Yankee Dread In Africa

by Mwatabu Okantah

The Most High is truly wonder-filled. It appears the Rastafari Movement is sweeping West Africa by storm. Even in French-speaking, Muslim Senegal, I found that Rastafari is making significant inroads. Ultimately, reggae music’s reception in Africa did not surprise me in that the Rastafarian Movement is so Africa centered. In some ways, it is ironic that it is the Rastas who have kept the name and teachings of Marcus Garvey alive, given his early reservations and disparaging remarks about the early converts to what is now commonly accepted as the "revelation of Rastafari." Even though remnants of the Universal Negro Improvement Association(UNIA) still exist, it is the Rastas who have spread Garvey’s redemption message, not only throughout the Diaspora, but, in Africa as well.

Africa is the spiritual center of the essential Rastafarian worldview. Repatriation is a fundamental tenant of that worldview. Although Jamaica has undoubtedly played a crucial role in the history of Rastafari, the movement IS NOT a "Jamaican thing." In the language of Rastafari, Africa is the Holy Land; it is Zion. Rastafari is a black redemption movement. That it has appealed to people across racial and class lines, as well as boundaries of national origin, is a testament to the universality of its philosophy. Its impact in Africa, however, is rooted in the movement’s call to black people everywhere to "get up, stand up for your rights." Ever since Bob Marley emerged as reggae music’s chief ambassador, the music and the movement have found a home on the continent.

I arrived in Ghana, after three weeks in Nigeria, on the second leg of a three-nation West African tour. I was in the land of Osagyefo Kwame Nkrumah for the first time. My stay in Nigeria had been eventful. My second visit to Nigeria had been more profound than my first. In fact, I arrived in Accra somewhat apprehensive, but excited. Things had been so mystical in Nigeria; I wondered what Ghana held in store. My locks had attracted so much attention as I traveled around Nigeria, I was curious as to the response I would get during the remainder of my sojourn. I was in Ghana, the land of W. E. B. DuBois and the home of Pan-Africanism on the continent.

In my own case, I had been drawn into Rastafari listening to the music, and the movement’s emphasis on African cultural values. Reading Garvey as a college student in the early 1970s had endowed me with a new sense of myself as an American of African descent. For the first time, I began to see myself as part of the larger world community of people of African descent. The idea that African-Americans are an African people is still very much a controversial notion. We are still very much a people who are in search of a healthy ethnic identity; a people in search of our proper name. I changed my name during this period in my life, and, by decade’s end, the African ancestral voices I heard whispering in my inner ear moved me to literally "throw my comb away." Like Ras Norman Grant of the Twinkle Brothers, "I been a Rasta ever since that day."

In Nigeria, the children called me, "Dada." I was to learn of the spiritual tradition in Nigeria in which babies are born into this world crowned with natural dreadlocks. It is believed these children have been sent as messengers from God and the ancestors. It is taboo to harm one of them. During an interview I taped with Juju music man, King Sunny Ade, he informed me that one of his sons had been born Dada. One of Nigeria’s leading reggae singers, Majek Fashek, was also born Dada. When I spoke with him, he agreed that his childhood experiences as Dada significantly influenced his evolution into a musician, and Nigeria’s resident reggae "Prisoner of Conscience." Fashek informed me that it is the custom that Dada children have their heads shaved by priests when they reach a certain age, for no child asks to be born in this fashion. When his locks grew back, he said everyone knew that his destiny would be special.

Now, I was in Ghana. Land of Ashanti. Land of Adinkra and Kente clothe. Descended from the one African in ten, who survived the middle passage, I came home to Ghana to make that necessary pilgrimage to Cape Coast and Elmina Castles. Like DuBois before me, I, too, wanted to lay the burden of my own "double consciousness" to rest. Finally, I also wanted to visit the Twelve Tribes Rasta settlement near Accra. Somehow, it seemed more than fitting that Garvey’s teachings were being nurtured in Ghana in the spiritual embrace of the Rastafarian movement. Indeed, it was the Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey that helped to shape President Nkrumah into one of the continent’s preeminent Pan-African nationalist leaders. Although Garvey died without ever setting foot on the soil of the Mother land, it is more than evident that his ultimate impact did find its intended mark.

My visit to the Twelve Tribes settlement in La Boni was awe-inspiring. I first heard of the settlement from a Cleveland-based, Jamaican friend. One of Cleveland’s finest reggae musicians, he had visited with the Twelve Tribes while he was touring Ghana with Jimmy Cliff. The actual location is not a settlement; so much as the compound we visited was a combination headquarters, gathering place and information center for the faithful and the curious. My host, Nii Ayi Ankrah, an Accra native, had been unaware of the extent to which the Rastas were organized in the city. Nii Ayi and I had met while he was studying for his PHD at Cleveland State University. At the time, he wanted to know who is this African-American with a Ghanaian name. Now, we were together in Ghana and he marveled that I was taking him to places, and exposing him to people in Accra he otherwise would not have encountered.

La Boni. In Jamaica, they would call it "Trenchtown." In the states, it would be called "the hood." The more I travel, the more I realize our basic condition as a people is essentially the same in the world. Locations, languages and accents may change, but the circumstances remain the same. The compound we entered consisted of three small dwellings and a fenced-in, open courtyard. The area was well kept. Pictures of Hail Selassie and Marcus Gravy were everywhere present. The Idren responded to my presence immediately. With Bro. Ankrah serving as my translator, our conversation took place in both English and their native language—Ga. As I do with brethren wherever I travel, we discussed the state of Africa and African people "at home and abroad."

The reasoning session with the brethren was truly liberating; yet, it did not compare to the experience we would have attending a Twelve Tribes groundation or service in the Adedenkpo section of Accra. For me, the groundation served as both a sign and a symbol. I knew my sojourn was in good hands. As the faithful began to gather, it was evident the real spirit of a new day in Africa was alive and well on the continent. As I moved slowly through the crowd, it was also evident Rastas were there from the U. S., Canada, England, as well as from other West African countries. Even the curious from the area who stood on the fringes of the gathering exhibited a quiet admiration and respect that was revealing. Rastafari had brought us all together in Black Oneness.

The service was lead by a "combsome" Idren dressed in a long, green flowing garment. He was flanked by eight sistren dressed in white. They stood before a long table that held several flags representing those countries in the Diaspora where Africans had been scattered during the holocaust of slavery. After his welcome, the Priestly Lion began the groundation with a reading from scripture. Each of the sistren, in turn, also read a selection. They read from Leviticus, Numbers, Psalms, Deuteronomy, Hosiah, Jeremiah, Ezikiel, St. John, Timothy and Corinthians. As they read, passersby began to stop, swelling the gathering’s numbers. As each woman read, the intensity of the vibration running through the congregation increased noticeably.

When the women finished, a youthful Lion was called upon to share. Visitors and guests were also invited to participate. I felt myself being lifted, being healed, and being connected in a way that defies description. The song-chanted hymns that preceded the scripture reading had even made me think of what the spirituals must have sounded like on American plantations. The sound was riveting. The women lead while everyone joined in the singing. Again, there were no words to describe the sheer power lifting our spirits. I was experiencing a Rastafarian Christian Iration. It was profound being a part of this revival taking place on the streets of Accra.

The Priestly Lion followed the reading of scriptures with a talk on the coming of the Twelve Tribes and Rastafari to West Africa. He spoke of H. I. M. Haile Selassie as the Rastafarian Black Christ in his Second Advent. Groundation. It was ritual. It was high ceremony. I was touched most when he spoke to, and about, the children. He spoke to them in Ga. He did not want to lose their attention speaking in English. It was mystical. Although I could not understand the language, I could feel his articulation. I did not need translation. Given the condition and circumstances of our people, I knew he was speaking to these young people in the same way we have to speak to our young ones here in the U. S. As African derived people, we may live in different countries or belong to different ethnic groups, but, our differences are more perceived than real; our differences are not in kind, they exist only in degree. After traveling through Nigerian cities like Lagos, Ibadan or Enugu, it was becoming evident that this is especially true in urban areas.

Each of the eight Daughters of Zion followed in speech on the revelation of Rastafari. After our depressing descent into the dungeons and condemned cells at Cape Coast and Elmina Castles the previous day, my spirit truly needed groundation in African spiritual earth. Now, well into the service, additional signs that the ancestors were guiding my sojourn continued to appear. Standing next to Bro. Ankrah, I looked up only to see Nigerian reggae singer, Ras Kimono, getting out of a car. We had met three weeks earlier in Lagos. I had not been able to see him before I left, and, now, here he was in Ghana. I was stunned, yet, not really surprised. Similar, seemingly coincidental, occurrences in Nigeria had already convinced me of the reality of the guiding hands of the ancestors in my travels. As Ras Kimono approached, I could hear my mentor, Chief Fela Sowande, whispering, "The world is truly a village," in my inner ear.

I began to move toward the Ras to greet him, and to explain why I was unable to meet with him during my last week in Lagos, when I was stunned once again as I noticed another familiar face in the crowd just to the left of Kimono. I could not believe my eyes. It was Nii Ardey Otoo. At that same instant, he had recognized my face in the crowd. We moved toward each other. Nii Ardey had named me Okantah some fifteen years earlier, when we were college students in Ohio. I had arrived in Accra without knowing how to reach him; not even knowing if he was in Ghana, or somewhere else in the states. I had spent my first few days in Accra riding around the city wondering about my old friend, and finding comfort that I was finally in the city of his birth. Once again, I was stunned but not surprised. Spirit does, indeed, work in mysterious ways.

Unbelievably, I had dreamed about just such a moment. I realized that Jah, through His guidance and protection, reveals His wonders to those of us who have eyes and who are willing to see. He speaks to those of us who have ears and who are willing to listen. I was experiencing my own destiny unfolding. My night continued to soar when, after introducing Nii Ardey to Nii Ayi, they discovered that they belonged to the same extended family clan. It turned out that Nii Ardey’s correct surname is Ankrah. His father had had Otoo erroneously written into his "records" during his colonial "education." Quite by accident, I had become the gate for scattered African family members in Africa to find each other. I was astonished by the very mystical quality that seemed to be present wherever I traveled in West Africa.

Groundation. Before leaving the states, I had asked for signs to guide me along on my tour, and I felt blessed to recognize them whenever they revealed themselves to me. I was in West Africa scaling heights no jumbo jet could ever reach. By now, the area was alive. It was electric. It was filled with red, gold and green clad Rastas, children, the curious, passers-by, and, even the police. At one point earlier in the evening, one brother had been seized and swept away by policemen driving an unmarked old Mercedes.

Throughout the scuffle, however, the free form flowing testimony in the name of Rastafari remained fluid, unbowed and unbroken. The Priestly Lion never seemed distracted. He never lost control of the gathering.

No one panic’d, and, surprisingly, no one interfered.

Finally, with the sun beginning to set, a second Priestly Lion, dressed in white, assumed leadership over the service. He proceeded to lead the gathering in prayer and supplication. He directed us to turn and face the northeast. We looked toward Ethiopia, toward the land of Judah. A closing anthem was sung in unison. He bid us peace, one love and Inity. Many people embraced. It was now time for everyone to return to his or her homes. I stood, in silence, taking it all in. I was already thinking of this special evening as a soon-to-be-cherished memory. I felt a serenity I could not put into words. More profoundly, I felt no need to even try. Somehow, I knew deeply deep in my heart that as a people, we had to wander no more. Africa is, indeed, our ancestral homeland. In this time, we can walk through what is no longer a Door of No Return.

Yankee Dread In Africa by Mwatabu Okantah

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