rasta feminism

November 17, 2009 § 1 Comment











great article on rastafari and third world feminism.  the incredible historical connections between the nyabingi movement in uganda, the mau mau, ethiopia, caribean rastafari, and the greenbelt movement.  a history of the power of african women fighting for personal, communal, and national liberations.



Rastafari is not being treated here as a millenarian or religion phenomenon [Bakan 1990:16, Campbell 1987] but rather as wayof life which emerged when peasants were faced with land seizures and forced into cities, especially in Jamaica in the period since 1930, but also in Africa since the turn of the century. Today rasta is the expression of indigenous people fighting for their rights. It is a global cultural practice, an expression in particular of black people and especially of black women…

New Rastafari came from the old male-identified Rastafari and its antecedents in the jubilee of emancipation from slavery. It came from radical religious movements in Jamaica in the 1800s, from Ethiopianism, Garveyism, pan-Africanism, struggles of ‘the sufferers,’ and from nationalist insurgency in Africa and Caribbean. It has emerged both from and against these antecedents. The new Rastafari has come from a global fightback against IMF and World Bank structural adjustment programs (SAP) especially by women because SAP hits women so hard [Antrobus 1989:26]. It has come from media globalism and the music so purveyed, from international feminisms, including the excavation of the history of women’s militancy and centrality to each phase of capitalist expansion and the struggles characteristic of that phase [Mohanty et al 1991]. In sum, new forces have adapted and transformed Rastafari into a still more potent world movement.


The Nyabingi movement, influential in southwestern Uganda from 1850 to 1950, was centred around a woman healer, Muhumusa, who was possessed by the spirit of Nyabingi, a legendary “Amazon Queen.” Muhumusa organized armed resistance against German colonialists and subsequently detained by the British in Kampala, Uganda from 1913 to her death in 1945. The spirit of Nyabingi possessed mostly women, but also men, who led uprisings against the British in 1916, 1919 and 1928 among the Kiga in Kigezi, along Uganda’s borders with Congo and Ruanda. British occupation involved imposing foreign
African Ganda intermediaries on the egalitarian, patrilocal Kiga agriculturalists. The Ganda’s exactions of land, labour, food and money for poll tax galvanized the Nyabingi movement to rebel both against European and Ganda men and win major concessions. Nyabingi was a woman-led movement against oppression of all the community but  specifically of women who did the farming and food preparation and hence were directly affected by colonial demands.


Jamaica’s leftist paper Plain Talk, in February 1937, printed an article which claimed that “the blacks are flocking to the standard of an organisation which dwarfs all similar federations.” The organization was ‘Nya-Binghi,’led by Emperor Haile Selassi [Post 1978: 173].” Thereafter some Rasta began to call themselves Nyabingi or ‘Nya-men,’ while Rasta forums of solidarity and the drums played at them were also called Nyabingi [Campbell 1987:160].  Jamaican rasta may have believed that the spirit of Nyabingi possessed Selassi and strengthened his fight against the Babylon of Mussolini’s fascism. But the women-centred character of Nyabingi in East Africa was lost in the transfer.


There was a resurgence of rastafari in the 1950s with the bauxite enclosures. After the war US and Canadian capital eclipsed British capital. Alcan, Reynolds, Kaiser Bauxite, Alpart, Revere and Alcoa made Jamaica the world’s largest producer of bauxite. The bauxite industry displaced thousands from rural areas and intensified unemployment. “Most of the land was purchased from small farmers, to the point where the activities of the transnationals displaced 560,000 rural Jamaicans from the countryside between 1943 and 1970 [NACLA Jan-Feb. 1981:2-8 cited in Campbell 1987:86]. Some 163,000 Jamaicans
migrated to the UK and an equal number to the US and Canada between 1950 and 1968. While men went from the Caribbean abroad, women went from the countryside to the city. Jamaican rural women brought the core ideas of Rastafari with them to the urban slums. The rasta upsurge, in addition to being a grassroots male class expression, was a women’s rural survival network built on the organizations of Ethiopianism, Bedward and Garvey. The beginnings of the new Rastafari was a woman-identified, revolutionary peasant ideology shaped to serve new urban demands.

In the 1953 Kenya’s Mau Mau revolt was covered in the world media with newsreels showing dreadlocked forest fighters. Jamaican rasta adopted dreadlocks.


Mau Mau started in 1948 when women at Olenguruone agricultural settlement scheme went on strike. African women refused to participate in this terracing of the land to prevent erosion unless they first received title to the land. Their strike galvanized urban support from unions. Colonial reactions included repression which escalated until in 1952 the British imposed a state of emergency and launched the anti-Mau Mau war.

Women fought for land in many capacities within Mau Mau. Freedom fighters in the forests included women. Invariably a woman ‘Seer’ of the future worked directly with platoon commanders. Kimathi, the forest fighters’ general, recommended the admission of literate women into the forest fighting force. Other women joined Mau Mau fighters to avoid being sold off by their fathers as wives to pro-British ‘homeguards’ or ‘loyalists.’ Women in squatter villages on European estates provided intelligence, runners, food, refuge, medical supplies and care, and at crucial seasons, refused to pick tea and coffee. Similarly women on the ‘native reserves’ were an integral part of the Mau Mau military wing. In the cities prostitutes used their establishments as safe houses, and provided the Mau Mau Land and Freedom Army with money, intelligence and arms. Women traders used the railroad and markets as networks of communication. The British, recognizing that success in counterinsurgency depended on cutting the link between villages and forest fighters,
razed hundreds of communities and imprisoned women with their children in concentration camps. In Githunguri, the most repressive prison, women were divided into four categories depending on their degree of defiance. Most militant were the ‘hardcore’ women who were detailed to bury the bodies of freedom fighters hung by the British. Women in concentration camps were pressed into forced labour gangs.


In the face of this tremendous defeat, Mau Mau women went underground. They kept alive their knowledge, networks and claim to the commons through indigenous women’s groups, story telling and songs [Macgoye 1986, 1987]. Women persisted throughout the 1960s in seizing land, especially from farms formerly owned by white settlers. As landlessness increased, poor women were unable to find husbands through whom they could get access to land, and they migrated to the cities to work as domestics and within the expanding ‘unrecorded economy.’ Through selling food, domestic services, sex, changa (alcohol) and
ganga the Mau Mau women bided their time and struggled to educate their children.


The Greenbelt Movement is an internationalist, grassroots network of women which includes people described here as the new rastafari. It brings together women in several African countries not only to plant trees but to defend the land on which they grow. Led by Kenyan physicist and feminist, Wangari Mathai, the movement carries forward the ecology politics of Olengurone women who insisted on title to land before they would reclaim it. Direct action such as uprooting coffee trees, combines with a compelling spiritualist philosophy to make the Greenbelt Movement a vehicle for women’s defence of the environment and their rights to resources. As such it constitutes one of the more startling responses to the dislocations of SAP.


The new rasta of East Africa consists of dozens of autonomous groups which above all provide for survival. They combine study, artistic creation, childcare, economic activities, community service and politics. These are part of a larger and older rasta network with links to London, Lagos, Caribbean and elsewhere. In Nairobi feminist rasta women work as maids, vegetable sellers, traders, seamstresses and prostitutes. They are influenced by Christianity, the indigenous Kikuyu religion and many strands of spiritualism. Political reggae is of central importance. Marley’s lyrics and those of other artists are studied carefully in Saturday afternoon ‘reasonings’ in slum yards. Marley’s teachings are virtual primers for those seeking to develop their capacity to speak English. While extreme repression prevents the display of any rasta symbolism or the Garveyite colours of red, gold and green; phrases such as “beat down babylon ghetto child,” may be seen traced in the dust on a city bus.


the new rasta includes detailed philosophies and practices founded in the defense of land, markets and women’s autonomy.



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