Redefining Zion: Rastafarian repatriation to Tanzania
Historian Monique Bedasse recently spoke about Rastafarian repatriation to Tanzania, the emergence of self-governing Caribbean and African nations and transnational pan-African politics.
"[Rastafarians'] desire to return to Africa — which they called Zion — spiritually, intellectually, psychologically and physically signified their resistance to what they believed to be oppressive circumstances in Babylon, [their word for] Jamaica and the White western world, as well as their desire to reclaim their identities."
By Kevin Sprague (UCLA 2018)
UCLA International Institute, March 14, 2017 — On February 27, 2017, Monique Bedasse of Washington University in St. Louis was the third speaker in the “Emancipation and Empire: Africa and the Project of Black Studies” workshop series. The series is organized by the UCLA Department of African American Studies and cosponsored by Professor Melvin L. Rogers, Scott Waugh Chair in the Division of Social Sciences and professor of political science and African American Studies; the UC Consortium for Black Studies in California; the James S. Coleman African Studies Center; and the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African-American Studies .
As part of her presentation, Bedasse discussed her forthcoming book on Rastafarian repatriation to Tanzania, which examines the relationship between that repatriation, the emergence of self-governing Caribbean and African nations and transnational pan-African politics.
Bedasse opened with a brief background on the emergence of the Rastafari religion and pan-Africanism, or political unity and solidarity among Africans, in the 1930s. She explained that among Rastafarians of that era, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie was understood to be the messiah who would help lead the African diaspora home. Their experience in Jamaica — the result of slavery — was perceived as an exile marked by alienation and oppression.
“Their desire to return to Africa — which they called Zion — spiritually, intellectually, psychologically and physically signified their resistance to what they believed to be oppressive circumstances in Babylon, [their word for] Jamaica and the White western world, as well as their desire to reclaim their identities.” said Bedasse. “Repatriation to Africa was not simply migration for Rastafarians.”
Bringing pan-Africanism to the mainstream
Although many interpreted Zion to mean the nation of Ethiopia specifically, other Rastafarians did not interpret repatriation within state boundaries. Repatriation to Tanzania began in 1976, when Rastafarians were drawn to its emergence as a center of pan-African activity under President Julius Nyerere.
Tanzania presented a promising space for Rastafarians, but “decolonization was a protracted process,” said Bedasse. Colonial rule continued at the time in multiple countries, such as Angola and Mozambique, forming a complex geopolitical landscape for newly independent African states. However, the rise of black African leaders allowed the pan-African movement to be incorporated into mainstream politics.
Nyerere was one such leader. He consulted with Rastafarians who had repatriated to Tanzania in hopes of making his vision of African socialism, Ujamaa, a reality. “Rastafarians assisted [Nyerere], because his vision of Ujamaa aligned with their lives and ideals,” said Bedasse.
Ujamaa comes from the Swahili word for “familyhood” and is a political ideology that promoted “villagization,” or the creation of centralized villages with a few hundred families across the nation. These villages sought to make the distribution of goods and services easier while enabling collective agriculture, which Nyerere saw as necessary for a self-reliant Tanzania. Ultimately, the idea became unpopular and the agricultural yield from these settlements was far lower than expected. Ujaama, in fact, severely crippled banking and industry, leaving Tanzania dependent on foreign aid.
Although Ujamaa under Nyerere was not economically viable, the Rastafarians’ collaboration with Nyerere proved that they had the power to move political actors at the state level. “Rastafarians were only around three percent of the population, but became the face and language of black consciousness in Jamaica,” said Bedasse. “Now this disparity between a small number and a large impact [became] global.”
The impact of Rastafarianism
Rastafarians redefined discussions of pan-Africanism in multiple ways. For example, said the speaker, collaboration between Rastafarians and the Tanzanian government weakened the strict social stratification of African states, which relied on colonial borders and a black elite class.
Bedasse argued that the Rastafarians were also successful in promoting pan-Africanism beyond Tanzania because of the link between Michael Manley, then prime minister of Jamaica, and Julius Nyerere, then president of Tanzania, who were close friends and political allies. Manley was heavily influenced by Rastafarians and ultimately became a pan-Africanist leader in global politics, she noted.
Rastafarians also lessened the importance of imperial boundaries in the discussion of African politics. Most analyses of Nyere’s idea of African socialism (Ujamaa) used the framework of nation states, but Rastafarians forced the discussion of Ujamaa to transcend borders and take on a transnational character. This change in framework meant that idea of reclaiming Africa was seen in terms that went beyond colonial borders and directly addressed global white supremacy, said Bedasse.
Rastafarians further challenged imperialism and the West by rejecting written record keeping, relying instead on oral records through the generations. “They engage in secrecy and are unapologetically selective in whom they trust,” said Bedasse, explaining that written archives have negative colonial and imperial connotations for Rastafarians. Archives thus create the potential for their words to be misconstrued. By using oral history, she continued, Rastafarians seek an autonomous archival space that is wholly their own.
The Rastafarian repatriation movement, concluded Bedasse, was a serious pan-African political force with great impact on post-colonial politics. Rastafari, she said, “is a serious philosophy that has evolved in important ways.”
Published: Tuesday, March 14, 2017