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Rasta to the world

BY JANICE BUDD Associate Editor — Sunday buddj@jamaicaobserver.com
Sunday, February 26, 2012


A bright smile cracked the brown, almost wrinkle-free face of the elderly Rastafarian sitting under a tree in what passes for the town square in remote Cypress Hill, St Andrew, as the Sunday Observer vehicle pulled up a few weeks ago.

A beard framed the white-toothed grin, the pale hairs the only obvious sign of his 73 years on earth as his white dreadlocks are tucked neatly beneath his 'tam' which was crocheted from the 'ites', green and gold yarn favoured by followers of the Rastafarian doctrine.

His sprightly greeting belies his years and the depth of his experiences as one of Jamaica's 'original' Rastamen. Nyabinghi Priest Bongo Shephan Fraser, like many others of his faith and age, says proudly that he has survived persecution, misunderstanding and derision, and now, 50 years after Jamaica's Independence, he has gained international acceptance and respect.

Bongo Shephan is an elder in a religious sect that has withstood the test of time and stigma; its members once hounded, tortured and killed for their beliefs, even by their own families in their native Jamaica. In some cases, they have been revered for their doctrine by strangers abroad far more than among their own people.

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Bongo Shephan's story takes him from the hills of rural St Catherine, in Benbow, where he was born, to Kingston's inner city, to a jail awaiting Her Majesty's pleasure, through police beatings and estrangement from family, to countries beyond the sea. He has been an ambassador of sorts for his faith, an ambassador who helped to take Rastafari to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, giving millions a chance to see into the heart of the Jamaican indigenous religious movement for perhaps the first time, without stigma.

His grandmother Dora, he believes, was the first to see him as a leader in the Rastafarian faith in a dream she had when he was a youth.

"When I just come to Kingston, she prepare a meal for me. And when I went to the table, that meal was wrapped in a red, gold and green cloth. After mi finish eating, my grandmother said to me, 'Mi dream you, you know mi grandson, flying across the cloud in a robe, and a 'sampata' shoes, with a rod and a big bass drum'."

The vision was to prove prophetic in the next decades of Shephan's life.

Of his entry into the world of Rasta at age 17, like other young men in Jamaica at the time, the Bongo priest said the message of African power and identity resonated with him, having grown up poor, with the boot of colonialism on his neck.

He was from a respected family in his community, one of seven children born to his schoolteacher mother, Louise, and her husband, Stephen, a farmer and church leader. But Shephan, after finishing his schooling, essentially left home to seek his fortunes in the world and found Rasta.

"They (the authorities) were trying to do their best to abandon our blackness, our reality of Africa. The Rasta say 'no, we are not going to allow that to happen'. That is why we stand up for Africa and the African people. We, the real Rasta who is carrying this struggle for the past 70 years, and me, myself, who has been carrying the struggle for 50-odd years, the whole period of Jamaica Independence."

"I am feeling happy now after 56 years of Rastafari faith. I get worldwide recognition; I help educate a lot of people. The other reason is that I help to maintain the culture of us, the black people, because what they were trying to teach us around here is the colonial system. It wasn't our culture, it wasn't an African culture. What Rasta said is "don't follow these people, if you follow these people you are going to be lost, 'cause truly, truly we are not Europeans."

Keeping the doctrine alive has been a struggle, he said, pointing to the widespread victimisation in the 1960s of Rastafarians, whose rough appearance and matted hair in those early years of the emergence of the faith frightened the deeply colonial Jamaicans.

Today, however, society is much more accepting of his faith.

"I would say they are coming around. Because one time I could not be sitting here in this district talking about Rasta. The district people would come and beat me and talk about, 'don't listen him, Rastas are thieves, they are robbers. They are black heart man. They cut out children's heart...', and those types of things," he explained.

"One time I couldn't even drive in a car, I couldn't take a bus. Bus drive up and we mek to go in it, dem shout after us, "Don't come in, you a dutty Rasta, you cyaan drive inna government bus...!"

"The car man nah stop fi tek wi up; you had to walk. I had to walk from Kingston to Spanish Town one time to see a bredrin. I have bredrin who walk come to town from Montego Bay. And you can't walk on main road, you haffi tek train line. Because the first car that you buck up on, believe me, di second one is going to be a police jeep. And remember, if the police grab you and put you into dat jeep, and lock you up, believe me, sister, even if dem no find no ganja pon you, is four years before your family going to see you again. Ganja was being planted on you. So we have gone through it," he said.

The massacre of his brethren on Good Friday in 1963 in Coral Gardens is imprinted on his mind, he said.

Rastafarians were targeted, beaten, locked up and tortured by police after reports surfaced that a gang of their members, armed with machetes and daggers, had launched a Holy Thursday attack that left eight men, including two policemen, dead. The massive manhunt that was mounted to apprehend and prosecute the offenders sparked fury and fear among the populace and further damaged the image of Rastafarians in Jamaica. Some members of the Rastafarian community said they were forced to cut their locks or flee to the mountains for refuge.

Although he wasn't close to the incident geographically at the time, Bongo Shephan was among those who went into hiding as he prepared for what he thought was inevitable death at the hands of State forces.

"Oh God..., that time I was living in Waterhouse, and when I hear of the massacre and that they were coming to hunt us in Kingston, all of us Rasta gathered up in one man yard in 'Back a Wall'," he said. "Well, we gather up, wi pray, wi chanting, wi ask the Almighty to protect us, for we not involved in this thing that happen down there."

He and his bretheren at the time challenged the State's version of the event, claiming the incident was the result of a land dispute between men who had a vendetta with the policemen who were killed.

"It wasn't us that create this damage. It was just three men who want revenge for what them think police did do to dem," he explained. "But out of that incident, Rasta suffer even more."

He went on to tell of a painful encounter with a vindictive policeman who knew his family and was determined to make an example of the young Rasta. He scraped up Bongo Shephan and others and threw them in jail where, he said, they were tortured. Some were shorn of their locks, they were mocked, all of them were beaten.

"One time, he took me and another Rasta and tell wi to stand back to back, wi hands did tie. Him put us back to back and lick wi wid him baton. Den him tie our locks together, me and the bredrin, and use him two fist and bring it down pon the locks where dem tie," said Bongo Shephan, demonstrating the force with which the blow was inflicted.

"I see star, the pain was so severe," he added, noting that rumour had it that some of them who had been held had been shot dead, but there was no proof.

Eventually, the case against them was dropped. He said the charges were trumped up, illustrated when the policeman failed to show for the court hearing and they were released.

But the attacks on him for his faith only strengthened him. Bongo Shephan's destiny beckoned him across the seas.

A man of little formal education in the traditional classroom, he has amassed a wealth of knowledge of his faith through the years, which he has shared with huge audiences through lectures and discussion fora locally at the University of the West Indies, in South America and in the United States at top colleges and museums. His connections led to his involvement in the groundbreaking Discovering Rastafari exhibition that was mounted at the prestigious Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, between November 2007 and November 2011.

"In November gone, I was invited to the Smithsonian where we had put up a four-year exhibition. The exhibition was up in November so we went up there to take it down. I tell you something, for the four years that exhibition was there over 30-million people pass through Smithsonian and we estimate that over 10 million pass through our exhibition. And even me, I sit in there for an hour or so and over a hundred people I count come in there. I say wow, because people is grafting toward Rasta. One of them said to me, 'I didn't know that Rasta was so intellectual, I am going to take my children to see this exhibition'. Is a lot of people get educated out of the exhibition that was up there," he said.

His involvement was orchestrated by Professor Jake Homiak, the director of Anthropology Collections and Archives at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, who was the curator for Discovering Rastafari at the Smithsonian. Along with a panel of 17 Rastafarian advisers, Homiak created the exhibit to dispel the stereotype that the culture is merely about marijuana and reggae music. On display were artefacts that represented the cultural, political and social origins of the movement.

Homiak and Bongo Shephan's friendship grew over 32 years, with the Rastafarian elder and priest even presiding over the anthropologist's second wedding.

"He probably didn't tell you that he married us in 2009 on the banks of the Potomac River on a property where George Washington -- the first US president -- once held enslaved Africans. It was an incredibly memorable event attended by our respective families, friends, over 20 members of the local Rastafari community and Prince Ermias Selassie (grandson of late Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie) and his wife," Homiak said in response to the Sunday Observer's queries.

"He was, quite literally, the very first Rasta that I met in Jamaica in January of 1980 when I travelled to the island for the first time as a graduate student in cultural anthropology to do fieldwork on the Rastafari movement. I'd never been to Jamaica before, and I knew no one. I had, however, been given a bag of textbooks by a contact to deliver to someone named Shephan Fraser in Bull Bay who was going to make these available to the local elementary school. That was the catalyst for our first meeting which lasted only an hour or so.

"I was struck by two things upon our meeting. The first was Bongo Shephan's statement to me upon emerging from his humble gates on the beach. He declared, quite confidently, that he and the other elders in this camp were stationed there "as ambassadors to meet and greet international visitors as representatives of His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Haile Selassie the First". I don't know if you can imagine how such a statement would be taken by a young white man who had never been to Jamaica, never met a Rasta, and knew little or nothing about Jamaican or Rasta culture. Let's just say I took his statement as pure hyperbole," said Homiak.

"The second thing he told me was that he knew how to deal with people according to their own 'brackets' (ie, station in life). Both statements would prove to be more than prophetic," said Professor Homiak.

Five to six weeks later, fate took him back to Bongo Shephan's fishing community in Bull Bay. Thus began a lifelong association and friendship.

"He has been to the Smithsonian officially on at least five separate occasions. In June-July of 1988 he was a member of the first official Nyahbinghi delegation that travelled from Jamaica to the United States," said Homiak. "The visa arrangements were made by the Smithsonian, although it was the local Rastafari communities of New York, Baltimore, and Washington, DC, that fund-raised to cover the costs of travel. The rationale behind this delegation derived from the widespread negative press that the Rastafari movement was suffering in various metropoles of the US, due to the violent criminal drug-related activities of the Jamaican posse members that had become notorious during the mid-1980s."

See Part 2 in next Sunday's Observer.

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