Short Fiction – Bongo Benny

 

By Fern I. White

In the 1920s, Marcus Garvey founder of the United Negro Improvement Association, preached black pride;  “Africa for Africans” and sought to found a black state in Africa to which blacks all over the Western world would be transported.  Garvey’s words were held in high esteem by the masses.  He foretold that a King would be crowned in Africa; “Look to Africa, when a black king shall be crowned, for the day of deliverance is near,” said Garvey.

 

On November 2, 1930 Ras Tafari was crowned as the Emperor Haile Sellassie, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah.  News of his coronation was carried in the Daily Gleaner newspaper.   A few Jamaicans who had heard Garvey preach consulted their Bibles to see whether or not this was the King about which he spoke.  They cite a number of biblical texts to prove their point, one of the strongest being Revelation 5: 2-5

 

2 And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, who is worthy to open the book, and to loose the seals thereof? 3 And no man in heaven, nor in earth, neither under the earth, was able to open the book, neither to look thereon.4 And I wept much, because no man was found worthy to open and to read the book, neither to look thereon.5 And one of the elders saith unto me, Weep not: behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, hath prevailed to open the book, and to loose the seven seals thereof.

 

The idea that Haile Sellassie I is the living God was developed by several people independent of each other. However Leonard P. Howell is regarded by historians as the first to preach of the divinity of Rastafari (Smith).

 

This story is about Benjamin “Bongo Benny’ Ritchie-Haughton’s discovery of the “truth” and the subsequent reaction of his family and community as he became a Rastafarian.

 

Marion

Marion lived with her aunt, Myra, in a little shanty town called Grants Pen Gully.  The community ran alongside a man-made gully which carried water from the suburbs of upper St. Andrew into the Kingston Harbor.  The area housed about 3000 people and was dubbed Gully by those who lived there in abject poverty and even by those who lived close by and viewed Gully’s residents with disdain. 

 

In Gully, wooden bungalows occupied leased plots on either side of extremely narrow lanes.  Each house was protected by fences made from discarded pieces of aluminum roofing and metal drums, opened and hammered flat.  Wooden poles driven into the earth criss-crossing each other supported the makeshift fencing.  Gully’s households were headed by mostly single mothers who were unemployed or underemployed.  The women, poor but proud, worked as domestics for wealthy families in nearby high-brow communities of Arcadia, Barbican, Cherry Gardens, Norbrook and Stony Hill.  Marion’s aunt worked as a house-keeper for Professor Trevor Turner, who taught at the Norman Manley Law School

 

Marion has been living in “Gully” since she was two years old when her mother packed all her measly belongings in an orange leatherette bag and took her via train into Kingston. She did not remember much about her five-hour journey from St. Elizabeth to Kingston, but 30 years later still remembered the moment when she realized that her mother was leaving her — for good.  Two pairs of hands came out of nowhere to hold her back as she ran after her mother.  Feral screams erupted from her belly as she flailed her arms kicked and screamed for mother

 

Marion cried for hours, but later as sheer exhaustion took her body, she became aware of her aunt rocking her back and forth and singing.  Her comforting voice, humming a lullaby, soothed her spirit.  Marion fell asleep like that, and continued to fall asleep like that for another five years. This was August of 1973; Marion would be three years old that December. It didn’t take long for Marion to warm up to her Aunt Myra, but she had abandonment issues and would cry every time her aunt left her.  The first two weeks of pre-school were the worst; she would not be in class for more than 15 minutes before she darted out of the little wooden school room and ran all the way home.  Bystanders got used to seeing the chubby little girl in the red plaid uniform race past them, legs flying, tears streaming down her face. 

 

Benny

Benny always knew he was different.  He could not put his finger on it, but he knew something was amiss.  It was the Christmas of his 10th birthday. While staring at a new family portrait that Benny realized that he did not see himself in his family. He did not have the soft, wavy hair his parents or siblings had.  He did not have their light olive skin – he had rough woolen hair, and he was dark, very dark.  His siblings were exceptionally brilliant; he was not.  His oldest brother, Damian, was an academic whiz who was featured in the local papers.  Damian had completed medical school and was doing his residency at the University Hospital.  His sister, Lauren, was also on the academic fast track. She was in her first year at Medical School.  His baby sister Celia attended the same prep school to which they all went. 

 

Benny’s father, the Rev. Samuel Ritchie-Haughton, didn’t really work.  The Ritchie-Haughton family owned the local soft drink bottling plant and brewery.  The company held licenses to manufacture several international brands.  His father, uncle and brothers managed the day-to-day operations and while his name appeared on the letterhead as a director and he got a salary each month, he really had nothing to do with the company.

 

Rev. Ritchie-Haughton was a fiery preacher, a well-respected bastion of the community.  He performed baptisms, weddings and funerals with a flourish.  He was everything to everyone in the nearby Grants Pen Gully, but more of a spiritual leader and friends to his neighbors in Cherry Gardens.  Through him, many a Grants Pen single mother got jobs cleaning houses and caring for children in Arcadia, Norbrook and Cherry Gardens.  From as early as 6:30 am, women clutching babies and the hands of toddlers came to Benny’s father to solve problems; money for medicine; son in jail and needing a lawyer; lunch money and bus fare for school; sick kids and sick parents; the list went on and on. 

 

Elizabeth Ritchie-Haughton didn’t have to work and wanted to.   She had a Masters degree in Education. She took breaks to care for her young children; however, as soon as she could, she was back at school.  She took the meaning of well-heeled to another level and easily won the unofficial dress parade which took place at church each Sunday. 

 

Benny coasted through school just doing enough to ensure that he graduated.  At graduation, he was awarded most outstanding student in woodshop, and in addition to a voucher to pick up his own tool box at a local hardware store, he was given a paid internship at the best woodshop in town.  Benny was elated.  His parents were shocked.  They didn’t even know that Benny liked working with wood.

 

The family gathered in the most expensive restaurant to celebrate the last of Benny’s high school career. The dinner was enjoyable for the most part, and a photographer from the social pages even took several photos of the family.  Things went downhill that day after his brother commented on Benny’s prize and whether or not he would decline the internship to go to college.  “That’s one of the things I wanted to talk to everyone about, Benny replied.  “I’m not going to college….” He then ventured into how he planned on opening his own woodshop after learning the business if his father would lend him the money.  

 

“After all we’ve done for you, this is how you choose to repay us?” Benny looked at his mother and was surprised that she was crying.  “We took you into our house, gave you our name… gave you everything and you look at us and say you’re not going to college?”  The Ritchie-Haughton family was attracting attention, and the good Reverend would not have it.  He summoned the waiter for the bill and the family left before dessert was served.  There was no tip for the waiter.

 

Benny’s older siblings hugged him and got into their own cars for the drive back to the Hospital and university campus respectively.  He was left to face his parents’ wrath all by himself.   Between his father’s brooding silence and his mother’s silent tears, he felt like a scoundrel as he replayed his mother’s words over and over trying to figure out if he heard what he thought he heard.  In the back of his mind, he always knew he was adopted, and tonight, his mother’s unwitting words confirmed his suspicion.

 

Rev. Ritchie-Haughton had barely backed the car up into the expansive garage before Benny jumped out.  He locked himself in his room unwilling to add fuel to the fire.  About 30 minutes later, his father came knocking.  Benny tuned up his stereo and sang along to Bob Marley.  He no longer felt like hiding his music from his parents.  He would play reggae whenever he wanted. He gave respect and he wanted to be respected in return. “They are treating me like a boy.  I am 18 years-old; I am a man. From now on, things are going to be different around here.” 

 

[1]Yeah, I’ve been down on the rock for so long, (so long)
I seem to wear a permanent screw; (screw-oo-oo-oo-oo)
I’ve been down on the rock for so long, (so long)
I seem to wear a permanent screw. (screw-oo-oo-oo-oo)
But-a I – I’m gonna stare in the sun,
Let the rays shine in my eyes.
I – I’m a gonna take a just-a one step more
‘Cause I feel like bombin’ a church –
Now – now that you know that the preacher is lyin’.
So who’s gonna stay at home
When – when the freedom fighters are fighting?”

 

Benny woke up with a start the next morning.  It was Friday; a work day for his parents and the house was already empty.  He felt aimless for the first time in his life; his time was his to do whatever.  He stood in the air conditioned living room and looked out the bow windows into the immaculately kept gardens.  Winston, the gardener, was pruning rosebushes.   Someone cleared there throat behind him. He spun around to find Sonia the housekeeper smiling shyly at him.  He had an unusual bond with Sonia who’d been working at the Ritchie-Haughton residence for longer than he could remember.  Sonia studied her feet. “Can I fix you something Mr. Benjamin?  I made Mackerel Rundown[2] for breakfast, but if you want something else…”  Benjamin smiled warmly at her. “Sonia, Sonia, Sonia:  how many years have I been telling you to stop making such a big fuss over me? I’ll take the Rundown. Did you make Johnny cakes?”  She laughed, “Of course I did. Your parents wanted green bananas, but I knew you would want Johnny cakes[3], so I made you a dozen. There’s coffee too,” she said as she sailed out of the room.

 

Johnny read the Daily Gleaner and ate heartily, the troubles of last night far removed from his mind.  Later he got dressed and called his father’s office at the church; Carlene, the secretary, answered and put him on hold.  He held the phone for eight minutes before his father’s voice boomed from the other end.  “Papa, I know it’s Friday, the busiest day of the week for you, but can I come see you?”  Rev. Ritchie-Haughton paused, took a deep breath and said, “I suppose so. I’ll be here,” then hung up.

 

 

Truce

The crowds parted like the Red Sea when Benny arrived at his father’s office.  Women who knew him called out to him.  He smiled and waved, touched some of the babies, bent down to speak to some of the children and produced lollypops for each child.  A young girl in an advanced state of pregnancy was just leaving when Benny walked into his father’s office.  As soon as the door closed behind her, Benny ploughed into his rehearsed speech, anxious to get it all out before he changed his mind.   “Dad, I just want to say thanks for everything that you and Mom have done for me, but I’m 18 – an adult and I want to make my own decisions.  I worked really hard in wood-shop, I’m very good at it and I am going to do that internship whether you like it or not.  I’m sorry if you paid good money to get me a place in that college, but that’s not what I want. I love working with my hands, and that’s what I want to do. Will you tell mom?” 

 

The Rev looked at his son with a mixture of pride and resentment.  He knew there was nothing he could do to hold him back. His dream of having Benny follow his older siblings into medical school was dashed. He’d been telling his friends that he was all set on having four doctors in his family.  “I guess I’ll have to settle for three,” he mused.

 

Nelson’s Fine Furniture

Benny turned up at Nelson’s Fine Furniture a full hour before they opened.  He was deliberately early and he did not want his prospective co-workers to see him being dropped off in a fancy car.  Nelson’s was located along Arnold Road, which ran through several slum communities into downtown Kingston. The neighborhood still had a few government offices, a few manufacturers, long closed factories, and houses that had seen better days.  The community used to be home to Jewish merchants, top notch government types and the uber fabulous; they left in droves for the upper St. Andrew 30-50 years ago. 

 

Benny sat on the steps of the Nelson’s Fine Furniture and waited for his new boss and co-workers to arrive.  It was not yet 9:00 am but the sun was ablaze.  It was not unbearable as a cool breeze wafted up the street from the Kingston Harbor.  Mothers taking their children to school glanced at him before glancing away.  Some wondered who he was. He stuck out like a sore thumb.

 

Someone was listening to Doraine Samuels on RJR 94FM, Benny recognized her honeyed voice.  Across the tiny bridge a small boy was weeping as a young mother scolded. Benny’s attention turned south as his ear picked up a kind of rhythmic chant.  He kept looking in the direction from which it came; soon a group of flowing tunics appeared on the horizon.  They all wore [4]Tams and carried wooden staffs.  The youngest of the group walked in front and carried an Ethiopian flag on a pole. 

 

At the top of their voices they repeated over and over:

“It’s a new day! Give thanks and praise to the Most High, his Imperial Majesty Emperor Haile Selassie I,( the first.)  Jaaaah! Rastafari, the Kings of Kings and the Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Ever Living, Ever Faithful, Ever sure, the truth, the way,  the light.”

 

 

Benny recognized the group as [5]Rastafarians.  His brother Damian had told him of their shenanigans on Campus and how scandalized his uptown friends were.  His mother despised them, calling them  ganja[6] smoking heathens but admitted they sold the best veggies around town.  She always made sure to buy several bundles of [7]Calaloo off their carts when she saw them along Oliver Road.  She also bought their clay pots, baskets and mats. “Full of talent, if only they would cut that abominable hair,” his mother once said.  Benny laughed at the memory.

 

The Group of Rastas came to a stop at the steps of Nelson’s Fine Furniture, not six feet from where Benny sat.  It was not until their chants died away that they acknowledged him.  “Hail king-mon” said one, as he bowed and made a strange gesture with his hands. “Bless-up soldier,” said another as he bowed. They all followed suit with their greetings.  Benny was awed.  “Suh who di I-Man a wait pon” asked the defacto leader.  “I am waiting for Nelson’s to be open.  I start working here this morning,” Benny responded.  “[8]Rhatid! A you name Benjamin?  Mi hear that you good pon di woodwork thing man.  Your teacher was here talking about you. We all looking forward to working with you man.  Welcome, welcome, welcome. May the blessings of Jah Rastafari guide you as you go down this path, seen!”  One by one the other workers arrived and Benny was introduced.  Cecil, the assistant manager, soon arrived and the shutters were opened.

 

Benny was not allowed to do any hands-on work for the first few weeks. It made him impatient and frustrated.  His job was as an observer.  There was one salvation; he put in three hours of office work each morning.  Nelson had no end of praise for him as he had not mastered the computerized accounting system himself and was elated that someone in the shop knew how.  Accounts payable and receivables were now only a few keystrokes away.

 

Within a few months, Benny knew his way around the shop like a pro.  He spent a few hours each day in various departments.  His favorite, however, was the group of Rastafarian carvers who made elaborate designs come to life.  Not only did he value their talent; he was extremely curious about their faith and spent as much time as possible with them.  They explained the virtues of vegetarianism and even shared their meals with him.  Their vocabulary was strange; however, he recognized words from some of the music he was secretly listening to.  They were surprised he knew about Peter Tosh, Burning Spear, Michael and the Sons of Negus,   and many other Rastafarian singers who made social commentary through their work.  He also began to understand why most of their words began with I.  Bongo Herman, the de facto leader of the group and carving supervisor, explained, “Rastafarians have developed their own word system which is used in everyday speech.  The letter “I” is used to show oneness with [9]Jah and replaces the beginning of many words.”  (Watts)

 

Benny was an adept student; their words gave him much food for thought.  He watched and listened to them and thought about his parents who often spoke out against Rastafarianism.  Benny was a little surprised at how deftly Bongo Herman quoted from the Bible to support his socio-political views. He questioned his father about Bongo Herman’s assertion that Rastafarians were being targeted by police, were being beaten and thrown in jail for their beliefs.  As he became more enamored with this faith, he found he could not get home fast enough to read for himself the evidence to be found in the Bible.  Bongo Herman also bought him copies of various holy books including the Apocrypha.

 

Benny had heard about Marcus Garvey before but now saw him in a new light.  He had no idea that Marcus Garvey had foretold that a King would be crowned in Africa who would save and redeem blacks.  Rastafarians see Emperor Haile Selassie, the 225th in the line of Solomon, as that black King.  (Scrach)

 

Nothing his father said in the pulpit had motivated him to read his Bible the way Bongo Herman did.  Herman encouraged him to pay special attention to the teachings of the Old Testament and other books including the Apocrypha and the book of Enoch and the Kebra Nagast.  Benny had no idea that there were other books of the bible left out of the King James Version, but it was not until he read Revelation 5: 2-5 that he decided to stop shaving and getting haircuts.  He was totally convinced.

 

Sonia was the first to notice the change in Benny. “Yuh turning Rasta Mr. Benjamin,” she asked one morning.  “I’m not sure, I’m still searching for the truth,” he replied. Sonia looked alarmed.  “Yuh modda and fadda is not goin’ to like it,” she said shaking her head from side to side.  Benjamin was alarmed when she started wailing. “Lord Jezzus help me,” she said huge teardrops streaming down her face. “What going to happen to yuh.  What going to happen to yuh?  Benny was stunned.  What’s her problem, anyway?

 

Benny went to Bobo Hill in Bull Bay with Herman and the crew on Saturday November 2.  There was a celebration to mark the coronation of Emperor Hailie Selassie.  The event was marked with hours of singing, drumming and a large fire around which women and children danced.  A large pipe was being passed around by the men.  Benny refused to participate in this ritual.  He knew it was ganja by the smell alone and was not interested. He returned home exhausted at 6:00am. 

 

Benny was not asleep for two hours before his mother burst into the room.  She had not been in there for years.  “Benny! Benny! You haven’t been to church in weeks, come on, get up!”  She threw open his closet door and began to rifle through his shirts.  Benny rolled over, squinting to focus.  “Mom, I’m not going to church.  I have decided to become a Rastafarian. Sorry, but I’m not coming to church ever again.” Elizabeth dropped the shirt she was holding, spun around and looked at her son to see if he were joking.  For the first time she noticed that he was unshaved and his hair was matted. How did all this escape her notice? At the end of the pandemonium that ensued, Benny found himself standing on the side of the road with only one suitcase.  He was homeless.

 

 Benny knew how to get to Grants Pen Gully even though he’d never been there.  The women and children knew who he was, and assisted him in finding Sonia’s house.  Sonia folded herself into a tight ball and wailed when she saw him.  She looked defeated, confused, but said: “You came to the right place, I’m going to do all I can to help you.” 

 

“I want to tell you something, but please never speak of it again.  I am your real mother. Rev is your real father.  He knows, but Ms. Elizabeth does not know.  I was very happy to give you up so you could get all I couldn’t give you.  You have passed the worst, my son. I am proud of you.”  Benny stood riveted to the spot for a full ten minutes.  Things just fell into place.  Things fell right.  No wonder she’d always looked out for him and fussed over him.  That evening, Benny met ten siblings he never knew he had.  They looked just like him.  Too bad he couldn’t tell them.

 

Later that evening, Benny accompanied Sonia to her parents.  They lived alone.  Her diabetic father was blind and the mother severely arthritic.  They knew who Benny  was immediately.  As Sonia made a meal, he made himself useful.  She was relieved he was so helpful.  She proposed he stay with them as they had more space.  Benny accepted the proposal.  His grandparents were elated.

 

The Ritchie-Haughtons made no attempt to contact Benny and he continued his internship at Nelson’s Furniture.  Bongo Herman was his mentor both on and off work.  He found Benny intellectually astute asking intelligent questions and making smart deductions.  Soon he was introduced to other members of the Rastafarian community, who helped him with his transformation.

 

Snubbed

It was not long before Benny found himself being snubbed by the very women and children who always had a smile and greeting for him when he was heir apparent in his father’s church.  He wasn’t surprised. Herman had told him what to expect.  Just the other day, Benny was chased by a group of young men who, had he not used quick evasive tactics, he would have been beaten and his head shaved. He also grew accustomed to elderly women cursing him under their breath and children who now ran when they saw him. He felt especially bad for Marion, the little girl next door, who ran away in terror each time she saw him.  Life was hard, but he was determined. Marion lived in constant fear of the Rastaman next door.  She tried her damndest not to wet the bed, or do anything that made her aunt mad.  Last time she had a little accident, her  aunt, Myra promised to feed her to Benny if she ever did it again.  She was terrified at the thought of being eaten by that big, black hairy man everyone called Benny.

 

Myra often warned Marion not to play with matches, but Marion was left alone in the house.  She was bored. She wondered when her aunty would come home. One by one she

lit each match and stared at the flame until it burned short and was just about to singe her fingers.  Next she lit the candles that were used when the power when out.  She distractedly stared at the flames until she was sleepy.  She curled up on the coach and fell asleep.

 

Benny was burning incense and chanting; he was in the zone.  An acrid smoke permeated his consciousness.  Something was burning. Something more pungent than the aromatic incense that he was using as part of his daily “oneness” with Jah Rastafari was burning.  He checked around the house.  Nothing burning here he thought, as he looked in on his benefactors.  Suddenly the calmness of the night was shattered by screams of fire! fire! fire!  He ran outside.  His neighbor Myra had dropped to her knees sobbing; fruits she intended to sell at the market were strewn around her.  Her house was on fire.  

 

Benny looked around for the little chit of a girl.  He elbowed his way toward Myra and when he was within earshot said “Where’s Marion.”  Myra pointed at the house too distraught to say anything.  “Move!”   The gathering crowd parted at Benny’s command and he sprinted towards the house.  “Get water,” he flung over his shoulder just before he kicked in the front door.  The flames were coming from the living area and had not yet spread to the other rooms.  They had curled up to the ceiling and spread towards the window leaping towards what little oxygen came from their unsealed windows.  The flames licked at him, his eyes watered and the heat made him gag.  Then he heard the choking sounds. Using his ears for his almost useless eyes, he followed the sounds to the sofa in the corner. It was already ablaze.  The little girl was gasping for breath but she was alive.  Ignoring the now searing pain in the soles of his feet, Benny grabbed the little girl and ran for the door.  The world went dark.

 

Rev. Richie-Haughton called each member of his immediate family when the story of Benny’s heroic efforts made the front page of the Gleaner next morning.  Members of his extended family were calling one after the other.  They wanted to know why Benny was living in Grants Pen Gully.  It was time to build bridges.  He loved his son and he missed him, even if he had become a dirty Rasta.

 

Thirty years later

Benny fingered the yellowed newspaper clippings.  He never knew that his father kept these.  He was very sad.  Benny was sad for the lost years and the uneasy truce between him and his father.  He was happy they had a chance to clear the air before his father made his transition.  From his hospital bed, he finally told Benny the truth.  “Benny, I know you think you’re adopted, but you’re not. You are my son. Sonia is your mother.”  Benny looked at him and smiled, “Dad, I’ve known that for thirty years. Sonia told me that when you kicked me out, I was just waiting to hear it from you.”  His father looked at Benny for a long time and with tears running down his face he said:  “Son, I wronged you and I’m sorry.”

 

Many things have changed since Benny’s conversion to Rastafarianism.  People are far more tolerant.  Schools have loosened the rules on admission to Rastafarian children, and they have become accepted in all spheres of Jamaican society.   The movement has spread even further and can be found in dozens of countries around the world.

 

 


[1] From Talking Blues from the Album Natty Dread 1973

[2] Mackerel Rundown – pickled mackerel cooked in coconut milk

[3]Flour cakes made with butter and milk and fried in oil

[4] Tam: a crocheted cap featuring the colors of the Ethiopian flag

[5] Rastafarian or Rasta: referring to people practicing Rastafarianism, a belief that Haile Selassie aka. Tafari Makonnen aka Ras Tafari) was and is the second coming of Christ

[6] Ganja: Marijuana

[7] Callaloo: The spinach-like leaves of a tropical plant (genus Xanthosoma) of the arum family.

[8] Rhatid: Mild expletive used as an exclamation

[9] Jah:  (from Jahova) referring to HIM Haile Selassie I

 

Works cited

Smith, M.G.; Augier, Roy; Nettleford,  Rex: Report on the Rastafari Movement in Kingston, Jamaica   Institute of Social and Economic Research – Jamaica (1960)

 

Watts, Franklin: I am Rastafarian  Golden Square London (1986)

 

Scrach, Papa Rasta Revelation, Kings Books NYC 1994

 

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