Africa: Rastafarianism - a Religion or a Misunderstood Way of Life?

Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia, in his study at the palace.
27 January 2019

Group says theirs is a religion like Christianity and Islam, with strict practices and beliefs, adding that not everyone sporting dreadlocks and chanting 'Jah' is a Rastafarian.

What can take place in a locked house with seven Rastafarians, two journalists and several portraits of Emperor Haile Selassie? A lesson on a "misunderstood" religion, for a start.

In the spacious and well-lit workshop located along Karanja Road in Nairobi's Kibera, with a smoothly tiled floor and ragged walls that bear a selection of artwork, the Rastafarians welcome Lifestyle into their world.

While many people in Kenya have dreadlocks, chant lines from reggae songs and smoke marijuana, the dedicated small group in the room is at pains to explain that theirs is a religion -- like Christianity or Islam -- with strict practices. In other words, not everyone sporting dreadlocks and chanting "Jah" (God) is a Rastafarian.

Rastafari is an Africa-centred religion, which can be traced to Jamaica in the 1930s after Haile Selassie I (1892-1975) -- referred to as the king of kings, lord of lords, the conquering lion of the tribe of Judah -- was coronated as King of Ethiopia.

Many of their teachings are also developed from the ideas of Jamaican activist Marcus Mosiah Garvey. Even though there are no statistics on Rastafarianism in Kenya, a BBC overview puts the global figure of people practising the faith at one million.

The Rastas of Kibera start the interview with a broad background on their faith: belief that blacks are the chosen people, following many Old Testament laws, a strict diet, smoking marijuana, growing dreadlocks, the lion symbol and red-green-gold-and-black colours.

Then they become more specific: there's a need for more research on marijuana as it is "a harmless natural herb that has been used for millions and millions of years"; they complained of discrimination and harassment of dreadlocked people -- including by security agencies who lock them out during recruitment yet "the first people to serve in the Kenyan army were Rastafari (the Mau Mau)".

At the front of the Kibera workshop -- known as Haile Selassie Africa Restoration Centre -- is a shop that sells various bespoke Rasta items. The Rastafarians tell us that they have occupied the place for the past 27 years after reclaiming a dumpsite.

Of the Rastafarians in the house during the interview, 48-year-old John Wambua is the oldest -- and arguably the man of the moment because of a case involving his daughter that has captured the headlines.

DREADLOCKS

Tomorrow, Ras Wambua and his fellow Rastafarians will be at the High Court in Milimani to know the fate of his daughter, Makeda Ndinda, who was turned away from Olympic High School in Kibera because she reported for Form One sporting dreadlocks, which she ties in a turban.

"She is 15 years old and her hair is as old as she is. She has never been shaved since she was born," Ras Wambua says.

Despite an announcement from the Education ministry that the school has been ordered to take the girl back, Ras Wambua says no such instructions have been implemented.

"I thank the Cabinet Secretary (Amina Mohammed) for the way she spoke. But I've not got a phone call or any indication that I should return my daughter to school. And because the matter is in court, I'm waiting for the decision," he says.

Observers will be watching the dreadlocks case keenly, especially after Thursday's Supreme Court declaration in a dispute over the wearing of hijab and white long trousers by Muslim girls at a school in Isiolo. The apex court declared that the school administration had the right to determine the dress code for students.

The handling of Ras Wambua's daughter is one among many examples of "mistreatment" of Rastafarians by the authorities, according to Ras Lojuron Jaden, 42, who the rest of the Rastafarians in the Kibera house recognised as their "prophet" and leader.

"It's not the first time we are receiving complaints of the sort. But it's the first time we have had the courage to take the matter to court," says Ras Lojuron.

He adds that the Rastafarian community has been keenly reading the 2010 Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights, so as to fight against discrimination.

"For many years, our story has been told by people who are not Rasta, so there has been a lot of stigma and wrong information about our lifestyle. And it has led to discrimination," he says.

He believes the teenage girl case "has been treated very cruelly by a government institution", prompting the legal action.

"This is not just about Makeda, the Rasta girl. This is about the livelihood of the Rastafari community in Kenya. Are we going to go to court every year, every term, that we are sending our children to school?" he posed.

Makeda is one of Ras Wambua's five children, and the only daughter. The first born in the family is now 24 years and he also sports dreadlocks.

"He went to primary school at Uhuru Gardens with the hair. For secondary education, he went to Lang'ata Barracks School and was also admitted without any problem," says Ras Wambua.

FAITH

Two of Ras Wambua's children do not, however, keep dreadlocks. One of them, who is in Form Two, fell ill one time and had to be shaved.

"He hasn't restored the hair," says Ras Wambua.

Keeping of dreadlocks, he explains, is drawn from the sixth chapter of the biblical book of Numbers. In that chapter, God gave Moses instructions regarding people who wanted to make a special vow.

Among the things the people were not supposed to do, according to the Bible, was drinking wine or any other fermented drinks. They were also advised against drinking grape juice and eating anything that comes from grapevines.

"During the entire period of their Nazirite vow, no razor may be used on their head. They must be holy until the period of their dedication to the Lord is over; they must let their hair grow long," says the fifth verse of that chapter.

Ras Wambua believes that, that vow is what marks a person's transition into Rastafarianism, where one embraces the concept of livity -- the recognition that Jah (God) exists within, and flows through all creatures.

He joined the religion when, as a 20-year-old in 1991, he was locked up in Nairobi's Industrial Area Remand Prison after being found in possession of bhang.

During his two-month stay at the prison, he met two Jamaicans, whom he calls "priests". They had been arrested in Rongai also for possession of bhang.

"I got to know the truth about Rastafari; about King David's kingdom, which I came to discover that it's just here in Ethiopia," says Ras Wambua.

"If you study the lineage of Emperor Haile Selassie to King Menelik, who was a child of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, they had a son named Menelik I. And his lineage has up to King Selassie," he says.

Historians, however, fault the Queen Sheba narrative and have left it to the realm of folklore, popularised by stories published in a 14th century book.

Ras Wambua says that since his conversion, he has never touched alcohol.

"You can't find a true Rastaman or woman drunk. Taking alcohol is not in our traditions," he says.

He has also shunned violence of any kind because it is against their teachings. The diet of Rastafari, he says, is also strict. He, for example, does not eat meat.

"God gave us teeth for eating fruits, grains and vegetables. It is animals like cats, dogs and lions that were given teeth that can tear flesh," says Ras Wambua.

He adds: "These creatures (that we slaughter) have life and have a right to live. When you slaughter chicken, spill its blood to address your stomach's craving, isn't that a mistake? Rastas don't do that."

However, the teachings and philosophies of Rastafarians differ, especially among the three main groups of Bobo Ashanti, the Niyabinghi and the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Some of the groupings may support a thing proscribed by the other -- for instance, the covering of dreadlocks with a piece of cloth.

"But all of them are unified by one thing: His Majesty Emperor Haile Selassie. The word you will get in one house is the one on another. It is not such a big difference," says Ras Wambua.

PROPHESY AND HISTORY

Another man proudly proclaiming his Rastafarian faith is Ras Malonza Muyanga, 43.

Ras Malonza was born to a Catholic family in present-day Kitui County, but he remembers that he used to have a lot of questions, especially on the crucifixion of Jesus.

"Right from secondary school, I loved history and Christian Religious Education. I loved prophecy and the history of black people. So, I would connect the people of Israel, who were in slavery in Egypt, with the people of Africa who have been enslaved," he says.

After discovering Rastafarianism, he explains, all appeared to fall into place.

"I came to realise that it's only names which have changed, but it's actually the African story which has been told as that of Israel people because, all along, I've not seen a place where white people have gone into slavery," he says.

He goes ahead to shower praises on Haile Selassie and Ethiopia, waxing lyrical about his coronation as emperor in 1930.

"He was crowned king of kings; lord of lords; the conquering lion of the tribe of Judah; the true light of this world; alpha and omega; the beginning without end. These are not titles of a man," he says.

The coronation of Haile Selassie is celebrated on November 2 every year and it is one of the big days for Rastafarians. They also mark the birthday of Haile Selassie on July 23 of every year.

"Redemption comes from Ethiopia, the only land in Africa which has never been colonised," says Ras Malonza, adding that Rastafarians also celebrate September 11 as the New Year in the Ethiopian calendar.

Ras Malonza says reggae music also drew him to Rastafarianism as it is all about justice, equality and liberation.

Then there is the Mau Mau independence struggle against British colonial rule that he links to his religion.

"Mau Mau were Rastas. So, Rasta is at home in Kenya and everyone should welcome Rasta in Kenya," he says of the independence heroes who sported dreadlocks.

Las Lojuron, their leader, has a lot more to say regarding the Rastafarians' role in securing Kenya's independence.

"How comes today no Rasta is allowed to serve in the army while all the 'generals' who fought for this country were Rastafari?" asks Ras Lojuron.

He is equally straight-shooting when asked to comment on whether Rastafarians are easy targets whenever police are hunting for those possessing bhang.

"Our message to the government is that they must put more money on research about marijuana, because many countries are already ahead of us, doing research on the benefits and ills of this plant," he says.

In Parliament, there have been at least three efforts to have bhang legalised in Kenya, with none successful so far.

"It is discriminative that people of Rastafari faith, who have been using bhang for many years as a sacramental plant, and also for spiritual and curing purposes, are being discriminated against," he says.

The youngest Rastafarian in the group is 22-year-old Victor Mutunga, who finished his studies at Strathmore University in June last year, where he studied for a business degree with IT.

Mutunga, whose family lives in Nairobi's Madaraka Estate, says he started connecting with the Rastafarian family when he was in Form Three after being introduced by a friend.

His dreadlocks have just started developing, and he looks eager to have a bushy head and jaw like everyone else in the room.

Soon, our interview is over and we are ready to leave, but not before witnessing the Rastafarians chanting.

Ras Lojuron shouts: "Jah, Rastafari!"

The rest respond: "Yae!"

"Haile Selassie the almighty!"

***

Highlights of the group's faith, beliefs

Ras John Wambua, Ras Malonza Muyanga and Ras Lojuron Jaden explained some beliefs of Rastafarians.

1. They observe the Sabbath

"It starts on Friday evening, because the night starts then the day follows. Friday evenings mark the preparation for Sabbath. That goes on into Saturday evening, when the Sabbath ends," said Ras Wambua.

2. They are encouraged to read many books

"As Rastafari, we have many books. There is the Bible and books like Kebra Nagast (Glory of Kings), a 14th century compilation of legends from Ethiopia), Rastafarian Gospel, and Selected Speeches of His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie. There are many books. There is no limit on the books you can read. Knowledge comes from every side," Ras Wambua explained.

3. They have special attachment to a certain region in Ethiopia

An area called Shashamane in the Oromia region of Ethiopia bears great meaning to Rastafarians, as this is the area Emperor Haile Selassie set aside in 1948 to allow members of the Rastafarian Movement to move to Africa from Jamaica.

Forums are usually organised there to bring together Rastafarians across the globe.

"That is where many believers go to pay homage the Rastafarian way; just like Muslims go to Mecca," said Ras Wambua.

4. Rastafarianism celebrates freedom of a person to be him/herself

"Rasta is about maintaining the connection between the ancestors and the generation of today; because we've realised that our ancestors lived at a time when there was no single book that controlled the people like the Bible and the Koran do nowadays," said Ras Lojuron.

"Rastafari is the highest spiritual way of living, which is even higher than religion, because religion has become a divisive tool used by politicians for selfish interests.

So, Rastafari comes up with a high spiritual way of life, which is being totally honest with yourself and your environment," he added.

Ras Malonza noted that Rastafarianism is not a church but a decision by a person to know themselves.

"It's not something you join and now you're Rastafari. It's a story; you have to know it yourself," he said.

5. They hardly engage in evangelism

"As Rastafarians, we don't preach. And we don't collect offerings from believers. We only observe the Sabbath and keep it holy," said Ras Wambua.

6. Their group's name came from Haile Selassie

Emperor Haile Selassie's real name was Tafari Makonen. Because he once held the title of "ras" or "prince", Rastafari became the ideal name for those who began the religion in Jamaica in the early 20th century. Many Rastafarians regard Haile Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia between 1930 and 1974 when he was deposed, as a descendant of the Biblical King David, whose kingdom was prophesied to last forever. The connection to King David is through Queen Sheba, who they believe had a child with King David's heir, Solomon.

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