the diaspora.

Marcus Mosiah Garvey was born on August 17, 1887 at St. Ann's Bay, on the northern coast of Jamaica, of a peasant family who were descendants of Marrons. He left school early and, like many Jamaicans, migrated to Kingston, the capital. When he was 28 years old, he was already a professional printer and was noted for his involvement in politics, strikes by workers and in the National Club that fought against the privileges of British colonialism in the island.

In 1910 and during the following two years, he traveled to central America and worked as a seasonal labourer and as editor of his first newspaper demanding an even greater protection of the rights of workers. According to the book, he thereby visited Ecuador, Costa Rica and Panama, where he acquainted himself with the life of numerous Caribbean migrants who had gone there in search of work on the banana plantations or on the construction of the Panama canal. In the autumn of 1912, he arrived in England where he worked for Africa Times and Orient Review, the Pan-African newspaper of the day founded by Duse Mohamed Ali (1867-1944), an Egyptian writer of a historical work on Egypt, In the Land of the Pharaohs, published in London in 1911.

Giulia Bonacci continues, in familiarizing him with the movers of Pan-Africanism and the colonial conflicts in the Middle East, the sojourn of Garvey in England left on him a lasting impression. What is more, during his sojourn in Europe, he visited Scotland, Ireland, France, Italy, Spain, Austria, Hungary and Germany before returning to Jamaica in July 1914.

He established there with Amy Ashwood, who became his first wife, the Universal Negro Improvement and Conservation Association and African Communities (Imperial) League, whose name was the reflection of the international mission informed by his voyages and the fear that the black race in the condition of the day had struggled against for its destruction.

This sentiment was expressed several times publicly during various encounters in Kingston and at St. Ann's Bay, but in 1915 he had only some one hundred followers on his side. Garvey then decided to leave for the United States and arrived in New York in May 1916. He planned to tour the country for raising funds; his initial plan was for his tour to last for five months but it eventually took him more than a year. Settling down eventually at Harlem, he met with several representatives of the Afro-American community and was engaged in various meetings that attracted the attention of the world more and more.

Giulia Bonacci makes an honorable mention of the African-Americans who had been involved in the 'back-to-Africa' - West Africa - movement in the Unites States before Marcus Garvey had emerged on the scene. These was Paul Cuffee (1759-1817), half African and half Native American born in Massachusetts. A naval captain, he left for Sierra Leone with 38 Afro-Americans aboard who had financed their own journeys. There were 200 persons on the list when Cuffee suddenly died in 1817, thus hindering the project.

A more important project launched was by Martin R. Delany (1812-1885). Born free in southern United States, he was engaged in abolitionist activities in 1843 and published in Pittsburgh a journal known as Mystery. He studied medicine at Harvard and one of the two works he published in 1852 was The Condition, Elevation, Emigration and Destiny of the Coloured People of the United States.

Edward W. Blyden (1832-1912) and Alexander Crummel(1819-1898) had settled in Liberia in 1851 and 1853 respectively. In A Voice from Bleeding Africa (1856), Blyden exposed what had been called "the redemption of Africa, the liberation and elevation of the Black Race." Blyden believed, like many Liberians, that the emergency of a potent African civilization would contribute towards neutralizing the enslaving powers.

Giulia Bonacci also highlights the life of a little known African chief, Alfred Sam, born in Gold Coast (now Ghana), who had commercial ties with the United States. Arriving in the US in 1910, he established there the Axim Trading Company in New York. He arrived in Boston in 1913 to announce that his commercial venture would include the emigration of Afro-Americans to his country and bought a boat named the Ethiopian Steamship Line for the purpose. This was the forerunner of Marcus Garvey's Black Star Line. He was arrested several times by American authorities... and left for West Africa where he was detained in Sierra Leone and finally arrived at Axim in the Gold Coast in January 1915. Finally, Sam abandoned the African-Americans and disappeared from sight. The remaining Afro-Americans settled in Cape Coast, Winneba, Accra and in Nigeria. Chief Alfred Sam left, through Côte ď Ivoire, for Liberia but little information is available on the end of his life.

Giulia Bonacci says that Jamaicans - among them Rastafarians - occupy a particular place in the history of the return to Ethiopia. Still, Rastafarians suffer from prejudices associating them with some illegal practices, with a marginal religion or with exotic folklore. They are generally appreciated through their musical expressions: the reggae, according to the author.

For the rest, in the words of Giulia Bonacci, Ethiopia was not spared the maltreatment of slaves - domestic, trans-Indian Ocean, oriental and trans-Saharan. But because of its geographical location far away from the Atlantic Ocean, Ethiopia does not appear to be a source or the intermediary of the human traffic in slaves that had battered its [Africa's Western] coast for several centuries. Nevertheless, the author writes, the repatriated in this east African country insists on the reality of an enslavement starting from Ethiopia.

"At Shashamane, a Jamaican had asked us seriously, one day: 'So, your work is to prove that we are from here?' He probably hoped to see the collection of proof that the Ethiopians, of whom he would have been descended, had been themselves driven to the plantations of the Americans. I racked my brains to understand how one could imagine coming from here," Giulia Bonacci wonders in utter amazement. How could one be born in Kingston, Jamaica, and 'return' to Shashamane?

How could one leave the Port of Spain, in Trinidad, live in Brooklyn, New York, and 'repatriate' oneself to Ethiopia? How can one speak English with a transmuted syntax in the ancient provinces of the British Empire and 'be Ethiopian'? Giulia Bonacci goes on to say that one clue had been provided by Kamari Clarke who had travelled across the tribal network of Yorubas extending from West Africa to the United State of America. She underlines that the return to Africa "was not always linked to a dispersion empirically verifiable but mostly related to memories and social imaginations It concerns them to discover the forms and contours of these memories and social imaginations."

Finally, Eli Kia M.'Bokolo waxes philosophical on Giulia Bonacci's Exodus! L' historie du retour des Rastafariens en Ethiopie in a 5-page preface to the monumental work of painstaking research. The academic is Director of Studies at the School of Higher Studies in Social Science in Paris.

"There is then the essence of an innovative book and one can imagine the effort that had gone into its production. Historic statements cannot be conceived without the materials of firsthand, the famous 'sources' dear to specialists. There is no lack of this here: sources of archives public and private scattered here and there in Ethiopia, Europe the Caribbean and the United States of America; oral research of any magnitude without precedent in this field, of this the success has demanded of Giulia Bonacci not to retreat before fields so difficult . . .

"It is a beautiful adventure of discovery, intelligence, solidarity and of fraternity, that she who had permitted the production of this book enables us to see Africa, the Africans and the black world as it is, in their struggle, in their understanding in their quest for unity and, in that fierce and durable desire to see the emergence of a more just world."

The book is named after a song composed and sang by Bob Marley in 1977 -Exodus! - evoking memories of the return of Rastafarians to Africa. It contains a biographical sketch of the famous reggae singer whose father was a Scotsman from the ghettos of Kingston, Jamaica, to international stardom.

Bob Marley visited Ethiopia in 1979 and two photographs reproduced in the book show him holding in his arms one of the first infants born at Shashamane to Rastafarian parents and of him swimming in the hot-spring waters of Wondo Genet, lying some 17 km away from the Mecca of Rastafarians - a secluded earthly paradise founded by Empress Menen as a retreat from the mundane hustle and bustle of court life in the heyday of what some had called the Solomonic 'Roi Soleil' - Sun King - in this ancient land of ours.

The book is divided into three parts of a total of nine chapters. Chapter I deals with the ideological and social roots of the return to Africa, Chapter II, the sources and contours of Ethiopianism, Chapter III the premises of the return to Shashamane... Helen Piper and James Piper, the first settlers in Shashamane, are given extensive coverage in the book. I remember writing an article about them in September 1962 in the Menen magazine I was editing then. I had met them at their farmstead near Shashamane when I was on a trip to Awassa (now Hawassa) to write a cover story on the then burgeoning lake-side town with a Rastafarian color photographer then employed by the Ministry of Information at my side. We had then published the first monthly magazine in the history of Ethiopia to carry the picture of a young woman in the national costume in color amidst a sea of Meskel Flowers.

Unfortunately, I again came across James Piper at Shoa Hotel down Electricity House in 1975 where he told me that his property was confiscated by peasants and that he was leaving for America. As I heard later, he was ran over by a car in New York and his life ended there tragically where it had started.


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