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Exodus PART II: Ethiopia and the global black struggle

Published:Thursday | September 10, 2015 | 2:33 PM

Book: Exodus! Heirs, Pioneers, Rastafari Return to Ethiopia

Author: Dr Giulia Bonacci

Publisher: The University of the West Indies Press

Shashemene: The Promised Land

After the war, overtures and initiatives by Ethiopia's Haile Selassie government encouraged blacks to emigrate. "A growing consciousness of common interests and a common destiny was one of the results of these invitations," writes Bonacci. This shift in policy produced several organisations, including the Star Order of Ethiopia and the Ethiopian Missionaries of Abyssinia. The importance of these developments couldn't be overemphasised.

For the author, they delegitimised any argument that Ethiopians were disconnected from the global black struggle.

The impact of

Ethiopia's defeat

Meanwhile, Garvey's response to Ethiopia's defeat deserves attention. Here, the spectre of double consciousness within the black dynamic begs for further study.

Of this debacle, Garvey writes, "If Haile Selassie had negotiated the proper relationship with the hundred of millions of Negroes outside Abyssinia - in Africa, in South and Central America, in Canada, the West Indies, and Australia, he could have had an organisation of men and women ready to do service, not only in Abyssinia, as a great Negro nation, but on the spur of the moment to protect it from any foe."

It is this same double consciousness that runs through black politics, and to which Bonacci refers throughout. At the outset, she explores the terms 'heirs' and 'pioneers', both having different properties, but equally applicable to those who settled in Ethiopia. Whether this paradox took the form of black missionaries in Africa (who considered themselves 'foreigners' on par with their white counterparts), or Dr Dubois' challenge to Garvey, it is a reality that has continued to frustrate pan-African unity.

Yet, Bonacci sees reconciliation within the framework of "similar social and interpretative basis", notwithstanding differences in policy and creed.

Later, she speaks of cultural ties between black Jews, Garveyites, and Rastafari, each having its centre pole rooted in the pan-African concept.

Amid Garvey's increasing frustration with the defeat and direction of Ethiopia, the $64,000 question must be asked: Did his criticism put the Selassie government on a more ambitious pan-African footing? A definitive answer is unlikely, but the formation of the Ethiopian World Federation (EWF), and the contributions of Mayme Richardson and Gladstone Robinson seemed to have answered the call to Ethiopia.


Hope and Friction

But there were more than bumps along the way. The elitist, non-sectarian, and ecumenical constitution of the EWF was at odds with the puritanical ethos of Rastafari.

The EWF was soon eclipsed by other organisations, such as the Twelve Tribes of Israel founded by Dr Vernon Carrington, Emmanuel's Bobo Ashanti, and the Order of Nyabinghi - each determined to fulfil this common destiny.

Bonnaci serves up a magnetic narrative, providing some telling statistics, while recounting the travails of the pioneers and trailblazers in the 1960s - in their own words.

The author devotes substantive time to the Pipers, their relations to Ethiopian peasants, and their bristling relations with later arrivals, whose Rastafari identity they opposed. Tensions were oftentimes rife.

Nevertheless, James Pipers' words regarding Shashemene are worth mentioning: "Ethiopia is a place where none can lynch you or stop you from voting, segregate, burn, despise, or hate you on the basis of your colour."

The keen interest of Jamaican politicians to the experiment is also notable; and so, too, the relations between a handful of white Rastas who also settled in the Shashemene, an outcome that could be attributed to the internationalisation of reggae.

Other Caribbean nationals followed, albeit in lower numbers, for example, between 1992 and 2000, 19 Trinidadians made the transformational journey.

Exodus assumes a more intriguing trajectory with the overthrow of the monarchy in Ethiopia and its existential impact on the repatriation movement.

"These events," Bonnaci writes, "posed the question of sustainability of the movement, of the adaptation of their social and ritual practices, and of the legitimacy of their claims ... . It is probable that there were multiple reactions going for a break with the Rastafari movement to total negation of the events which had occurred."

More important, radical policies including nationalisation of lands placed emigrants in a precarious position. "The Caribbeans felt threatened by this invasion of their land. To a certain extent, land nationalisation of March 1975 validated the spontaneous move of Ethiopians to reappropriate the land," we learn.

Many contemplated return to Jamaica due to economic

hardships, having lost 60 per cent of allocated land between 1975 and 1983. It was a dire situation, ameliorated only by a new land grant. But security and health issues persisted amid the formation of the Jamaican Rastafarian Development Community that was "accorded the status of a local - that is, Ethiopian-non-governmental organisation," aimed at improving the social and economic standards of emigrants.

Bonacci concludes, "... it is too early to assess the success or failure of these projects and the process of economic dependence they might incur." Later, she asks the consummate question, "Can Ethiopia reject the only people in the world to construct a positive, victorious, mythical image of their country?"

Race and the future

of pan-Africanism

Bonacci's work proves seminal in depth and scope. It speaks of a diasporic spirit that seeks liberation through the revolution of religion.

Yes, religion isn't a balm or opiate; it is an atavistic, alchemical force. For sure, Exodus is integral to a larger discourse on race, nationalism, history, injustice, and restitution.

Admittedly, though, there are no monolithic solutions.

Indeed, in a dizzying, competitive world where geo-political bodies are forged in the face of multiple threats, the quest for African idealism seems quixotic. And for all the facts and analyses presented, one cannot help but ponder on the double consciousness of Kwame Nkrumah, of whom Bonnaci writes, "... he came to the awareness that the use of racial primacy as a base for political action would not suffice to unite the population of a vast continent, who were certainly black but with multiple internal demarcations of class, caste, language, religion, ethnicity, and so on and yet, it was to the slogan 'Africa for Africans', popularised and globalised by Garvey, that Nkrumah resorted."

Today, African Diplomacy and Diaspora affairs are seemingly in lock-step, but the undeniable reality is that pan-Africanism, like yesteryear, is riddled with endogenous, and seemingly insurmountable problems.

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