Sat | Aug 19, 2017

Carolyn Cooper: Selassie's grandson opens old wounds

Published:Sunday | May 1, 2016 | 5:00 AM

April 21 was the 50th anniversary of the momentous visit of His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I to Jamaica. One of the events to mark the occasion was a public lecture the following day by his grandson, Prince Ermias Sahle-Selassie. In his introductory remarks, the Prince made the mistake of thanking Sir Alexander Bustamante for the grand welcome given to his grandfather by the Government of Jamaica.

With prophetic zeal, a fierce Rastafari elder dramatically rushed through the room calling down damnation on the head of the national hero: "Fire pon Bustamante"! The Prince's words of appreciation had provoked disturbing memories of Bustamante's role in the persecution of Rastafari. The so-called Coral Gardens 'incident' was a dread and terrible time for Rastafari.

"Bring in all Rastas, dead or alive!" Those were the irrational words of Bustamante in response to the desperate actions of six bearded men who burnt down a gas station in Coral Gardens on Holy Thursday in 1963. Then they took to the hills and set up an ambush for their pursuers. By the end of the drama, which was straight out of the Wild West, six people were dead. Issuing a death sentence, Bustamante literally turned all Rastafarians into villains. Guilty or innocent, they could no longer expect to enjoy the protection of the law.

Coral Gardens was a frightening episode in a long history of state violence against Rastafari. In 1954, under the premiership of Bustamante, the Rastafarian camp, Pinnacle, was burnt to the ground. Located in the St Jago Hills, close to Sligoville, Pinnacle was a productive agricultural community yielding rich crops such as cassava, peas, corn and, of course, ganja.

Maintaining African traditions of collective labour, Pinnacle flourished under the leadership of Leonard Howell. The prosperous camp gave hope to landless Rastafari who left Kingston's concrete jungle for the hills of St Catherine. It was nothing but wickedness, plain and simple, that made the backward Government destroy Pinnacle.

 

EDUCATION IN ETHIOPIA

 

I don't think the Prince even heard the Rastafari elder's vigorous condemnation of Bustamante. That single voice of dissent was not audible to most people in the Council Room at the Regional Headquarters of the University of the West Indies. But even if the Prince had heard, he really couldn't take back his words. After all, he was simply being polite. He was not condoning Bustamante's actions against Rastafari.

The Prince pressed along with his brief lecture on education in Ethiopia. One of the intriguing points he made is that the language of instruction in schools for the first six years is Amharic. English is introduced much later. Amharic is not the mother language of all Ethiopians. But it's a shared language across the country.

I immediately thought of our own educational system. What would happen if we took a new approach to primary education in Jamaica? What if we used the students' mother language for teaching and learning in the early years of schooling? Believe it or not, the world wouldn't come to an end. The language of home would go school. And learning would become a joy, not a burden. Students would not feel like dunces because they don't understand the language of instruction.

We would then move to English instruction later. It would be revolutionary. I speculate that English language learning in Jamaica would be dramatically transformed. Our students would learn their second language, English, much better than they do now. And their performance on the CXC English exam would decidedly improve.

The biggest deterrent to using Jamaican as language of instruction in primary schools is the refusal of influential Jamaicans to accept the fact that the local language is legitimate. As far as they are concerned, it's a bastard language, an outside pikni, like many of its speakers.

Unlike Amharic, which is a 'proper' language with more than 25 million native speakers, Jamaican is still not seen as a language by many of us. It's a non-language spoken by non-people. When are we going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery? In the next century? That's going to be far too late for so many children in Jamaica today who are being deliberately 'duncified' in school.

 

DECRIMINALISING GANJA

 

After Prince Ermias Sahle-Selassie's lecture, we went to the UWI museum for the opening of a 50th Anniversary Exhibition commemorating Haile Selassie's visit to Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, Barbados and Haiti.The visiting exhibition, curated by Rootz Foundation, is brilliant. It's up until May 19 from Monday to Friday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Admission is free.

The curator of the museum, Dr Suzanne Francis, reminded us that on April 22, 1966, the University of the West Indies conferred an honorary Doctor of Laws (LLD) degree on the Emperor. It was the 6th honorary degree conferred by the university, which had became an independent institution only in 1962. It had previously been a college of the University of London.

This exhibition tells a persuasive story about the struggle of colonised subjects in the Caribbean to redefine their identity as free people. I hope the exhibition will tour all the campuses of the University of the West Indies. Young people need to know this history.

And I also hope the present Jamaica Labour Party Government will courageously move to decriminalise ganja quickly. This long-overdue act will go a far way to healing old wounds and taking the fiery curse off Bustamante. Jah know.

- Carolyn Cooper is a consultant on culture and development. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and karokupa@gmail.com.