After ascending a steep, rocky path in the blazing Jamaican sun, we reach the impressive entrance to Bobo Hill. A bamboo guardhouse manned by a Rasta in white military clothes is decorated with biblical quotes and has a plaque that reads "Ethiopian Congress." Fresh-faced children dash about an idyllic settlement of wooden huts dispersed across a hillside, the entire thing surrounded by a bamboo fence in fading shades of red, gold, and green, the colors of the Ethiopian flag adopted by Rastafarians to pay homage to former Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie I, their spiritual leader.
Many would-be visitors fail to gain entrance to the camp. So, despite having a pre-arranged appointment, a camp priest's "empress" (partner) as a guide, and wearing modest attire (a long skirt, tunic, and headscarf), nerves about failing the righteous test render me unable to appreciate the serene vibes. A female camp elder wearing robes and a turban–worn differently than the men by way of a fall, a flowing section of fabric hanging down the back–greets us wielding a calendar.
"When did your menstrual cycle finish?" she asks.
Women, both visitors and residents, are only allowed to roam around Bobo Hill 21 days after their menstrual cycle has finished, a time segment camp elders say allows for cleansing based on biblical teachings and the movement of the moon. For the average lady, this gives a window of opportunity for one week of freedom; she'll spend the rest of her days making handicrafts, praying, and reading alongside other ovulating ladies inside a designated women's hut (not a cage, as is rumored).
Fortunately, I'd been warned about this procedure and planned my visit accordingly.
"5th of February," I chant.
Slowly she checks off the 22 days in between the February 5th and February 27th, then eyes me suspiciously. "OK. You're free."
In 1972, after being moved nine times by the Jamaican authorities, Bobo Hill in Nine Miles, Bull Bay, Jamaica became the base of the Boboshanti, the house of Rastafari brought to public attention by dancehall artists Sizzla, Capleton, and Turbulence. Unlike most Rastafarians–who regard only Haile Selassie as their spiritual leader–Bobos praise three powers that they regard as the perfect Trinity of King, Priest, and Prophet: Haile Selassie as King; Prince Emmanuel, a Jamaican man who started the movement in 1958, as Priest; and Marcus Garvey, the black nationalist crusader and leader of the "Back To Africa" movement, as Prophet.
Life at Bobo Hill is dominated by prayer and work, its 100 or so residents undertaking both with varying degrees of discipline. Religious practices closely emulate those of Jewish Mosaic Law, which adheres closely to the Ten Commandments as laid down by Moses in the Old Testament. A drum signals the start of early morning, midday, and evening prayers; a handful of priests participate in these rituals in the tabernacle, the camp's holy site, while the rest of the camp sporadically takes part. During our three-hour visit we pray, always facing east towards Ethiopia, four times–once on entrance, once before our interview with the priests, once after the interview with the priests, and once during the camp's official evening prayers. During these pious moments, cell phone ringtones pierce the air–the most ironic being Michael Jackson's "Thriller."
To generate both personal and camp income, ladies crochet and sew garments that the men sell outside the camp. Men make brooms–an item symbolic of the Bobos' belief in earning an income, cooking in a communal kitchen, and growing crops. Before Prince Emmanuel died in the early '80s (an event that surprised the community, who believed he was immortal and waited three days for him to rise before burying him) the camp had a self-sufficient system of food harvesting and wealth sharing. No official leader has been re-appointed, so the camp has become less organized and there is a clear lack of funds, made apparent by the incessant hawking of crafts throughout our time there.
Our guides are the friendly, humble, and relatively relaxed Priest Radcliffe and Priest Lloyd, members of the camp drumming group. Like the other 20-to-30-year-old drum group members, the humdrum nature of camp life clearly does not satisfy them despite their being entirely devoted to it. They are eager to tour the world and are in the process of setting up their own cultural record label. Many elder Bobos assert they want no association with the evils of reggae music (African drumming is fine), while the younger generation, including Priest Radcliffe, see it as "a way of bringing culture to the people in Babylon who need culture the most."
The longer we stay at Bobo Hill, the more paradoxes emerge. The Boboshantis' inspiring mission to live outside the "system" is marred by its repression of women and bizarre denial of death, which means the ill are carried from the camp to die outside and their corpses ignored until an outside family member or undertaker deals with them.
An elderly Bobo woman, permanently free since menopause, summarizes my confused feelings. "The devil is everywhere and here is no different. As a young woman I could not live here but many take the subjugation gladly compared to the sin in the outside world. I don't live at Bobo Hill by listening to the rules. I live by listening to what's in my heart."