Searching for identity and with an outlook of their own, Jamaicans have created a new philosophy, a combination of religion, political philosophy, nature, and music that has become ready to influence the mainstream system of government.
he sun is about to set. Collins hands me his jacket as he stands up. "Soon, it will be dangerous for you here," he says. "Cover your arms and your face with this jacket." Imagine this, a white man in the outskirts of Kingston in the middle of the night. The stories we keep hearing in the house where we are guests are unsettling and all underline just how dangerous it can get here. The darkness of the night is pierced by the headlights of the police car parked at the corner. There's a crowd around a woman bleeding on the ground. The traffic begins to slow down, which makes me worried. Someone looks in the window right into my eyes. "Hey pinky wait. Wait. Come here boy!" Luckily, the police motion us to move along and we leave Trenchtown.
I must hurry to make it to my appointment at the Ivor's Guest House Restaurant on time. We head towards one of the hills that surround Kingston. As the colonial architecture becomes more noticeable, Collins gets out of the car. "They would not take me in anyway," he says. As we approach our destination, we see many other interesting buildings, each surrounded by tropical gardens.
I am greeted by a black man at the door of the restaurant. "Welcome, Mr. Anadol, Mr. Nakash is expecting you at your table," he says, showing me the way. Albert Nakash is the son of a family which left Mardin in Turkey during the war years and emigrated to Canada. He settled in Jamaica in his youth and is now the owner of one of the most respectable construction companies in Jamaica. He works within the system in Jamaica, he defends and shapes the system, come to think of it, he is the system. Even though he is careful to emphasize his Jamaican identity, Mr. Nakesh speaks with the candor of someone from Anatolia about the situation of his adopted country.
Jamaica takes in a considerable portion of the tourism earnings in the Caribbean. The hidden beaches that once offered a safe haven to the hippies of the 1960s have now become the sites of five star hotel chains. The local airport is situated to the north of the island. Its neighbor Negri, with its vast beaches and small bed-and-breakfasts, offers an alternative Caribbean vacation. Ocho Rios and Port Antonio target the wealthy Americans and have profited handsomely from their decision to invest in infrastructure. The hotels around Port Antonio are especially good examples of the progress that Jamaica has made in terms of their hospitality industry. But not all of the country's earnings come from tourism. Jamaica is a primary producer of bauxite, a compound that is used in the production of aluminum. It still produces sugar cane, bananas, tobacco, and cacao, much like it did during the colonial period under Britain's domination. But, without a doubt, what Jamaica is most associated with is its rum, which is made by distilling the juice of sugar cane.
The waiter interrupts our conversation to serve us the Blue Mountain coffee harvested from the mountains just behind us. This is the most expensive coffee on the planet. I take a sip and begin looking down at Trenchtown. I wonder what happened to the bleeding woman down there, I wonder whether she is alive or dead. "I play tennis three times a week; on the weekends when there are no croquet games, I play golf." The words that reach my ears from the table behind startle me. I feel the pain of the inequities in this country in my heart. On the one hand are those that make a huge profit doing business and can afford an extremely luxurious lifestyle, on the other are those that are frustrated and resigned because they cannot be a part of a more equitable system. A minority of the population carries and protects the system against a majority that opposes it. These contrasts actually indicate just how fragile the socio-economic balances are. Before we can make any predictions about the future of the country, we must first take a look at its history for pointers.
Imagine a country where the entire indigenous population was decimated by Spanish colonists. Imagine the same country then colonized by the English and turned into a giant sugar cane farm using slave labor brought in from Africa. Then, imagine how a pirate named Morgan puts an end to the power struggle between Spain and England. Imagine the same island under the leadership of a pirate, stuck between different cultures, unable to determine the country's future. Then imagine this island after six generations.
After slavery was outlawed in 1838, you could reasonably expect that the lives of the inhabitants of the islands would be dramatically changed. Except this is not what happened. The British sent 8 million pounds to those whose businesses were impacted negatively by the abolishment of slavery. Even though there was also some money made available for those former slaves to enable them to return to Africa, the moneys were pocketed by the slave owners and were never distributed to those who were entitled to them.
After the period of slavery, former owners became businessmen, and former slaves, workers. Economically, this has not resulted in much of a change but has brought about some change in the mentality. People began to think. One segment of the society supported the constitution put in place by the Crown and have adopted a British identity that continues to define them. The black judges of the constitutional court, with their white wigs, may raise questions in one's mind, but are sure signs of how Jamaica follows in the footsteps of the European tradition. Their religion can also be rather traditional, and Jamaica has the highest number of churches per square kilometer than any other on the globe.
While the European traditions were being followed by some in Jamaican society, a considerably large segment of the society revolted against the rule of the white man. The first revolutions began in the 18th century when slaves who escaped into the mountainous regions of the island gave the British soldiers a hard time for such a long period they were eventually granted autonomy. Even today, the Accompong region has an autonomous status. Those that once tried to look for solutions within the system have transformed their pleas for equity into a philosophy. These people live in union with nature and they base their philosophy on the ideal of doing away with all inequalities. Their efforts have over time developed into a lifestyle that demonstrates a conscious effort to fight for human rights.
A coral reef colony on the northern shores of Jamaica. In addition to being a natural haven for various kinds of marine life, the reef provides shelter for the local fishermen. These serene lagoons are only a few hundred meters from the shore and are now threatened by pollution. Tourism and urbanization pollute the creeks that flow into the lagoons, thereby endangering the lagoons themselves.
Prieshman Rupert Oakley is a Rasta thinker who lives alone on the Blue Mountain
During the services that are held at the Bobo Dread Church, the Bible is recited to the rhythm of the drum. These chants -- known as Redemption Songs to the Rastafarian -- have a special place in their faith.
Pren Emmanuel is all but responsible for the emergence of Rastafarianism. His son Jesus Emmanuelle Edwards has inherited the throne in the Bobo Dread Church. In this picture, you see a Ghanaian priest (Zebulon Adoufu) with Priest Forrester and Delly.
I thought that the best way to understand the philosophy of a Rasta man was to chat with one. I asked around in Port Antonio and they all pointed me to a priest, or "Prieshmahn." A "Prieshmahn" I wondered, could this be "priest-man" in Jamaican dialect? I could find the priest, I was told, around the Reach waterfalls. These waterfalls are in a forest to the west of the island. I got out of the car and encounter a man carving pictures onto a pumpkin as I begin to hear the waterfall. "I was looking for you," I say. "I know," he replies "we have to talk." We head towards the rocks near the pools of water. A few fish swim away to take cover as they see us. This old man is called Rupert Oakley. "See that?" he says. "They are scared. They got scared of us. Why? Why did they get scared of us? Would they have been startled if they saw a rabbit? I want to live in a world where the fish are not scared of us." He longs for peace, you can tell from how he talks. "I went to the hospital the other day," he explains. "They told me they needed to immunize me. They said that they were going to inject my blood with tiny soldiers to protect me. It might be for my own good, but it's not easy to feed an entire army." What about human rights, Prieshman? "You show me someone who can live without air, water or food, and I'll be convinced that there is a superior race." He concludes our conversation, which has been going on for hours, with a sentence that I will hear many times afterwards: "I am the righteous." "I have been here from the beginning and I will be here till the end."
Unlike the Mardons, Rastas did not flee to create their own country. Instead they have stayed to dismantle the system from within. Their emphasis changed in the 20th century. Rastas began to look for their roots in Africa while they continued to learn about the history, culture, and political structures of Africa. Marcus Garvey, who is hailed as a hero in Jamaica, began to talk about returning to one's roots in Africa in the U.S. in the 1920s. Garvey's views on have subsequently informed many other black leaders such as Malcolm X, Kwame Nkrumah and has sown the seeds of Rastafarianism in Jamaica.
Rastafarianism is a belief system that combines the post-slavery philosophies with Biblical teachings, and beliefs about ancient African civilizations. Rastafarai believe that Jah Rastafarai is God and the coronation of King Haile Selassie of Ethiopia on November 2, 1930 is the reflection of God on earth. Haile Selassie is the 225th king after the Jewish king Solomon and the African queen Sheba. At the center of their belief system is the Ethiopian Orthodox church which is the first church in recorded time. This history gives the Rastas a certain sense of pride. But it also alienates them from other Jamaicans who identify more closely with the British system. Seen from their perspective, Rastafarianism is nothing more than a convenient interpretation of the Bible by the Rasta. Rasta churches that have gotten off the ground amidst this rejection concentrate on the concept of repatriation, Marcus Garvey's idea of returning to Africa.
Bobo Dread church is built on the hills of the Bullbay village about a half hour from Kingston. Bullbay is a Rasta commune. Collins and I are greeted by Priest Forester outside the village. As we enter the garden, we begin to empty our pockets, symbolizing the leaving behind of the material world. Collins is scolded by a Rasta who has come to greet us: "Why is your shirt white and your pants black?" Collins later tells me that this was taken as an unwelcome symbol of white supremacy over blacks. He solves his problem by sticking his shirt into his pants, or by subjugating the white to the control of the black. After the prayers, Forester comments on Collins' shirt. The theory of white supremacy assumes that the white race is superior to all others. Black supremacy, on the other hand, argues for equality among all humans. "We don't argue that the black man is superior," he explains, "we argue that the black philosophy is superior."
I spend four memorable days at the Bobo Dread church. As is the case with Rastas from other places, those that live in Bobo Dread let their hair grow wild. Because it is uncombed, it takes the form of the familiar dreads after a while. Dreads are as symbolic of Rastafarai as earlocks are of Hasidic Jews. Dreads are a symbol of leaving aside all personal things in the search for God. Another identifying character is Ganga, the Indian name for marijuana, the hemp plant used in the production of hashish. "Herb" as the Jamaicans prefer to call it. It is considered sacred by the Rastafarai. Before they light a pipe or a cigarette, or splif, they read passages from the Bible that speaks of the Herb. Newer generations insist that the herb has been a part of Jamaica for a long time but do not deny that the usage has been shaped by the African influence.
The Jamaican search for identity has been fueled by their historical experience with the African cultures, Ethiopian Orthodox church, slavery, and resentment against the King James version of the Bible. After Britain granted autonomy to Jamaica in 1962, a feeling of liberation swept across the country which has found an important outlet in music. This transformation in music was in fact the culmination of a process that had started during the period of slavery, an effort for a society to rid itself of foreign cultures and accentuate its own roots. The first sound to come out of this was Ska. Following Ska, Jamaican music was shaped by a new generation of artists who had become very pessimistic about their prospects in life. These young musicians initiated the rock steady sound which had sarcastic overtones. The music had become dark. The Rasta screams that emerged from the end of the 1960s were those of reggae. Reggae incorporated the Jamaican life philosophy and its belief system into music. Bob Marley was to carry this music to the masses in the coming years. The texts of his songs were to become the symbol of a three hundred year long soul searching period for Jamaica. Bob Marley was so popular in Jamaica that, after he died of cancer in 1981, he was believed to be a saint. Another reason why he is so popular is because he proved that you could change the system from within.
Today, the Rastafarai have more political ambitions. They are preparing to take part in the general elections which are scheduled for July 1998. Dr. Barry Chevannes from the Department of Political Science of the West Indies University in Kingston argues that they have already become a part of the political scene thanks to the protest music that had come to be identified with them. Dennis Forsyth, a lawyer and proponent of the movement, argues that the Rastafarai are now beyond smoking pot and dreading their hair. Rastaman has understood that you have to be a part of the system to eventually dismantle it. He is also aware that those without the requisite education will be absorbed by the system. Forsyth explains: "Traditional Rastas were interested in things like repatriation and reparations to the families of slaves. The modern Rasta will concentrate on rectifying the problems in the educational system."
Jamaica has been the battleground of European and African thought for centuries and has created different socio-economic subcultures. The evolutionary force that we see there now is based on questioning the existing system. All who visit Jamaica have the opportunity to observe this firsthand. As Bob Marley once sang: "There's a Natural Mystic Blowing in the Air." Those that follow the mystic begin to question the predominant values and do some soul-searching. Maybe that's why many who visit claim that Jamaica has made a profound change in their lives.
On the hills that overlook Kingston, you can see many beautiful buildings. In the city itself, you can see the remnants of a colonial heritage. It is easy to see slums alongside business centers. Many struggle for survival here: the new generation plays its rap music outside the recording studios where reggae was born in the 1970s, those that demonstrate to legalize marijuana, and countless churches. Bob Marley's legacy is also in the air: "They say experience brings wisdom / There's a natural mystic blowing in the air."
On the northern side of the island, there are golf courses that routinely host international tournaments.
Perhaps because they represent authority, Jamaicans are not very fond of the police (left). Bob Marley's home has been transformed into a museum. Last year, the Universal Studios theme park in Florida has obtained permission to reproduce his home (right).
Jamaica has the world's highest number of churches per square kilometer.
Dickie and Domenica live in Oracabessa. Dickie is Jamaican, Domenica is from the United States. Domenica is from the 1968 generation, Dickie is a teacher. Together, they run a day care center. "It is as if we are sowing the seeds of love with these children," they say when they explain why they're living in Jamaica.
The garden of Bob Marley's house in Kingston.