Sighting the International Roots/Routes of Rastafari: African Liberation Day Trod to Panama
On May 25, 1963, His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Haile Selassie I convened an historic summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia that led to the founding of the Organization of African Unity (OAU). Among African peoples in general and the Rastafari in particular, May 25th is commemorated annually as African Liberation Day, marking the onward progress of liberation and symbolizing the determination of all Africa peoples to remain free from foreign domination and exploitation. Among members of the growing Rastafari Movement in Panama—the Alianz de Rastafari de Panamá—the date has special significance. It is the day on which they celebrate their African heritage, a date that has marked the most significant Rastafari gatherings in Isthmus, including the First Rastafari Congress in 2000 and the First Rastafari Hispanic Summit in 2005. From the year 2000--in part through pressure from the Rastafari community—the Republic of Panama also designated May 30th as Black Ethnic Day for Afro-Panamanians. This now frames a week-long period for Rastafari and Afro-Panamanian events in the Isthmus.
During this year’s 55th anniversary of African Liberation Day I was privileged to join members of the Alianz Rastafari de Panamá (ARP) in the picturesque ciudad veijo, the historical quarter of Panama City, to launch “Discubriendo Rastafari, Congo e Pan-Africana en Panamá.“ This path-breaking exhibition focuses on the impact of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association in Panama, the origins of the Rastafari movement there, and “Congo” traditions in Panama, closely related to maroon cultures of resistance in the Isthmus.
On Friday evening, May 25th, some 150 or so brethren and sistren from Panama, Costa Rica, Columbia, Brazil, San Andreas, and the U.S. gathered in the old city for the exhibit opening. There we were regaled with remarks, both in Spanish and English, from a host of Rastafari speakers on the importance of the occasion. Speakers included Sister Iffiya Seales, Treasurer of the NCRU, Sister Maminah Rogers, Secretary of the NCRU, Sister Lisbet Perez, President of the ARP, Ms. Urenna Best, Director of the National Secretariat for the Development of Afro-Panamanians, myself, Sister Katherine Howell, and Ras Sadiki-I (a brethren who build the New Temple of the Ark of the Covenant in Axum). The exhibit was blessed by “Baba” Rex Archibald, who called upon name of His Imperial Majesty and invoked the ancestors—including two Nyahbinghi I-cients—Bongo Shephan and Bongo Tawney—who had traveled to Panama in 2005 to participate in the First Rastafari Hispanic Summit. Of course, Nyahbinghi chanting and drumming resounded in the Casa during these festivities.
Mounted in three rooms of the historic Casa Góngora, the ground floor of the exhibit features two small galleries focused on the “Congo” festivals of Afro-Panamanians—a culture linked to the Maroon communities of Panama--and the work of Pan-Africans in Panama including Alexander Bedward, Shepard Robert Athlyi Rogers (author of the Holy Piby), Dudley Thompson (who was born in Panama), and, most notably, the Honorable Marcus Mosiah Garvey. Garvey’s first travels outside Jamaica were to Costa Rica and Panama in 1910-11. The expansive central gallery on the second floor houses the Rastafari portion of the exhibit—including visual materials shared from the Smithsonian’s “Discovering Rastafari” exhibit and the International Rastafari Archives Project (IRAP) launched by Professor Carole Yawney and myself in 1996. Following a month-long run at the gallery in the Casa de Góngora, the exhibit will travel to Colon where it will be installed as a permanent exhibit. Our thanks in advance are extended to the Honorable Federico Policani, the Mayor of Colon City for his commitment to secure a permanent site.
The materialization of this project is another example of the current global reach of the movement and power of the divine inspiration of His Majesty to bridge differences in language and culture in pursuit of common goals. The idea for the exhibit began as the inspiration of my Panamanian-born bredrin, Ras Sela Seales of the North Carolina Rastafari Union (NCRU). He provided overarching coordination for its implementation while working with others in Panama like Ras Ricardo Richards and Ras Charlie Botello. Based on his prior works, he coordinated with Ras Rodrigo Contreras (aka Ras Makuto) in Santiago, Chile on digital graphics. Raspect due on such works with special acknowlegment to those who actually installed the exhibit—including Ras Sela, Ras Charlie, Sister Sandra Lewis, Ras Jose Luis and Brother Rody Ricketts. It was my pleasure to provide the interpretive text for the visuals in the exhibit which were translated into Spanish by Ras Sela’s Panamanian-born colleague Guillermo Riley in Brooklyn. Sister Lisbet Perez (aka Sister Fiyah), the first woman President of the Alanzia Rastafari de Panama and
Ras Sela coordinated with municipal and national sources of support in Panama to secure the venue and funding for the project. Here sincere thanks are due to Scandanavian-born Alexandra Schjelderup, Director of Culture and Education, Panama City, and Ms. Urenna Best of the National Secretariat for the Development of Afro-Panamanians. The participation of ones from Columbia, Brazil and Montserrat rounded out the Inity of diverse countenances and voices.
The exhibit opening was only one event in a week-long series of activities that included not only other venues but the welcome opportunity for ones-and-ones to reason, socialize and network among one another. In addition, there was prominent Rastafari participation in Black Ethnic Day parades in Panama City and Colon on May 26 and May 28, respectively. In Colon, representatives of the community—including Sister Fiyah and Sister Maminah Rogers, along with myself, addressed crowds at the Festival Internacional AfroPanameño held there on the waterfront. In my capacity as the Smithsonian advisor on the exhibit, I formally thanked the mayor of Colon, the Honorable Frederico Policani, for agreeing to accept the exhibit on behalf of his city after it closes at the Casa Góngora. This is particularly meaningful insofar as Colon has a predominantly black population with close historical ties to Jamaica and other parts of the Anglophone Caribbean. While Panama had some 49 UNIA branches during the 1920 and 1930, the Colon branch was the largest and most active. The Honorable Marcus Garvey spoke there in 1921 to enthusiastic crowds of thousands. At the time, the Colon UNIA branch maintained several businesses and a high school that provided the only secondary education to blacks in Panama.
Wrapping up the day in Colon, brethren and sistren visited the headquarters for the Alianz Rastafari de Panamá. In a touching moment, Sister Katherine Howell was moved by a portrait of her father, Leonard Perceval Howell, that hung prominently in the center. Reasoning, chanting and drumming filled out the day before a final stop at the site of the Liberty Hall on 11th Street where ones-and-ones had a photo-op and considered the possibility of refurbishing the site to house the exhibit. Finally, on May 29-30, brethren and sistren traveled to Bocas del Toro in Northeastern Panama where Garvey had first landed when he returned to Panama in 1921. There, they held a parade and, with the Mayor of the city, named a street in honor of Marcus Garvey. Most gratifying works indeed through the powers of His Majesty!
To many Rastafari in the English-speaking world, places like Panama City, Colon, Portebello, and Bocas del Toro are not likely to evoke familiar images. For some, Panama might even seem an insignificant outpost of Rastafari presence in the hemisphere. Yet the mystic of Fari is that there is no tongue or language in which the name Ras Tafari is not known and praised. “Discubriendo Rastrafari” explores part of this mystic, revealing Panama as the epicenter for developments in the Caribbean Basin that supported the rapid growth of Marcus Garvey’s UNIA during the 1920s and the subsequent genesis of the Rastafari movement. The exhibit thus focuses on a history that was critical to the development of both the Garvey and Rastafari movements.
Too many of us have forgotten that from the last quarter of the 19th century into the first two decades of the 20th century, some 275,000 Afro-Caribbean people were drawn to Panama and other parts of the Caribbean Basin, first for the construction of the Panama Railway and later the construction of the Panama Canal. This large-scale movement of black laborers—the majority of them British subjects from Jamaica and Barbados and other parts of the English-speaking Caribbean—coincided with penetration and expansion of North American capitalism into the region and with it the apartheid-like practices of Jim Crow. Coupled with deplorable and dangerous working conditions on the Canal, the widespread experience of prejudice and discrimination by Afro-West Indians crystallized the unifying racial consciousness that became central to the Garvey and later Rastafari movements. Hail Ras Tafari!
Black Star Line ships traveled to Costa Rica and Panama between 1919 and 1921—with Garvey himself in 1921. At the same time, proto-Rastafari figures significant to the movement, including Alexander Bedward Robert Athlyi Rogers, sojourned in Panama. Bedward maintained multiple Revival congregations in Panama whose members traveled to Jamaica to be baptized in the Hope River in August Town. And Athlyi Roger’s text The Holy Piby (1924) reached Jamaica via returnees to the island.
Finally, all of the first Rastafari evangelists had traveled extensively through Panama, Costa Rica or other parts of the region and were returnees to Jamaica in the early 1930s. This includes Leonard Howell, Joseph Nathaniel Hibbert, and Archibald Dunkley. The other seminal figure, Robert Hinds, was a ‘lieutenant’ of Bedward and no doubt many had secondary contact with Afro-Panamanians or West Indians who traveled between Panama and Kingston. All of these first evangelists were prophets whose wider view of the world enabled them “Look to Africa”—sighting His Imperial Majesty Emperor Haile Selassie I—and challenging the oppressive Euro-centric colonial order. I-n-I should also recognize that many of those who sighted up through these legendary figures had themselves traveled in the region. This includes a number of Howell’s followers like Brother Charles Lewis or individuals like Ras Derminite, a foundational member of the House of Nyahbinghi who worked on the docks of Colon, or Brother Gabriel Diaz, a member of Mortimo Planno’s inner circle who was born in Limon, Costa Rica during the late 1920s. As an historical footnote, I should point out that Elder Gabriel was the first Rastafari brethren to meet Emperor Haile Selassie I outside of Ethiopia when he greeted His Majesty at the United Nations in New York in October of 1963 following the Emperor’s historic address there.
In short, the exhibit points to a largely forgotten heritage of pride and accomplishment by Afro-West Indian and Afro-Panamanian peoples in the Isthmus. Its larger narrative is important for Afro-Panamanian people precisely because—as blacks in West—they tend to be accorded second class citizenship by the majority white and mestizo population of Panama and the region. Certainly, the exhibit and the gathering in Panama highlights the historic roots and contemporary routes of Fari; but more importantly the works there attest to the growing influence of His Majesty’s teachings in all corners of the world.
This was my sixth trip to Panama since 1999 after a thirteen year hiatus since 2005. It was great for Sister Amy and I to share blessings with Ras Sela, Mama Iffiya and their family and, for I personally, to see brethren and sistren that I had not connected with in many years. Raspect to Ras Ninni and Jah C in Colon and Ras Rick and Ras Walla—the “Tailor of Panama” in Panama City. Likewise Sister Jamita from the Choco region of Columbia and Brother Guillermo Phillips from Brooklyn. At the same time it was a blessing to reason at length with and to get to know Elder Makandal from Rio de Janiero and Sadiki-I from Boston. Both have profoundly compelling stories that reveal the global mystic and powerful works inspired by Emperor Haile Selassie. I-n-I give thanks to the King of Kings for linking these I-mples and their works to I-n-I. Elder Makandal—an artisan of Ethiopian crosses and jewelry—began his trod to Rastafari in 1975, traveling from Brazil to Switzerland, France and England and later Jamaica. He keeps a tabernacle in the hills near Rio de Janiero and his service to His Majesty is perhaps the longest of any Brazilian-born Rastafari.
Sadiki-I was born in Monseratt and relocated to Boston, Massachusetts as a young teenager. His story is not easily encapsulated, but from 1911 to 1914 Sadiki-I received a spiritual commission from Abba Gebre Meskel, the guardian of the Ark of the Covenant, to construct a new temple of the Ark of the Covenant in which the Ark could be temporarily housed. This task led to the repair of the dome of the Church of St. Mary of Zion in Axum—the sanctuary of the Ark—and its return to that church. Sadiki-I was kind enough to share a copy of his DVD entitled “The Chronicles of Sadiki-I.” I look forward to screening this as part of IDOR’s film program which began earlier this year.
Abundant raspect and blessings to our brethren and sistren in Panama and North Carolina for their committed and edifying works.