Nyahbinghi is the First House (or Mansion) of Rastafari. It is the House of Judgment, proclaiming Death to all oppressors, Black and White. This is the House of Dreads, the Fire House, breathing out vengeance from red-hot chalices, trampling the Dragon, invoking curses against the great whore of Babylon. A new militant wing emerged from Howell’s early community – the Youth Black Faith (YBF) – marching in Black, waging spiritual war for King Selassie’s Righteous Throne, fiery defenders of ‘Earth’s Rightful Ruler’. It is said that the (YBF) rejected the ‘tame’ revivalist traditions of the Howellites. Great leaders sprang up out of the First House and some of them became the Heads of different Mansions. The Nyahbinghi drum-chant ritual of dancing, leaping warriors around the fire-key became the stand-out character of the early Rastafari movement.
The second major influence was the Ethiopian World Federation (EWF), not primarily a House, but an organization established in 1937 to assist Ethiopia in its war against Italy. The EWF emerged as an organization with a Constitution to unite the Black Peoples of the world. Earliest members were mainly from Garvey’s UNIA movement. Garveyism morphed into the EWF. In 1955, US-based activist Mamie Richardson introduced Jamaicans to the EWF. The upcoming Rastafari Houses latched on to its organizational stability, while preserving the spiritual roots through the ‘Binghi ritual of the early movers. Some Rastafari groups opted to become ‘locals’ of the EWF, or adopted aspects of its charter to frame their constitutions. EWF was eventually seen as a Mansion in its own right, closely linked to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC). Members cite ‘His Majesty’s Constitution’ as their over-riding claim to authority.
After a great island-wide Binghi in 1958 Prince Emmanuel (Charles Edward) founded the Ethiopian African Black International Congress (EABIC) headquartered in Bull Bay on the outskirts of Kingston. The Bo-bo dreads (so called) followed a discipline lifestyle codified by robes and turban, with coconutshell emblems adorning the garments of Priests and Prophets. Strict sabbatical observance, sexual restraint and economic independence – originally centered around the sale of brooms, typified the Bobo-Ashanti ‘livity’. Prince Emmanuel is sometimes portrayed as the ‘Black Christ’ in a Trinity alongside the Emperor and Marcus Garvey. The main thrust of the EABIC was repatriation to Africa. Its strong moral observances and popular reggae singers have helped to attract a younger generation of Rastafari to the fold.
The 12 Tribes of Israel was headed by Prophet Gad (Vernon Carrington) in 1968, popularly known as Gad-man. As per Matthew 19, Vs. 28 “Ye also shall sit upon 12 Thrones, judging the 12 Tribes of Israel.” The 12 Tribes, more than other Houses, accepted all nations into its ranks. 12 Tribes holds ‘Christian’ beliefs and is relaxed in its dietary laws. Much emphasis is placed on reading a chapter a day (of the Bible) and contributing to monthly dues. Their theology is based on an acceptance of the Messiah (Yesos Kristos). Haile Selassie I is seen as the Returned Christ in His Kingly Character. [The 12 Tribes initially attracted singers and players of instruments in the 1970s and 80s, such as Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Jacob Miller, Dennis Brown et al, even as the EABIC became popular among entertainers in the ‘90s, Sizzla, Capleton, etc.] Each 12 Tribe member is allocated a tribal name depending on date of birth, eg. Bunny Asher, or Mary Dan, replacing the 12 zodiac signs in astrology with the 12 sons of Jacob. Each is accorded certain attributes or characteristics according to tribe, specific parts of the body, and colours. The Tribe of Joseph, (February) for instance, is the colour white, the right leg, and is highly blessed. Gad is the mouth (prophecy), Reuben the eyes, Levi the nose, Simeon the ears, Judah the heart.
Other smaller organizations were founded by individuals such as Ras ‘Pinto’ Fox of the Haile Selassie I Church, a reworking of the EOC with the headship of Emperor Haile Selassie I inscribed in its liturgy. Significantly, this Church has been granted legitimacy by the Jamaican government, the first Rastafari group to achieve such status (2013).
What is certain is that each House has contributed to the fullness of the movement. Some individuals have no problem in belonging to more than one House or organization; but usually the doctrinal lines are firmly drawn in the sand of self-righteousness, each House vaunting its merits above the other.
These divisions have been exported with the global spread of the movement, perhaps not as trenchantly as in the Caribbean model, but still giving rise to a confused perception of the movement by outsiders. Christianity has literally hundreds of sects and Churches. Somehow, the expectation is that all Rastafari would fit into one mould, mind-set and knowledge-system. In his book Rastafari in the New Millennium, Rastafari scholar Dr Michael Barnett refutes the notion of Rastafari starting as a unified House. From the very beginning, he claims, Hinds and Howell increasingly preached different doctrines. Hibbert and Dunkley also followed their own interpretations. Dr Barnett makes a case for the predominance of various Mansions (or teachings) from the outset of the movement. At the close of his opening chapter tracing the ‘5 epochs’ of the movement, he questions whether Rastafari at the present crossroads would continue to fracture, or would achieve a level of homogeneity and oneness in the new millennium.
Meantime the ‘House of the Unaffiliated’ is numbered in millions worldwide.