A RASTA'S PILGRIMAGE: Ethiopian Faces and Places

by Neville Garrick

A Word of Appreciation - Professor Negussay Ayele

Sprinkled among the heap of mostly negative verbal and visual portrayal of Ethiopia in the last couple of decades, one finds a handful of refreshingly positive and elegant pictorial tomes depicting Ethiopian culture and scenery, art and religion as well as its flora and fauna. Among recent titles in this genre in the English language one can cite Footprint of Time by Tsegaye Gebre-Medhin and Alberto Tessore (1984), African Ark by Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher with Text by Graham Hancock (1990), African Zion edited by Roderick Grierson (1993), Under Ethiopian Skies edited by Graham Hancock et.al. (1997), Bless Ethiopia by Kazuyoshi Nomachi with Introduction by Richard Pankhurst (1998). These efforts are also complemented by paleoanthropological finds of millions of years old homonid fossils in Ethiopia beginning with homo Afarensis (nicknamed 'Lucy' and Dinqinesh by Ethiopians) in 1974 followed by the unearthing of homo ramidus and homo garhi within a twenty-year span in the same general vicinity. These are welcome developments which will go some way to generating a less malign perception and a more balanced representation of the land and peoples of Ethiopia.

The most recent publication, A Rasta' s Pilgrimage: Ethiopian Faces and Places (Pomegranate,1998) by Neville Garrick, elevates one's artistic appreciation of and respect for Ethiopia, its peoples and their unique history in the first instance and the beauty and power of quality photography as well. It is an elegant coffee-table size photojournal volume that should grace many a worthy home. Mr. Garrick's interest in African history in general and in Ethiopia in particular started early in his youth in Jamaica where he was taught only "his" story (i.e., European history) and nothing about "my" or "our own" story--that is to say the true history of peoples of African descent. And so, he grew up with a good deal of curiosity and eagerness to attain a proper and fuller knowledge about his ancestral manger and his ultimate destination--in other words, his alpha and omega. The author nurtured his pro-Ethiopian proclivities through independent reading and rubbing shoulders with a few Ethiopians during his university sojourn at UCLA. Upon his return to Jamaica after his college years in the U.S.A., he "fully embraced the Rastafarian faith and philosophy." His subsequent working relationship with the legendary Rasta reggae musician, Bob Marley, no doubt enhanced his own Rastafarian nirvana and commitment.

In September, 1996, Mr Garrick embarked on his idyllic pilgrimage to explore Ethiopia's "Hidden Empire" over a two-month period. He beckons his readers and viewers to his magnificent feast of gorgeous photographs accompanied by clear, crisp verbal introduction to aspects of Ethiopian history. His long-standing faith in and love for Ethiopia and Ethiopians was well rewarded and validated as he affirms at the outset:

"The hospitality and respect the people of Ethiopia showed me will be forever etched in my mind. Recently we have seen Ethiopia portrayed predominantly as a nation of poverty, famine, and civil war. Welcome to my Ethiopia, a world of welcoming people, smiling children, and a wealth of legendary history."

Mr Garrick's pilgrimage to 'New Jerusalem' has paid off handsomely in a refreshing volume depicting beautiful Ethiopian faces and majestic places. Besides his evident mastery of his craft as a photographer, his timing in terms of seasons and especially his choice of dawn, dusk (and in between) conditions of light and shade for taking the pictures is also admirable. As a result, his vivid photographs have 3-D quality to them whereby the viewer has a sense of live interactive contact with the characters in the compendium. The living colour pictures in the book are sharp, impressive and a credit to the art of photography imbued, as it were, with the seductive power of live painting.  This holds true whether the photographs represent panoramic views of landscapes or masses--say, a bird's eye view of Axum, a marketplace (the place where 'one can find everything and everyone') like Afetessa in Dire Dawa--or close-up portraits of natural beauty of Ethiopians.

The verbal descriptions in his photojournal are also straightforward, clear and vivid. His expressions are often poetic and above all, fresh and refreshing. On his journey to Lalibela (the New Jerusalem) he toured the eleven churches sculpted from rocks in situ under the direction of king Lalibela (1167-1207). In describing that occasion, Mr Garrick says that his stay at one of the churches, Bete Maryam, was all too short "to have a chance to drink up all the beauty that surrounded" him. The very title of the book, A Rasta's Pilgrimage, sets it apart from most others in its genre for several reasons. Others were not inspired by a spiritual attachment, belonging or bonding with the people, the history and the culture of Ethiopia and a burning desire to "return" to roots. But, Mr. Garrick cherished, cultivated and kept alive for a long time a dream to make a pilgrimage to the length and breadth of Ethiopia. At the end of his journey, he says, "I had finally fulfilled my lifelong dream of visiting the spiritual homeland of my ancestors. Give thanks and praises to the Most High Jah Rastafari."

If there are some folks (including Ethiopians) who find Rasta beliefs esoteric or elusive this photographic testimonial by a Rasta should go a long way to dissipate doubts and inspire better deeper understanding of what makes Rastas who they are and their perpetual "love affair' with Ethiopia and Ethiopianity. This volume is a unique and long-lasting validation of the Rasta faith and calling. As Teshome H. Gabriel of UCLA also put it in his Foreword to the book, "If the photographs that Neville has assembled have hypnotic power over your senses, you will have begun to understand what Rastafari is all about." For decades now the Rastas have defied all odds and have steadfastly hoisted high their beliefs in Jah, Ras Tafari and the efficacy of Ethiopianity. In certain respects Rasta expresssion of devotion to Ethiopia puts many indigenous Ethiopian elites to shame. When Mr Garrick went to Shashemene in southern Ethiopia, where there are some Jamaican homesteaders, he was told by one fellow Rastaman there that the Erstwhile military ruler, Mengistu Haile Mariam, had said on radio that "Jamaican Rastas were more Ethiopian than native Ethiopians, because they were coming to Ethiopia while the Ethiopians were fleeing the country."

To be sure, the author does not claim to present an authoritative history of Ethiopia in this book, but he shows the reader how well-read he was about Ethiopia long before he set foot in it and how well he could blend his commentaries with his visual images in the book. Here then is a beautiful work in which the heart, the body, the mind and the spirit are all on the same page which makes the book all the more remarkable. The whole work is a display of love, devotion, purpose and the will and ability to express it in an integrated and pleasant fashion. It is done by one who tells the reader and viewer that he has had "a love affair with Ethiopian history for some time." On the other hand, more often than not the authors of the texts and the photographers were different persons in the worthy volumes mentioned at the beginning of this essay. And, though one may have preferred not to mention it, there is yet another factor that sets this volume apart from others in its class. For nearly half a millenium now, colour

consciousness has been imposed on "coloured" peoples by the "colourless" but dominant segment of humanity. Accordingly, it must also be noted that, to my knowledge, this is the first book of its kind on Ethiopia to have been published by a black man. In the event, it is not just the first in this regard but also one of the best in its category.

A Rasta's Pilgrimage is not a manual of Rasta faith and philosophy in so many words, but it is a wholesome and welcome manifestation of Rasta-in-Action. Rastaman Garrick has put his art, his energy and his resources where his belief is. He is showing the world in the best possible way what Rastafarian love and faith in Ethiopia and Ethiopianity is all about. He is taking the reader and viewer of his wonderful photojournal or picture diary, to realms that lie beyond familiar external Rasta manifestations--the Ethiopian/African tricolour (green, yellow and red) capes and shawls, the reggae beat and lyrics, the dreadlocks and ganjas, the pins and potions, the fragrances and libation.... During his explorations of the magnificent rock-hewn churches of Lalibela the author noted: "As a Rastafarian proud of Africa's greatness, standing here in Lalibela was a testimony to the truth of our contribution to world cultural history that is often forgotten in the west." Rastaman Garrick also distinguishes himself in another respect. He concluded his Rastafarian pilgrimage with a rare visit to Ejersa Goro in Harerge--the birthplace (betheleheim) of Emperor Haile Sellassie. He did not locate any elaborate shrine, but he found a Church there in which he observed a painting of a "Black Madonna holding the Black Christ with Joseph wearing dreadlocks." One may note--en passant—here that Mr Garrick's dreadlocks then, which gave him a hermit disposition,were most likely an added asset during his visit to Ethiopia.

The author has traversed hundreds of miles of well-travelled and Less travelled roads of Ethiopia in the course of producing A Rasta's Pilgrimage. The resulting photojournal represents a cross-section of Ethiopian faces and places in and through Addis Ababa, Addis Alem, Ankober, Dire Dawa, Harer, Ejersa Goro, Shashemene, Awasa in the south and Lalibela, Bahir Dar,the Black (Blue) Nile Falls at Tissesat, Gondar, and Axum in the north. The trinity of Mr Garrick's Rastafarian belief system are indicated in his choice of three inspiring axioms included in the book,

H.I.M. Haile Selassie I: "From truth alone is born liberty, and only an educated people can consider itself as really free and a master of its fate. It is only with an educated people that representative and democratic organs of government can exercise their influence for national progress."

Marcus Garvey: "A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots."

Bob Marley: "Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery; None but ourselves can free our minds."

There are two phrases the author repeats throughout the book. One is an affirmation that he has--"with Jah's help"--fulfilled his lifelong dream of making the pilgrimage to Ethiopia.The other is that he looks forward--"with Jah's help"--to make Ethiopia his home some day soon. Considering the smashing success he has had in fulfilling his first dream, one does not doubt that he will also attain his next one. Apropos to the Ethiopian saying that "the eye sees but it is the heart that observes and directs attention to what is seen," Mr Garrick shows in the book at hand the true meaning of seeing not only with the eyes and /or the camera lens but with the heart.

In fine, A Rasta's Pilgrimage is a tribute to Ethiopia, a credit to Rastafarians and a precious gift to all who value beauty of photography. To be sure, the book is a mainstream book whose target audience includes all shades of human colour who have a cultured and abiding appreciation for artistic beauty and for quality photo diary. It is a sumptuous book that should grace homes, schools, university and public libraries, offices, travel and tourist centers... A word of appreciation is due to the author for graciously sharing his labor of love through his superb art form.