Monday, 21 March 2011

Review: The Man who turned into a Rastafarian

The following review was printed in Jamaica following the publication of The Man who turned into a Rastafarian in 2006. Following the recent republication of the anthology, the review is displayed here by kind permission from the author.

By Wzo Makeda Barbara Blake-Hannah

I have just finished reading a most interesting book, one that should be required reading for any Africans in the Diaspora thinking of returning to live in Africa.  “THE MAN WHO TURNED INTO A RASTAFARIAN” by Masimba Musodza a Zimbabwean Rastafarian, is a collection of short stories set in the lives of Zimbabwe’s Rastafarian community that vividly depict what life is like for them in today’s Zimbabwe.  The book is a revealing insight into the African country in whose liberation Rastafari – through reggae artists like Bob Marley and Peter Tosh – played a major role.

Told in a well-written narrative style with a variety of social and geographic settings, the stories will both inform and surprise Western Diaspora Rastas of how deeply entrenched is the anti-Rasta prejudice in that country, based on stereotypes, assumptions, misinformation and a social snobbery caused by the prevailing national religion of evengelist/Pentecostal Christianity.

In the title story, a ‘normal’ non-Rasta businessman is confessing to a psychiatrist that he is morphing into a Rasta, that at times his hair grows into profuse locks, his speech changes into “Jamaican patois” street slang and he starts behaving wildly and outrageously. 
“At the bus stop I put my hand on a girl’s buttocks and squeezed. She yelped, but when her boyfriend saw who it was that was taking liberties with his girlfriend’s anatomy, he backed down from the offensive and simply pulled her away.  No one messes with Rastas, you see.  Rastas are crazy buggers, they can do anything.  I lit up my spliff. Some old woman protested, I told her she was a Babylon and she needed to listen to Bob Marley’s music and read the words of Marcus Garvey.  How dare she tell me not to partake of the Holy Herb, the Weed of Wisdom.  I said she was a bumbaclaat!”

See what I mean! On another occasion when he ‘morphs’ into a Rasta, this is his experience:
          “On the bus the conductor scrutinized my money, holding up the note against the sun.  I could not help noticing that he was not so cautious with the other passengers. No one wanted to sit with me if they could avoid it.  When I got off the bus, I had policemen stopping me six times, asking to see my I.D., patting me down for illegal substances, wanting to know which band I played with.”

          As the story continues, the psychiatrist finally gets him to realize that he is only morphing into his own prejudices about Rasta and behaving like the inaccurate stereotypes, based on the misinformation spread about Rastas in the society.  The story ends with his enlightnment.  “I get it.  My alter-ego can only be what I think a Rastafarian is.  So if I thought a Rastafarian was a respectable, decent sort of chap, then that is exactly what he would be.” 

One story tells of a young Rastafarian who ‘overnight became the wealthiest, fastest-climbing Rastafarian in the Southern African continent” but still finds it hard to find a girl willing to endure the ostracism of her family and society by becoming his girlfriend. He finally finds one who wants to be his “Rastafari Queen” and who undergoes the necessary changes, when an old girlfriend returns to tempt him again.  The view of the Black upper-middle class is clearly depicted, as he makes his choice.

“Pama Rasta” is a community of Rastas who migrate from the city to establish a settlement with all the technology, schooling and farming equipment necessary. It’s an interesting guidepost for would-be emigrants to Africa. 
“The Rastafarians hoped that in their little settlement, none of the madness that was engulfing the nation would seize them. In the cities they stuck out in the crowd with their dreadlocks. And having always been a favourite target of the wanton brutality of the so wrongly called ‘disciplined forces’, the Rastafarians found it imperative that they get away.  That is why they had come here, so deep in the country.”

All goes well as they integrate into the poor rural village with their satellite dish, Intenet computers, seeds and farming equipment, earning by selling the villagers their crops and skills.  However, when famine and hardship affect the villagers and Zimbabwean politics raises its brutal head, the Rastas ae seen as prosperous, dangerous outsiders with a blasphemous, foreign religion.  After an unpleasant confrontation, the Pama Rastas depart to find a new home.

The stories give a revealing insight into the practices of Zimbabwean Rastas.  For instance, they all seem closely aligned to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and Ethiopian way of life and worship.  They wear Ethiopian whites, rather than the modern Western clothes other Zimabweans do.  In each story the characters have a church or meeting place where they gather for Sabbath services conducted in Amharic, and many of them seem to speak and read Amharic.

“Attendance for the daily services was mostly the women and proprietors of businesses at the Rasta shopping center.  At this time, as the Cantors chanted the appropriate offerings within their Qene Mehelet area of the Beta Rastafarian, about ten worshippers stood in the Keddist.  Each was in their own world, eyes closed, lips moving rapidly, bodies swaying.  Frankincense hung in thick puffs in the air.”

One story is set in a recording studio, in another a poor Rasta returns a stolen laptop computer, and yet another is about parents dealing with a school where teachers and students make their dreadlocksed Rasta children unwelcome. 
“There was a reading passage in the sixth grade text book, describing the Rastafarian culture as foreign and decadent, something that Bob Marley had brought to Zimbabwe, warning kids against adopting it.  ‘Those kids are making the others uncomfortable,’ Mrs. Makoni said.  ‘Look at them.  We used to have a uniform here that we could be proud of. But look at her, with that beret on she looks like a band member at Reggae Sunsplash.  And if she took it off, we have some sort of witch doctor! She’s freaking the kids out!”

A sad story concerns a Rasta reggae musician dying of AIDS, who returns to find the healer woman his mother took him as a teenager, who used a rusty, AIDS-infected razor to cut tribal marks on him.

One beautiful story is about a couple whose wife is told she has cancer just as she learns she is pregnant with their third child.  Given the choice of abortion to begin chemotherapy, she holds fast to her Rastafari faith and refuses that option even though she may die.  Their Rasta priest (a university student named, incidentally Abba Yesehaq), prays with incense over her hospital bed and when she returns home she sends up prayers to the Virgin Mary.

“Sister Deborah had brought from Ethiopia hymns to the Blessed Virgin, and a copy of an ancient manuscript about the Miracles of Maryam.  The whole thing about the Virgin was something the Rastafarian elders were yet to sit down and define.  It did not strike the right chord with us, it was too reminiscent of the Catholic Church.  Yet it was part of the Ethiopian Orthodox tradition. And did not the women appeal to the Blessed Virgin when the Princess Yeshimebet Ali, wife of Ras Makonnen Wolde Mika’el was in labour on that 23rd day of July in the year 1892.  Nine times the Princess had stillbirths.  Then, this one time, the Virgin had interceded and Princess Yeshimebet had delivered the infant Tafari, later Emperor Haile Selassie.  She died two years later in childbirth.”

Passages like these show that Zimbabwean Rastafarianism has benefited from the country’s proximity to Ethiopia, causing them to preserve much of the faith’s original focus on Ethiopia and the links between Ethiopia’s ancient history, Church and Emperor. The mother-to-be, incidentally, finds that her cancer has magically disappeared.

‘THE MAN WHO TURNED INTO A RASTAFARIAN’ is an extremely interesting book, the kind of book you wish had not finished when you turn the back cover.  I recommend it highly to all who love good stories, and especially to Rastafarians.

About the Author:

Barbara Blake-Hannah is a Jamaican author, film maker, journalist and cultural consultant. A former Independent Senator in the Jamaican Parliament (1984-87), she has worked in Britain, where in 1968 she became the UK’s first Black TV journalist and in Jamaica, where she is best known as a writer and radio/television broadcaster on cultural and social issues. She is the author of Rastafari: A New Creation, Joseph: a Reggae/Rasta Fable- both acclaimed works of Rastafarian Literature- and most recently, The First School: A Home Schooling Guide to Early Childhood Education and Growing Out. She also runs the annual Reggae Film Festival.

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