Life in the Boboshanti Camp
A modern-day commune in St Andrew
By Ann Margaret Lim Observer Staff Reporter
Tuesday, June 01, 2004
The entrance of Bobo Hill
Bobo Hill, tucked into the folds of the Nine Mile hilly region of Bull Bay, St Andrew, is exactly 10 miles away from Kingston's hub but worlds apart from even the neighbouring tenement yard, which at once belches reggae and soul music.
The rustic Boboshanti camp, striped with red, green and black, and red, green and gold, has the basic life amenities, minus the trappings of metropolitan living. There is no running water, electricity is had from a generator, and no television sets or fans are visible. In fact, on the day we visited the camp, the generator was out and lamps were used in the dark. Even the camp's terrain is rugged by design. This, the Boboshantis insist is part of their preparation for African repatriation.
The houses, which are wooden structures, are bigger than the one-room dwellings typical of tenements and usually house one person and although women and men join unions there, they do not live together. The men's quarters are separate from the women's. In fact, spouses actually only visually and physically communicate seven days out of the month. But more of this momentarily.
Salutations of the "blessed love, honourable priest, empress, princess or prophet" underscores their respect for each other, and introduce the hierarchial structure and apparent rigidness to the uninitiated. The man just entering the Boboshanti order is referred to as prophet but as his knowledge and years in the order expands, he becomes acting priest, then leading priest, then apostle, disciple and elder. The woman enters as a princess and then becomes an empress.
Bobos in the gateway
AAll heads are covered. Men wear turbans and women the black Mary fall. This is fitted differently from the man's wrapped style and resembles the head gear of nuns. According to a male Bobo, apparently in his mid-20s, the covered head separates them from other Rastas. "The leggo locks people don't keep many principles. They curse bad words and sing about under woman, but true Boboshantis instead of using those words would say judgment and brimstone," he says.
Priest Bobby, however, explains it thus: "The turban is a cloth crown, but time will come when we wear the gold crown representing our Alpha and Omega royalty."
Even the camp's terrain is rugged by design
The women also wear flowing skirts and tops. The men who prefer to be photographed in their capes are more casual in their abodes, but often wear capes and gown-like garments in public. "We have to go to Ethiopia, with a knowledge of the culture, so we practise it here," said one of the priests during one of the Nyahbinghi services to which SunDay was invited.
Like the Ethiopian Orthodox Church services, women sit on the right and men on the left during the service, which lasts for an entire night and includes teachings, chanting and drumming.
This separation of male and female is a constant throughout the camp. Not only are adult males and females kept apart, but so too are children from age seven up. "The boys are grown by the men and the girls by the women," explains Empress Sharon, who teaches the three to six year-old youngsters in her abode, before they are sent off to regular school.
This introduces the Queen Omega principle, which according to 50 year-old Empress Mazie, mother of nine, who has been with her husband for over 30 years, and a Boboshanti since age 23, promotes a healthy spousal relationship. "You have very little time to fuss, because you only have seven 'free' days to see each other. When I just moved into the camp, I didn't know how I would do it, since I was previously living with my king man before. But I got used to it and we had four more children since living here," she says. She also dispelled the perception that Bobo Hill men had numerous women. "It is one man to one woman. If they no longer see eye to eye then they live alone, but we don't teach multiple partners."
62 year-old Mama Julian
Mama Julie further explains the Queen Omega principle. "During her 'pollution', the empress goes into the journeying house for 21 days (7 days before, 7 days during and 7 days after). During this time a red flag tells us that she's unclean. When the 21 days are up she puts up a white flag signalling that she is now free. The children mostly girls and the boys under seven, stay with her, but the older boys stay with the men. During this time, she's unclean so she cannot fast or read the Bible and only prays three times a day. We don't use diapers (sanitary napkins), but the terrycloth, which is washed. During this time the 'polluted' woman can't cook for or mix with the men. They are not spoken to during this time and communication is through notes or handclaps. They clap when they want something and women who no longer have issues (menstruation) will attend to them." Mama Julie also said that this was a form of family planning since they don't practise birth control.
"But we are not kept in a cell or prison as people say," protests Empress Sharon, who then gives a fringe tour of the journeying house section of the camp. A zinc fence separates this section from the other visible board structures.
Empress Mazie also explains that this principle also holds for a woman who just gave birth. "Following Leviticus 15, the woman who just had a baby cannot speak to others until two months after if it's a boy child and threee months if it's a girl (because she bleeds). After that period she is free."
Items made in the camp
And so before entering the camp, the reporter had to be declared 'free', with the calendar checking of her cycle.
Interestingly enough, when asked if she has any children, 62 year-old Mama Julie said 'not yet'. "Once you have a womb, you can still have children. Sarah had her first child in her 90s and we are the same people that you read about in the Bible," she explains.
This introduces one of the Boboshantis' belief, which is that of reincarnation and perpetual life. "We were all here before and are ever living," explains priest Bobby, who like Mama Julian and priests Leroy and Harold were amongst the earlier bobos bulldozed from Backawall or Ackee Walk in West Kingston around 1968.
The camp, now in the midst of its African Liberation Week celebrations, has approximately 100 residents, and a daily routine of morning devotion and roll call and three reading, of Psalms and chanting - morning, mid-morning to noon and evening.
"This week we celebrate the 1834 Great Liberation. The first rebellion came May 24, 1834 when the slaves heard that Queen Victoria declared them free but the planter masters kept it hidden and so they rebelled and stopped working, but they didn't get full freedom until 1838. So to mark the week we have a week-long nightly Nyahbinghi and the public is welcome," explains priest Harold.
As part of their attempts at self-sufficiency, the Bobos grow most of their own food, buying only counter goods such as wheat flour, brown rice and sugar. They also knit bags, belts, print T-shirts, make leather sandals and shoes, weave mats and make and sell their signature brooms.
And believe it or not, they all insists that reggae music is heathenistic. "We deal with Nyahbinghi, which is the natural heartbeat, anything else does not rrepresent bobo, so those with their turbans, not chanting on the binghi rhythm and using dancehall and reggae is not one of us," declares priest Kassa, who along with five others record what they term "bobo shanty music of the Nyahbinghi order". The elders gathered in the gateway, all nodded their heads and insisted that even the reggae ambassador Bob Marley was a heathen.
The Boboshantis are a deeply religious and ritualistic group, who pray when entering and leaving the gateway, (a room adjoining their devotional grounds) and again when entering and leaving the devotional grounds. They chant at least six prayers each day. Outside of their daily morning roll call, every visitor or movement seems recorded by the guard on duty in the gateway.