The Rasta Man
EVA had drawn and sketched for as long as she could remember - on anything near to hand, Endless family quarrels had arisen over tables ruined by etchings. Important papers had been kidnapped in the service of art. Piles of tattered sketch pads filled corners of rooms.
She often felt seized by overwhelming emotion which could only be eased through covering paper with shapes and lines.
Island scenes dominated her drawings. Gently rolling flatlands and valleys melted into sandy beaches and aquamarine sea, Barbados’ beauty - unlike the rugged charm of Dominica, St Lucia and Jamaica - was gentle, restrained: pale green nestled against earth-brown clay and the bleached limestone cliffs of the Scotland district. The Barbadian landscape, like its people, was orderly, reserved, still, Eva’s nature felt curbed; she longed to rebel against a prim and proper upbringing.
Her mother accused her of being too high-strung. Eva herself felt that she was possessed by something that needed to be calmed, She wanted space. To explore, Her parents were the solid bar across high-jump poles. Each of her scholarly achievements set their sights up another few notches, She was expected to clear the bar with flying colours,,,
She idly thought of this as she watched the university football match, Her eyes wandered over the other student spectators, and were caught by the long heavy locks of a tall, slim Rasta man who stood just beside her.
Her genteel background was one of piano lessons, country hikes and weekend beach cottages. She was cocooned by quiet living rooms inhabited by dark mahogany furniture and fresh-cut flowers. She wanted to smash the picture-book serenity, Her suppressed rebelliousness flared at the sight of the Rasta man who hinted at a new world.
It was only in the last seven or eight years that the Rastafarians had spread their doctrine in Barbados. Begun as a movement of poor, black unemployed Jamaicans in the 1930’s, their reputation had been doomed because of their ritual use of marijuana, They wore their hair long and uncombed, because the Rastafarian code condemned any sharp instrument used in the desecration of man. Though the movement had since been joined by intellectuals and students it was still regarded by the establishment as a movement of the slums,
Eva was fascinated by this Rasta, as he turned to look at her. His face was clean of hair, and his steady brown eyes sucked in her gaze, giving little back.
Weeks after, they walked down the university hill to his house - a cottage tucked away behind the breadfruit trees. A Rasta man sat on the porch playing drums and chanting to himself. She recognised the traditional Rasta beat: two heavy down-beats followed by silence, The down-beats sounded the death of oppressive society - and in a group session - would be answered by a lighter upbeat signifying the liberation through the power of Ras Tafari.
Ras I-lan introduced her to the drummer, Brother Ras, as Daughter Eva, Brother Ras continued drumming, only interrupting his chant long enough to say ‘Hail. Queen!’, Inside the house there were four other locks-men who gave her the same greeting as they carried on sifting through marijuana, rolling long spliffs and lighting a huge pipe of grass - the chalice, Ras I-lan took her to a seat against the wall before he joined the other brethren in a rough circle in the middle of the room, When he sat down, the chalice, now lit, was held up and blessed with a prayer.
There was a gentleness in the men, an unhurried ritualistic drone of scriptural passages as they each took the chalice, inhaled, and passed it on. Eva felt a strange peace. She closed her eyes. The drumming continued, accompanied by a wooden flute which Ras I-lan played: a candle-lit cottage of six locksmen speaking a strange language and she felt safer and calmer than if she was in her own home. It was a religion which demanded submission. Having submitted, one then waited patiently for divine guidance,
The Rastafarian religion celebrates the dignity and beauty of the black man - and his superiority. Rastafarians believe that the black man will one day rule the earth. Their religion is an ongoing preparation for this event, So a life of purity, love and peace is followed, The Rastas stress a return to all that is natural and of the earth and therefore of God. Hence their vegetarian diets, the holy herb, condemnation of any form of contraception, Any person, institution or force that comes between man and his purity is Babylon. The entire white world is Babylon. Ras I-lan took her through all the beliefs at her request. But she would never be called upon to join in the religious discussions, It was a movement of men.
Her father expressed his anger and contempt in daily bursts:
‘We gave you more than any child could ever want, The best school, the best social circles. Who would believe that you could be brainwashed by a pack of degenerate dirty thieves and liars!’
‘Don’t "But Dad" me. I don’t like it. If they didn’t have you doped up, you wouldn’t like it either, You don’t belong with those people. You have nothing in common. They can’t even speak English. I don’t give a damn about all this equality nonsense, You are not in their class, And by the time you realise it, no respectable man will want to come near you. A university student running behind a wild boy.
These episodes always ended with threats to call the police, Eva would come upon her mother too, at odd moments, bracing herself against the sink or leaning against the fridge, crying, These kinds of confrontation continued but she could not get inside their sorrow, she was not going to stop now. She had to probe deeper to find where the new peace took her.
Her Rasta faith coloured in the grey areas of black history not explored in the text books, Africa became a real presence that waited for her children to return. She now had her own black God – Selassi:
‘Princess shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall son stretch forth her unto God.’
These days she did not get the feeling of being choked by an energy which needed release. She went to her university lectures as usual during the day, But the frenetic urge to draw had receded, Now she spent the evenings making handicrafts, sculpting figures from wood and clay with the other Rasta women who sold them in their craft market,
The Rasta doctrine and the discipline it called for defined her world. She went to the sisters and brothers for answers, reassurance. She reasoned with them on matters that she would never think to bring up with her parents, whose world seemed materialistic and shallow. Theirs was a world which held the black in exile.
The relationship with her father was now one of closed silence, He took to withdrawing to his room on the few occasions that she went back to their home, Her mother felt comforted by the fact that at least Eva was not pregnant. Family friends simply put down her behaviour as indicative of a rebellious artistic temperament which was only experimenting with the rougher side of life. They assured her parents that it was temporary.
She was now a permanent part of Ras I-lan’s household, Over the months the brethren had withdrawn to the spare bedroom and the back porch, giving her privacy to get on with class papers and talk to Ras I-lan, When she washed her hair he picked out the sticky, green-pulp of the cacti plant that clung stubbornly to the hair even after its thick, cleansing lather had been rinsed out.
It seemed liked decades ago when she had used the cactus plant for the first time. She was at her parent’s house. Her mother had walked into her room just as she was unwrapping the turban which she was never seen without. She had continued unwrapping the long length of cloth from her head, freeing her hair, when she was caught by a strange sound, As she looked up, the dressing-table mirror reflected her mother’s face contorted in grief and partly hidden by the thick mass of tight black locks which crowned Eva’s head.
By Shaun Perry, a free-lance journalist from the Caribbean.
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