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DONISHA PRENDERGAST REIMAGINES THE SPIRIT OF PINNACLE, ONE OF JAMAICA'S MOST SYMBOLIC HERITAGE SITES
STORY: ANICÉE GADDISPHOTO: ALESSANDRO SIMONETTI
As a filmmaker, activist, and self-described "rebel soul seeker," Donisha Prendergast is one of the more multifaceted voices to emerge from Jamaica’s young creative class. She is also Bob Marley’s eldest granddaughter; her parents are Sharon Marley, Bob’s daughter and an original member of the Melody Makers, and Peter Prendergast. Living between Toronto and Kingston, Prendergast’s personal story first came to light in Stuart Samuels’ 2011 documentary, "RasTa: A Soul’s Journey," which explored her calling to the Rastafarian faith as a young woman. She’s set to direct her first feature film next year, and alongside her production partner Mykal Cushnie, she founded The Homework Center (THC), a foundation aimed at creating safe spaces and classrooms for children and adults throughout Jamaica.
Her most immediate focus, at the moment, is Pinnacle, Jamaica’s first self-sustaining village for members of the Rastafari faith, a movement whose followers believe in the divinity of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I, promote pride in African heritage, and advocate social justice and sustainable living. Pinnacle was founded by Leonard P. Howell in 1940 in Sligoville, St. Catherine, as a safe haven for Rastas who were perceived as social outcasts and threats. Under Howell’s leadership, the 500-acre Pinnacle was transformed into one of the largest economically independent communities in Jamaica, where farmers grew organic produce such as fruits, vegetables, and ganja, as well as produced herbal medicines and tonics. Many skilled craftsmen and women lived and worked there under a shared faith and value system.
Over the years, Pinnacle endured countless raids and police and government-backed harassment. It was eventually wiped out in 1958, with official reasons stating that Howell had allegedly neglected to register the property in his name. A community of some 3,000 Rastas were permanently displaced, Howell was imprisoned, and the dream of Pinnacle became a snapshot frozen in time.
Though the majority of the property has since fallen under the management of the St. Jago Hills Development Company, a housing development association based in Spanish Town, Jamaica, Prendergast is in talks with Jamaica’s Minister of Justice, Mark Golding, to secure land in other parishes as restitution. Construction of new residencies on the original Pinnacle property, though, has already begun to pose a severe threat to preservation. It’s not even just about land: in addition to securing the 500 acres that Prendergast feels is rightfully owed, Pinnacle represents a community-oriented ideal of self-sufficiency for the Rastafari community at large. Here, Prendergast speaks about the best hopes for revitalizing the original vision and mission behind Pinnacle.
DONISHA PRENDERGAST: There’s a lot of work that has to be done for the community, but it’s also about an evolution of self: building individual character, scope of vision, and all that type of thing. I’ve never seen myself defined as one thing, and I find that even that is a conflict within the identity of being a Rasta woman. I’ve learned a lot of humility. With the work that I do, it allows me into a space that isn’t always accessible to other people, and it’s expanded my vision and my mission.
There’s so much around us to rehabilitate. If we are not leading our country 10 or 15 years from now, somebody else is. Today, we have to find creative ways to lead and to be led and to be a part of a nation building process. I don’t necessarily want to be a politician. I don’t want to have that reputation or be in those spaces, but I know that I have something to offer now that is missing, so why not just try? As simple as that. I’m not the first one who’s tried to do something positive toward nation building. Maybe because I have a name, my family’s name, and people saw it as that, but I’m just trying to do the work…not a celebrity thing.
The thing with [the struggle to reclaim] Pinnacle is that it was never about land. It was about slowing everything down for a moment and looking back at what we’ve done with our own history, reevaluating what we should do now, you know, taking positive steps to do that. This ganja thing [Cannabis was decriminalized in Jamaica for the cultivation of five or fewer plants per household and use by Rastafari adults for sacramental purposes on April 15, 2015] was a great step forward for the government. Things are at a good place after having had a long conversation with the Minister of Justice at the Ganja Cup [Mark Golding], with ganja smoke rising up around us, which is really telling about where our politicians are in terms of their thinking. So there will be more conversations about how we can put this into play and get this Pinnacle thing resolved. Now we just have to resolve Pinnacle in a way that’s not ‘I’m fighting you and you’re fighting me.’ We need each other. We’re all humans at the end of the day.
This Pinnacle has been a great challenge because what it did was put up a mirror to the community, and we had to reflect. We had to look deep into it and say yes, ‘Babylon did this and the government did this,’ but what did we do with the history and how will we preserve it? Like I said, it’s not just about the land…they’ve already started building on the land. If we try to rebuild a Pinnacle at that space, there’s going to be consistent confrontation with the people who already live there just by virtue of how our culture is. Jamaican people, like Christian people don’t really deal with Rasta and dem smoke and ting. So the time and space for Pinnacle to exist the way it existed in the ’40s and the ’50s has passed. But the challenge is still there. Can we, as Rastafari, remember that we were trying to be self-sufficient and go back to the ground and be keepers of humanity again?
For me, it’s like once you get [to Pinnacle] you don’t want to leave because there’s so much that the universe or Jah or whatever you want to call it is feeding you within these moments—there are so many moments of inspiration. We need to keep Pinnacle. We need to preserve Pinnacle. Just like the Bob Marley Museum, we need more spaces where people can come and sit and feel a part of the history.
Jamaica is one of the most unique countries in the world—I’m not trying to discredit anyone else—but look at what reggae music has been able to do for us, and Rastafari. Why can’t we harness more of those natural energies? I can see a Pinnacle where there would be families living and learning about how to be better humans, just guidance to being better humans, just guidance dread.
I think once it is resolved it will create a great opportunity not just for Rastas in Jamaica but for Rastas internationally, to get back on the mission and the vision, and I think in a lot of ways it will open up the space for Rastas overseas to come to Jamaica and have land to build on and get the vision back on track because sometimes we fall off a track and we need our brothers and sisters to remind us.