The Bobo Dread of Jamaica

Aleta Fimbres 11/01/2009

“As a spiritual philosophy, Rastafarianism is linked to societies of runaway slaves, or maroons, and derives from both the African Myal religion and the Revivalist Zion Churches. Like the revival movement, it embraces the four hundred year old doctrine of repatriation.

damien dunmoreRastas believe that they and all Africans who have migrated are but exiles in “Babylon” and are destined to be delivered out of captivity by a return to Zion or Africa – the land of their ancestors and the sear of Jah Rastafari himself, Haile Selassie I, the former emperor of Ethiopia.”

In this beautiful play on words, Joe Ruglass, the poet, folk-song composer, and flutist who has for years played with the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari, begins his poem that expresses the Rastafari rejection of Jamaica as a homeland and their yearnings for repatriation.

The Rastafari, ever since the movement’s rise in the early 1930s, have held to the belief that they and all Africans in the Diaspora are but exiles in ‘Babylon,’ destined to be delivered out of captivity by a return to ‘Zion,’ that is, Africa, the land of our ancestors, or Ethiopia, the sear of Jah, Ras Tafari himself, Emperor Haile Selassie’s pre coronation name. Repatriation is one of the corner-stones of Rastafari belief.

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The fact that the majority of Jamaicans, including most of those who migrate, regard Jamaica as their home might make the position of Joe Ruglass and the other tens of thousands of the Rastafari seem very sectarian. The truth is, however, that the doctrine of repatriation is kindred to a lineage of ideas and forms of action four hundred years old.

They arose first in response to European slavery and then, following emancipation, in response to the system of social, cultural, and economic oppression on which modern Jamaica was built.

Of all the contemporary autonomous groups that together make up what we know as the Rastafari movement, the Bobo exhibit the highest intensity of Revivalism. They are Dreadlocks, but unlike other Dreadlocks.

Most Bobo live together in a commune, organized in the tradition of Howell, and circumscribed by rituals. Outwardly, their separation from the rest of the Dreadlocks is marked by the wearing of tightly wrapped turbans, sometimes long, flowing black or white robes, and attractively handmade sandais. Even their form of greeting is different from that of other Dreadlocks.

The Bobo strike a compromise with the existing society by accentuating respect for certain values flaunted by the Dreadlocks in the Youth Black Faith tradition. All the aggressiveness characteristic of the Dreadlocks is alien to the Bobo, who go out of their way to cultivate excellent relations with their surrounding community.


Nine miles to the east of Kingston in Bull Bay live the Bobo in a small utopian community. The community is situated on a hillside, below a small promontory. The sight it presents a mile from the main road justifiably merits the name the Bobo give it, “City on a Hill.”

Large buildings are painted in red, gold, and green colors and bordered by flags flying. From the commune itself the view out to sea is a beautiful one: a vast, receding expanse of water with slightly changing colors moving away from two hills, on either side of the commune. To reach the commune, one travels between a river bed on the left, and on the right a series of settlements, one or two of them under government sponsorship.

Farther up the road, where the gradient suddenly steepens, and immediately below the Bobo, are squatters whose numbers steadily increase day after day. The Bobo themselves are squatters on the vast crown lands.

The compound is entered through an arched gateway under which every Bobo, on leaving and entering utters a prayer, sometimes in his heart, sometimes aloud. Above the arch in bold characters is painted the name Ethiopian International Congress.

On the gate itself is written a warning against bringing weapons of violence into the compound. Inside, and to the right, stands the guardhouse where all material things, such as knives and guns and money are deposited. Then in a very steep ascent one passes the house of Queen Rachel, the young and beautiful wife of Prince Emmanuel, and her four-year-old son Jesus.

Directly above her on a terrace is the temple, and stretching out from it the large spacious dwelling house of Prince Emmanuel Edwards, or Dada, as he is called by the Bobo.

Next up the hill lie the kitchen and generating plant on the right and the storeroom on the left. Where the slope becomes gentle, beside the kitchen, is the meeting yard where all services are conducted except on Sabbaths and days of fast. On the edge of the meeting yard is the guest hut, a small circular shed with a table and several benches. A towel hangs from one of its posts.

In front of it is raised a basin of water above a patch of basil mint. This gives the distinct impression of being a Revival seal, or sacred spot. No one uses the basin of water or towel, neither Bobo nor guests. The last structure on the right of the path is a sick bay where the women seeing their menses are confined until their two weeks of defilement (calculated by adding twelve days to the duration of the menstrual flow) are over.

The other structures throughout the compound are houses. With the exception of the houses and other buildings, the entire compound is a fairly extensive field of gungu peas, covering more than half of the compound’s two hectares.

There are no other cultivated plants, but during the rainy season calalu is planted. Gungu peas are rich in protein, and do not require much watering.

Over the temple fly four flags: a black, red, and green flag with seven stars, representing the state; a red, gold and, green flag with seven stars, representing the church that rules the earth, “as every traffic light show you”; a blue and white flag, representing the United Nations; and a green and white flag with seven stars and the word NIGERIA written across it, representing Nigeria.

Prince Emmanuel emerged as a Rastafari leader during the 1950s by spearheading an island wide convention of the brethren at Ackee Walk where his camp was first set up. At the end of the week-long meeting, the participants marched on Victoria Park and there planted the red, gold, and green flag in a symbolic capture of the ciao.

The convention was to deal with the question of repatriation, and when this had been announced, many of those people who came in from the country had allegedly done so expecting to depart for Africa. Following the convention, Prince’s followers became more sectarian. They began to attribute divinity to him and separated themselves from other Rastafarians by wearing the turbans and the robes.

The Bobo remained at Ackee Walk until 1968 when they were finally bulldozed. They then settled at Harris Street in Rose Town, were again forced out to Eighth Street in Trench Town, then to Ninth Street, and finally, to Bull Bay where they have remained ever since on the rocky government lands overlooking the town.

Because they regarded Prince Emmanuel as God, they believed each of their stopping places to have been recorded in the Bible. Ackee Walk was Nazareth, where Jesus came from; Harris Street was Galilee, where Jesus went after leaving his native home; Eighth Street, Capernaum; and Ninth Street, Bethlehem, for it was there that Jesus, Queen Rachel’s son, was born.

The settlement in Bull Bay they named Mount Temon, where God is supposed to have come from, according to a passage from Genesis.

The compound is organized simply: at the head is Prince Emmanuel, or Jesus himself, and beneath him his followers. Generally speaking, all male Bobo are either “prophets” or “priests. ” The function of prophets is to reason, the function of priests to “move around the altar,” that is, to conduct the services.

Apart from these rules are the other social functions that keep the camp going: a guard at the gate to ensure the ritual purity of all visitors who enter, the keeper of the stores, the cooks, the manager of the Delco plant, and the comptroller whose main task is to purchase supplies. Finally come the women and the children whose places are subordinate to those of the men.

Photo of Damien Dunmore by Jeffree Benet. To read the rest of this article, check out One World Magazine.

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