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Ethiopia, stretch forth thy hand!

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by Camillo M. Gonsalves

It may be the altitude. It may be the enormity of the event. But landing in Ethiopia leaves you breathless. In becoming the first Caribbean nation to send a Prime Minister to the cradle of civilisation, and the first one to abolish the need for visas to travel there, St. Vincent and the Grenadines made history. But the voyage of the Prime Minister and his Rastafarian delegates was much more than a trip of expert diplomacy and historic “firsts” – it was a monumental triumph for a once-maligned faith and the once-oppressed people of the Diaspora.{{more}}

When the followers of Marcus Garvey heeded his call to “look to the East, for the crowning of a Black king,” they witnessed what they believed to be the fulfillment of prophecy: A young Ethiopian prince, Ras Tafari Makonnen, was crowned in a grand ceremony, and took for himself the name Haile Selassie I (Might of the Trinity), Elect of God, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, and Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah. That coronation sparked the birth of the Rastafarian faith, first in Jamaica, then throughout the Caribbean civilisation and worldwide. Quite apart from the religious beliefs of Rastafarianism, the Rasta philosophy of revolutionary pan-Africanism, self-reliance, community strength and positive self-image have influenced succeeding generations of Caribbean youth. In fact, as the immortal Black Stalin points out in his seminal piece, “Caribbean Unity,” Rastafarian philosophy has often done more to integrate this Caribbean civilisation than the bumbling efforts of our politicians:

The Federation done dead

And CARIFTA gone to bed

But the cult of the Rastafarian

Spreading through the Caribbean

It have Rastas now in Grenada,

It have Rastas now in St. Lucia

But to run CARIFTA,

Yes you gettin’ pressure

If the Rastafari movement spreading,

And CARIFTA dying slow

Then it’s something them Rastas on,

That them politicians don’t know.

That is: One Race. From the same place.

That mek the same trip. On the same ship.

So we must push one common intention

For a better life in the region

For we woman, and we children

That must be the ambition of the Caribbean Man.

Thus, the fact that the first Caribbean head of state traveling to Ethiopia took with him four Rastafarians was appropriate – not just for the enormous religious significance to the members of that faith – but as an apt acknowledgement of Rastas’ role as the tip of the pan-Africanist spear that unapologetically linked the Caribbean to the African continent. Even Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi recognized this fact, and specifically thanked Rastafarians in a joint communiqué for their long-standing support of his country.

But the visit went beyond its obvious significance to Rastafarians. The trip to Ethiopia was a triumphant journey by the descendants of Africans displaced by the horrors of slavery. This long-overdue reconnection with Africa is of incalculable significance to the Vincentian national identity. As Michael Manley once said, “the search by the Jamaican people for a sense of identity and self-worth would never be complete until the Middle Passage had been crossed the other way to the discovery of all that part of our heritage which is African.” The same is true for all other Caribbean peoples. The Vincentian delegation of politicians and ordinary citizens returned to Africa as free men, with their heads held high – something that the savage enslavers, colonizers and imperialists of yesteryear could never have anticipated. The Middle Passage was emphatically thrust into reverse, and the Vincentian delegation stepped first into London – a chief architect of the slave trade – and then traveled to Rome – slavery’s greatest religious apologist – before setting foot in the birthplace of mankind and heart of the African continent. The obvious symbolic power of that path back home cannot be overstated.

The political significance of this voyage to all Vincentians is also immense, but not in the small-minded, election-obsessed manner that has typified our discourse as of late. And the significance goes beyond the profound implications of waived visas, honorary counsuls and strengthened diplomatic ties. Whether by accident or design, the Vincentian delegation landed in Ethiopia on the eve of the anniversary of St. Vincent’s independence. Ethiopia, as any Rastafarian will tell you, was never successfully colonized by the Europeans, and is the only nation in Africa that remained independent throughout the slave trade and the greedy colonial scramble for the continent’s resources. As we reflect upon our own political independence, it is important to consider the struggles of what was once Africa’s only free nation. For those who seemingly long to revisit the cool embrace of colonial shackles and place St. Vincent’s interests as secondary to the concerns of their presumed imperialist masters, Ethiopia stands as a shining reminder that the nobility of a civilisation and the strength of a people is not derived from subservience and fear, but from bold action, strong will, and an unshakeable belief in the power of self-determination.

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