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September 17, 2004

Disgusted by Diogenes’ letter

Editor: Many in the Rastafarian community were so disgusted by Mr. Diogenes’ letter in the SEARCHLIGHT Newspaper, dated August 6, that they were tempted to just stupes their teeth as if to say “What a foolish boy.”
Although Mr. Diogenes mentions the word “respect” more than once and states that “He would not here touch Ras Tafari,” his letter in fact shows an abiding disrespect for Rastafari and such a deep ignorance on the central points of his letter, namely Africa, Ethiopia and certain development issues relating to those places that we could not leave that ignorance and disrespect unchallenged. {{more}}
On such weighty topics as culture, geopolitics, religion and history, Diogenes’ letter swings between trivialization and exaggeration.
For example he says: “People are not to worry about Africa and chase after imaginary milk and honey flowing in Ethiopia.”
Rastafarians are not as simple as that.
“Milk and honey flowing” is a Sunday school, Christian concept to which Rastafarians have never subscribed. (And Rasta don’t drink milk.)
We have a very realistic idea of what life in Ethiopia is like and what conditions are obtained there. Our brothers and sisters have been living in Shashamane for nearly 30 years.
There is nothing “fatal” or “ignorant” about Rastafarians’ interest in, love of, or desire to go to Ethiopia. In saying so, Diogenes displays a shallow understanding of Rastafarian beliefs and concepts and of Caribbean history. The concept known as Ethiopianism began in Jamaica as early as the 18th century. Eric Lincoln articulates the link this way: “Ethiopia represents not only a glorious past and continuing civilization universally respected in the political and cultural councils of the world but Ethiopia is also intimately associated with the world’s great religious traditions even the dawn of civilization itself. Beyond that, the Ethiopians are a Black people, an African people, and the most singular heritage of the common people of Jamaica [and St. Vincent] is that they are black and African. Hence, Ethiopianism is a logical extension of the Rastafarian movement because it not only accomplishes identity, but it establishes historical continuity as well. It also implies a critical judgement upon the ruling classes.”
That is just a snippet of the relationship Rastas have with Africa generally and Ethiopia particularly. Diogenes writes, “What is wrong with the Vincentian/ Caribbean identity?”, but fails to appreciate or acknowledge that the same Rasta man he ridicules is uniquely Caribbean. Rastafari was inspired by His Majesty, conceived in Africa, born and nurtured in Jamaica and raised in the Caribbean. We are as Caribbean as breadfruit and saltfish, steelpan or whatever. It is because of their constant resistance to cultural imperialism that Rastas have succeeded in changing the consciousness of the larger society to such extent that many of the things the society now takes for granted can be credited to the struggles waged by generations of Rastafarians over the last 50 or so years. Don’t believe me; read Professor Chevannes’ 1998 essay, “Rastafari and the Exorcism of the Ideology of Racism and Classism”. The academics call it “ideological transformation through symbolic confrontation”. There is nothing “fatal” or “ignorant” there: far from it.
Rastafari is the continuation of the African pattern of life in the diaspora. The pattern of life to which we aspire is of an ancient African model: to live together as one, in one place, in peace and harmony, planting what we eat and eating what we plant; producing what we consume and consuming what we produce whilst selling the excess. This is our vision, real and attainable. We submit that it is a higher ideal to the consumerism, individualism, global market capitalism rampant in our society.
It may be that we can achieve this ideal in St. Vincent. We are working on it and our plans are in an advanced stage. But while some will remain here, the Rastafari ideal is to migrate to Ethiopia. That is our vision. Keenly studied, there is little in it that can be faulted. Examples of this type of levity can be found in Shashamane, Ethiopia, Scott’s Pass in Clarendon, Jamaica amongst Rastas and by 3000 non-Rastafarian black Americans who migrated from the USA to Liberia and then Israel in the 1970s and who call themselves the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem. Cancer, heart attacks, high blood pressure, AIDS, murders, shootings, rapes, or break-ins do not exist in this community, according to their information
We cannot all look to America for leadership. Rastafarians are guided by the wisdom of the collective, the lessons of the past and His Imperial Majesty. Some look to the West; we look to the East.
As to those parts of Diogenes’ letter where he speaks of Africa, there is little in it that was fair, balanced or informed. Diogenes recites a litany of woes, diseases poverty and corruptions. But he is only partially right. Africa is a vast continent, with huge disparities in population, economic power, etc. Diogenes paints his disparaging brush indiscriminately and stereotypically. Africa does not have a monopoly on poverty, corruption or disease.
What he should have done was to question why so many countries in Africa are in such poor stages of development compared to Western Europe and North America and non-indigenous Australia. When the issue is phrased in this manner, it takes on a different complexion.
The answers to this question or issue are no longer hidden. Maxwell Haywood has already referred Diogenes to Dr. Rodney’s classic How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Or, Diogenes may look to more recent, centrist works such as Yale School of Management’s dean Jeffrey Garten’s essay How Five Billion got Left Behind reported in NEWSWEEK, August 2, 2004. (Note that Garten was arguing that it was 5 billion people who were behind the West, not just Africa.)
Perhaps I can ask Diogenes to ponder this hypothetical question: If my family kidnaps Diogenes, his wife and two sons and then compels them to work my banana field without pay for say 20 years, which family will be better off at the end of that period? Whose family will be better off after say 50 years? Will his family ever be able to catch up with mine…?
Still, if Diogenes really wants to learn about true, modern Rastafari living, he should visit Ras Yacob at the Nyabinghi Library at Villa Flats or reason with Ras Imani, Ras Izaras or any Rastafari elder.
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Joe Delves