SISTA FARIKA BERHANE SPEAKS
An Interview with a Rastafari Elder Mother
By Akua Bell
AKUA: How did you become a Rasta?
FARIKA: As a child, I was given my first lessons in race pride and African history from Rastafari who walked the streets of Kingston, preaching. They were saying things that no one else was saying. They told me that Black is beautiful and that I was an African princess who needed to study the history of Africa not the history of England as we were made to do in school. I was attracted to the spiritual aura that emanated from them. As I grew older I discovered that Rastafari had prophetic gifts. Their prophetic gift reminded me of the prophets in the Bible and made the Old Testament real to me. Although it was not the acceptable thing to do for middle-class girls, I took every opportunity I could, to listen to their reasoning. I admired their nobility in the presence of the hostility that society heaped on them. Later on, as a young woman, I joined the militant "Abeng," group for social change that was formed through the banning of the lecturer Dr. Walter Rodney. I met my future husband and interacted with Rastafari who worked within the group. My husband pulled me into the movement and I remained in it after he left it due to the social pressures we suffered as the first intellectuals who embraced the grass root Nyahbinghi Order. A policeman shot at him point blank. He escaped by ducking, but that scared him. He left Jamaica and the movement after that.
AKUA: How do you see the movement today?
FARIKA: The movement is suffering from a lot of class divisions and disunity between its various sects. It has mushroomed from a tight-knit band of pioneers into worldwide membership through Reggae musicians. In the early days, it was all for one and one for all. There is a famous case where seven Rastafari were being tried who refused to give any other name aside from Rastafari. The judge had to try them by the names of Ras One, Ras Two etc. The persons responsible for inspiring and pioneering the Rastafari way of life, had lived abroad. Marcus Garvey had a worldwide following of Africans. Leonard P. Howell had lived in the United States and Africa. His followers say: "Leonard P. Howell traveled the whole world and now he say he is in his home and dare a man to make him be afraid." The movement was locked up in Jamaica for decades Bob Marley has returned it to its international origins on a larger scale.
AKUA: Who is benefiting from Rastafari culture?
FARIKA: Some people in the movement have advanced materially. This is especially true of Rastas on the international scene and those working in the Reggae industry. The majority of Rastas living in Jamaica however, still live in grinding poverty. Many of the culture's elders are dying because of poverty and the lack of medical care that accompanies it. These are elders who were responsible for withstanding the persecution and ostracizing of the Jamaican society during the 40's through the 60's. Their contributions have not been recognized by the rulers of Jamaica who exploit Rastafari images to sell tourism and to build up their international trade in many other areas. These same people refuse to guarantee members of the Rastafari faith in the island, the right to enjoy the civil rights guaranteed by the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which the Jamaican government is supposed to upkeep. Many Rastas, including myself, have had to leave Jamaica in order to be free to practice their faith without harassment and to enjoy the right to use their talent to earn their living. But it is not only Jamaican leaders who are taking from the movement and not giving anything in return - many Reggae musicians are doing the same thing. These musicians regard poor Rastas as beggars and drive past them in their tinted window limousines. They don't think they owe the movement anything. A people's sacred images and symbols are being exploited. The disunity within the Rastafari movement makes this possible…
AKUA: Why has this happened?
FARIKA: The movement has lost a lot of its African vibrancy in exchange for its Jamaicanization to help the recording industry and Jamaican leaders. Too many of us have a blurred vision of Rastafari. We need to begin to see clearly. When Emperor Haile Selassie 1 came to Jamaica, he told Rastas to "organize and centralize." If Rastas returned to the original vision of a faith-based movement for restoring the divinity of man through finding the divinity in the most downpressed race of people on the creation, the African, and thereby freeing the creation from downpression, it would be easy to follow the Emperor's instruction.
AKUA: How can we make that vision clear again?
FARIKA: We must concentrate on the words and teachings of His Majesty and seek for spirituality as well as material gain. We need to get down to basics and begin living the creed of Rastafari. Those who learned the culture from the Reggae "stars" need to know that Rasta is a movement of discovering and drawing out the good in the inner-man and reaching towards becoming God-man. The focus on African redemption, and the spiritual and physical repatriation of the scattered Africans needs to be better known, so that bredren and sistren living in the outposts of Babylon do not get caught up with their local problems to the detriment of the wider movement. If we really seek the kingdom of Jah, all things will become clear. Today's Rastas need to do this so that they know what Rastafari is really about. The musicians only sing of bits and pieces. Rastafari is a way of life and Reggae is its echo, not its author. The Reggae musicians need also to know more about the philosophy of Rasta and its livity. They must take time out to reason with the congregation that they have spawned and accept responsibility of giving back to the source from where they draw their inspiration.
AKUA: What was the mission of the Rastafari elders?
FARIKA: The mission of the elders was to stay alive and spread the message of Rastafari. In the face of horrendous persecution, they stood firm and refused to bow to the wishes of Babylon. They held the faith and would not allow it to be stamped out. Many were murdered for the cause but we as the Rastafari people have survived until this day so that the younger generation could come and see the Rastafari faith as a living entity. The elders have fulfilled most of our mission. We left you a spiritual inheritance but hardly anything materially. We thought that they would go to Africa very soon and would never die. That is the reason many elders did not strive harder for material things. In order to complete our mission, we have to ensure that the history, inspiration and knowledge that we have accumulated over the decades is passed on to the younger generation both orally, and through print, electronic and audio-visual media.
AKUA: What issues need to be addressed by the younger generation?
FARIKA: The mission of this generation is to balance the spiritual with the material as His Majesty has told us. The elders did not have the words of His Majesty to guide us and so we relied totally on the Bible and our inspiration. The youths are fortunate enough to have His Majesty's words. They must learn to obey him and emulate and stop doing what they please. We have to use tradition of the elders as a mat on which to build. The surviving elders and their philosophies are like libraries. Every time one dies it is like a library burning down. Youths must preserve the heights of the elders' vision and leave behind what is not useful. It must not sacrifice material for spiritual heights as it is now doing. Caribbean youths in particular, have to leave behind their color and class prejudices and remember that the elders dumbfounded professors with the spiritual heights of their philosophy yet most were semi-literate. While they who are more schooled now have not been able to arrive at their elders level of intellectual insight. Rastas in the USA and England must become like other immigrants and act like the feeding tree of the congregation in Jamaica and the Caribbean in order not to allow material weakness to debilitate the spiritual strength of the islanders.
AKUA: What about Africa?
FARIKA: This generation also has the task to build Africa and to bring to reality the task of race redemption, reparation and repatriation that was started by their forebears. The continent is being ravaged by disease while Rastas spend their time in petty squabbles about differences in religious sects. Rastas have to answer Marcus Garvey's call: "Up you mighty Race, You can accomplish what you will." We need to be building schools, factories, health food chains, herbal stores, alternative health clinics, etc., and bring stability to the movement. The idlers and hangers on can no longer be allowed to bog us down with their foolishness, while millions die in Africa. We can no longer afford to perpetuate the myth that being ‘Rasta’ is (merely) going to Reggae shows and concerts, smoking Herbs and decking ourselves with Rasta symbols. Young people have to stop crying about what the elders did not do, and begin fulfilling the task of bringing economic stability to the movement, as future generations will be asking them questions. They have to stand on the shoulders of the elders and begin charting the future of the movement into this new millennium.
AKUA: How can they do that?
FARIKA: The most important virtue for this generation to learn is the virtue of charity, the greatest of virtues. The first step in acquiring it is by caring for the elders as our parents. Young people can begin right now by contributing into the elders' fund in Jamaica. Those Rastas who have medical and/or herbal skills need to band together and promote rescue missions to heal the sick elders in the island. The Emperor gave us Sheshemane. We need to build a model city there that will be the inspiration of the African world. We now have the resources and the finances to do so, whereas it did not exist before. We have The Ethiopian World Federation and The Twelve Tribes of Israel working in an organized manner to develop Sheshamane. Why are we refusing our Father’s gift and bringing retribution on our heads? Rastas are to bring relief to those in need in Africa. Bring forward medical supplies for them. Where are the Rastas when Africa is being devastated with floods, tribal wars and AIDS? I look on the television and listen to the radio to hear of some making significant contributions in rescue efforts for the African continent. The United States is the leading superpower of the world and if the younger generation of Rasses living in it woke up to their responsibilities, they could impact powerfully on policies and conditions in Africa, and that is what they need to do.
AKUA: What are your current projects?
FARIKA: I am rewriting novellas that have been interrupted by my being a Rastafari woman. I am also working on writings to empower the woman in the Rastafari movement and I will be seeking recording contracts for my poetry. I am developing an arts-based Rastafari curriculum for pre-K to Grade 2 children. I would like to see a Rastafari education system being developed. I welcome all of goodwill who wish to assist me to fulfill these projects.
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