Jah Kingdom

Rastafarians, Tanzania, and Pan-Africanism in the Age of Decolonization

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Monique A. Bedasse
  • Durham, NC: 
    University of North Carolina Press
    , October
     2017.
     270 pages.
     $32.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781469633596.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Jah Kingdom is a highly textured account of how Rastas from the African Diaspora gained validation as “Africans” such that some of them were accorded the “right” of repatriation to Tanzania, Africa. Monique Bedasse marshals a wide range of historical and ethnographic evidence from the Caribbean, Africa, and England to demonstrate the intricate network of ideas, people, and resources that facilitated the repatriation project in Tanzania. She navigates a highly complicated history and a complex network of actors on three continents (Africa, Europe, and the Americas) to unravel the political and intellectual context that gave rise to and facilitated this repatriation. Through it all, the main story is shaped by a few central actors: Ras Bupe Karundi, whose initiative and constant promotion gave momentum to the repatriation project, and his wife Kisembo Karundi, who demonstrated equal commitment and initiative; Joshua Mkhululi, who migrated to Dar es Salaam to assist the newly independent Tanzanian government, and who became a prime mover in tertiary business and management education; Julius Nyerere, freedom fighter, first president of independent Tanzania, pan-Africanist, and supporter of decolonization struggles across Africa; and the Universal Rastafari Improvement Association (URIA), a Rastafarian organization in England that provided financial and moral support for repatriation.

Jah Kingdom is a significant contribution to the literature on Rastafari and particularly to scholarship on the international spread of the movement. First, it seeks to shift the focus from Reggae to “trodding” as the means by which Rastafari has spread around the world, and to Africa in particular. Bedasse is not denying that Reggae is a significant medium by which Rastafarian ideas are communicated around the world. Her discussion of Rastafari in Dar es Salaam identifies a group of young Rastas, separate from the repatriates and locals who associated with them, whose entrance into Rastafari was facilitated by Reggae music, particularly that of Bob Marley and the Wailers. Moreover, “trodding” (the movement of Rastas within local and transnational networks) has long been acknowledged and reported in the literature. However, Bedasse has provided the fullest and most significant ethnographic account of how this practice contributed to making Tanzania a focal point for repatriation and settlement for Rastas.

This leads to the second way in which Jah Kingdom contributes to the literature of Rastafari. In Rastafarian discourse, Ethiopia has always been the desired place of repatriation. This focus on Ethiopia as the promised land was reinforced by the land grant that Haile Selassie made in 1955 to diasporic Africans for supporting his campaign against Italian invaders from 1935 to 1941. Over the years, hundreds of Africans from the Diaspora have migrated there, the majority of whom are Rastas. For whatever reason, other Rastas have repatriated to Ghana (Rita Marley, Bob Marley’s wife, has a house there), Nigeria, Kenya, and elsewhere on the African continent. While some scholarship has focused on Shashemane, Ethiopia, as a site of repatriation, the settlement of Rastas in other places in Africa has remained substantially unexplored. Bedasse not only brings Tanzania into focus; she also shows how the activism and activities of a network of actors led to the willingness of Tanzanian political leaders to facilitate the return of diasporic Africans to the continent and to Tanzania becoming a desired destination for Rastas seeking to repatriate.

Third, Bedasse argues convincingly that the degree to which Nyerere and other Tanzanian leaders embraced the philosophy of pan-Africanism was a pivotal element in facilitating Rastafarian repatriation. At the heart of pan-Africanism is the notion that Africans on the continent and in the Diaspora are really one people whose destinies are welded together. Nyerere’s particular engagement with pan-Africanism included the recruiting of diasporic Africans to aid in the national building efforts of Tanzania after its independent in 1961. Invited by the Tanzanian government, a number of professionals from the African Diaspora with a pan-

Africanist outlook went to Tanzania to offer their services in the decolonization process. Among them was Joshua Mkhululi, a Jamaican Rasta with degrees in business administration from Stanford University and California State University, who migrated to Da es Salaam in 1976 to teach at the University of Dar es Salaam. Mkhululi distinguished himself in Tanzania as an educator and government advisor. His influence on Nyerere and others paved the way for the Tanzanian government to give diasporic Rastas the opportunity to migrate legally to the country. Nyerere’s pan-Africanism and commitment to the freedom of Africans everywhere also led him to provide support for the liberation struggles across southern Africa in the 1970s and 1980s (Angola, South Africa, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe). Additionally, the granting of the right of repatriation to Rastas and of land for resettlement was an outcome of Nyerere’s pan-Africanist vision.

Finally, Bedasse accents how the rabid patriarchy of Rastafari complicated the repatriation project in Tanzania. This issue is abundantly exemplified by Ras Bupe Karundi, the most significant actor in bringing about repatriation. Absorbed in his efforts to make repatriation successful, Karundi refused to work at an economically viable job that would enable him to provide for the sustenance of his wife and children. Moreover, he expected his wife Kisembo, an obviously educated and resourceful woman, to assume the role of a subordinate woman to her “kingman” even when he was not fulfilling his role as a nurturing and providing husband to his family. In an ironic way, it was Kisembo’s resourcefulness that sustained Ras Karundi so that he could continue his engagement in the repatriation work. However, her longsuffering was not unlimited. She eventually left Ras Karundi and returned to England with her children. The story of the relationship between Kisembo and Ras Karundi illustrates how repatriation, and Rastafari more generally, is complicated by an ideology of male dominance that sometimes becomes inimical to progress.

Jah Kingdom exhibits a tendency to traverse too broad a historical and cultural path in its discussion of repatriation. The most egregious example of this is the final chapter (omitting the epilogue). This whole chapter is dedicated to a discussion of C.L.R. James’s position on religion and how it differs from that of Rastafari. This is done in the context of James’s support for the repatriation project executed by Ras Karundi. However, James’s support for Karundi’s efforts had been duly established in previous chapters, and a whole chapter on James adds nothing substantial to the overall argument of the book. This critique notwithstanding, Jah Kingdom is a fine piece of scholarship that shifts the focus and enlarges the boundaries of the literature on Rastafari.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ennis B. Edmonds is Professor of Religious Studies at Kenyon College and author of Rastafari: A Very Short Introduction.

Date of Review: 
January 8, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Monique A. Bedasse is assistant professor of history and African and African American studies at Washington University in St. Louis.

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