Rasta to the world — Part II

Bongo Shephan’s journey from rural Jamaica world to the Smithsonian

Sunday, March 04, 2012

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Associate Editor -- Sunday


This is the conclusion of a two part feature on Rasta elder Bongo Shephan Fraser, who surpassed his humble beginnings to help spread his faith across the world.

HAVING survived the tumultous 1960s and 70s, which were marked by deep and sometimes deadly hostilities against Rastafarians by law enforcement and by fellow Jamaicans, Bongo Shephan Fraser found himself on a journey which would make him a de facto ambassador for the movement abroad.

The image of Jamaicans and Rastafarians had been shredded with the much-publicised, violent, criminal, drug-related activities of the feared Jamaican posses that had become notorious across North America during the mid-1980s. For members of the faith this was yet another affront, a blow to their decades-long campaign to change how they were seen at home and abroad.

A Jamaican-born Rastafari sister from California who knew Bongo Shephan had been visiting Jamaica. When she raised some concerns about the bad publicity and misrepresentations that were being spread about Rastafari, alleging links to the violent Jamaican posses, Bongo Shephan told her that he knew someone at the Smithsonian who might be able to help set the record straight. She contacted his friend Jake Homiak, who Bongo Shephan had met several years earlier in Bull Bay, when the former was an anthropology scholar trying to study the mysterious, yet enigmatic Rasta movement. By this time, Homiak had finished his PhD in anthropology and had become a member of the influential Smithsonian Institution's Department of Anthropology.

Bongo Shephan was drafted as
part of a delegation of indigenous Jamaican Rastafarians who were invited to travel to the US on a speaking
tour intended to help dispell the myths about Rastafarians.

"Along with 23 other brethren and sistren, Bongo Shephan travelled to New York, Baltimore, DC, and Chicago on that trip, doing various public presentations and workshops about the movement that I and members of the Washington, DC Rastafari community had arranged. The final event was a half-day presentation at the Smithsonian," the anthropologist explained to the Sunday Observer.

"From the time I met him he has been both a preacher and a 'teacher' regarding the precepts of the culture and the model that Emperor Haile Selassie I has provided on spiritually, anti-racism, and social justice. The then director of our Centre for Folklife and Cultural Heritage was so impressed by the presentations that he invited a delegation back for the following year to participate in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall," noted Homiak.

Shephan travelled again the following year and was a key participant in that year's festival at which the Rastafari delegates did a special honouring ceremony for the Paramount King of the Ga peoples of Ghana. Among other things, he and six other Rasta participants recorded Rastafari Elders, a path-breaking record that included personal testimonies with Nyahbinghi chants, and made presentations on several radio programmes in the US.

The work of Bongo Shephan along with Bongo Pidow Golding, Bongo Tawney Bent, Ras Headful, Ras Marcus Reid, Sister Bubbles, and Ras Maurice Clarke had a major impact on consolidating what were, up to that time, fledgling Rastafari communities in the Eastern US.

Bongo Shephan ultimately wound up staying in the US for several years, marrying an African-American sister and gathering a Rasta congregation of his own
in Atlanta.

His international credits include not only his travels in the US, but sojourns as a member of Rastafari delegations to Panama and Chile in 2005 and
2006, respectively.

"Were it not for Bongo Shephan, I seriously doubt that I would have sustained three decades of association with the Rastafari," Homiak confessed. "While there have been other brethren and sistren that have provided encouragement and counsel to me over the years, he has been the most constant. This is particularly true in terms of the challenges that I have faced over the years in moving within the portals of the Nyahbinghi House -- an organisation that often vigorously defends its social boundaries with respect to perceived outsiders.

"Long story short, what I had initially taken as hyperbole at our first meeting in Bull Bay turned out to be reality. Bongo Shephan had been in place as an ambassador of Jah Rastafari to meet international visitors 'from foreign'," Homiak said.

He has travelled on behalf of the movement, lectured in universities (including Johns Hopkins, Howard, Southeastern and Morgan State, as well as the Smithsonian on several occasions), and touched the lives of many people.

Moreover, he was one of the 30 or so individuals whose testimonies are on the video that played on a 20-minute loop for the four-year duration of the Discovering Rastafari exhibition.

"In 2009, the Smithsonian brought Bongo Shephan to DC for a week to participate in our 'Meet an Elder' programme that featured him. For several days he spent time in the exhibit interacting with members of the public and responding to questions and generally educating them about the faith and culture of Rastafari. And, he was one of two Elders we brought back to DC for the closing event on November 16, 2011," Homiak explained.

The University of the West Indies also sent Dr Swithin Wilmot, dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Education; Dr Jahlani Niaah, Head of Rastafari Initiatives, and Dr Michael Barnett.

The Smithsonian is the largest museum complex in the world. It includes 19 separate museums and three research centres. The Discovering Rastafari exhibit was mounted in a special gallery of the institution's African Voices Hall. The video loop that included testimony by Bongo Shephan played every 20 minutes for nine hours a day, seven days a week, 364 days a year. Rita and Ziggy Marley visited -- Rita twice.

Many members of the US Ethiopian community visited the exhibit, including Prince Ermias Selassie, one of Emperor Selassie's grandsons, who Bongo Shephan met on several occasions. It was as an honour the Rastafarian could never have contemplated when he was running from the law and enduring the hatred of his own people, but believed was his destiny.

"Today, the exhibit is gone, and the echoes of those Rastafari voices that played in the hall are now silent. But a single Rastafari voice can be heard elsewhere in the museum. It is found in a special exhibition entitled More than Meets the Eye, another perhaps prophetic title. This exhibit is given over to showing all the ways in which imaging technologies are used by naturalists, scientists and anthropologists in their work," explained Professor Homiak.

"The last example of this, lightweight video technology, is one that I shot of Bongo Shephan at his gates in Cypress Hall. In a brief statement, Bongo Shephan's voice continues to run in a loop day in and day out. He can be seen and heard to declare that 'Rastafari don't deal with God-in-the-sky. That's why I say nothing lives outside of man that is called God -- like a Christ in the sky -- nothing goes like that. Jah is in man... and all things are being fulfilled through God in man. This universe is being developed to a standard through technology that surpasses the 'ancients of days' -- meaning the original Creation. For it is not a spirit who came and did these things. It was a man, through God's infinite wisdom: that He produced through man. Man was able to create all these different capacities on earth and they became miracles'," Homiak said. These are the words of the simple country boy who surpassed
his humble beginnings to become a Rastafari ambassador.

The most recent leg of Bongo Shephan's journey has led him to debate his faith on national television as a guest of TVJ's Religious HardTalk with Ian Boyne. Today, Rastafarian elder Bongo Shephan, herbalist, tiler, priest, counsellor, world traveller, is understandably proud of his contributions, though he is quick to add he is part of a movement.

"Is not me alone, is a lot of us have been doing this work across every part of the world," he said. "Lawyer, doctor, teacher, judge, and now parliamentarian are locks people. High-ranking people across the world now have locks, so the work was not in vain."

He offers a reminder to Jamaicans
to remember their nobility, especially
as the country celebrates 50 years
of Independence from colonial governments.

"You know what happen to we black people? he asked. "We underestimate wiselves, because of the things that the white man teach us. We must exalt ourselves as the historical people from the cradle of all mankind, Africa."





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