Rastafarianism: Religion Or Crazy Fad?

Nairobi, Kenya - The movement began among oppressed Jamaicans spurred by interpretations of biblical prophecy and the idealisation of Africa in the early 1930s. "No matter where we go, we are the lions in this kingdom..."

The kingdom was Splash Waterworld, Carnivore grounds, a fortnight ago where reggae fans were chanting to Burning Spear's Jah Kingdom. There they were, resplendent in the red, gold and green T-shirts bearing the images of Bob Marley, Marcus Garvey and Ethiopia's Emperor Haile Selassie, for the first Annual East African Reggae festival.

Their ragged, crowned dreadlocks framed the portrait of a fraternity that, they say, has for years been misunderstood and held in suspicion by the wider society.

And so here we were, in search of the Rasta faithful who would help demystify the 75-year old Rastafarian movement.

"Most Kenyans think Rastafarians are about dreadlocks, reggae music and ghetto life. But it's a natural progression towards self realisation, besides caring for humanity," says Don Rawzi, a former Catholic and a Rastafarian for 15 years.

Like other Rastas, he believes in the "religious" value of marijuana, reincarnation and in Emperor Haile Selassie as a prophet and only African linkage to Jesus Christ.

He explains: "Haile Selassie was God's plan to free Africans, just like Moses did with the Israelites. Selassie set forth the way for the independence of African rights through the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and setting aside land in a place called Shashamane, Ethiopia for the settlement of displaced Africans. His lineage also goes all the way to King Solomon."

Smoking marijuana - known variably as bangi, ngwai, boza, bomu, mbaga, ganja, holy herb... St John's bread - is illegal and can land you in a Kenyan jail for 10 years.

However, to some Rastas, it is a spiritual act. Really?

Says Rawzi: "It is a biblically sanctioned communion, though non Rastas have abused it. King Solomon said that wine is good for the heart and chalice (read Marijuana) is good for the soul. Remember Solomon was the wisest man?"

Some faiths find it bizarre, but "Rastafarianism is not a religion, as Ras Mato (Martin Simbaoni) puts it: "It is a consciousness of being and marijuana helps in prayer and meditation and has a rightful place in creation and no laws should hold captive a plant that can't defend it self. Jailing a faithful for partaking a communion, is evil triumph."

Rastas believe their bodies are temples of God, and thus don't worship in physical buildings. To them, the chosen few will live forever in their current bodies; which was why reggae maestro Bob Marley, never wrote a will, despite suffering from stages of advanced cancer.

"Churches are a form of commercialising spirituality and chaining the spirit, besides propagating class inequality through adoration of the West. We believe Haile Selassie is the closest African relative to Jesus as Christ said; He will come not as Himself in blood, but other forms, read Selassie. Selassie also received divine protection, which was why Ethiopia was not colonised," explains Mato. Curiously though, Rastas seem to have no problems with the emperor's cruelty. He is known to have kept his lions' beef supply steady when Ethiopians were starving in the early 1970s.

But why the absence of Rastafarian missionaries? Willy Wailer, a Rastafarian for 37 years, says that theirs is a way of life and, "no one member is singled out to lead others to salvation, all Rastas are equal." Rawzi adds that those who lay the Rasta foundation never came to Africa and the Rastafarian doctrine only spread through the global popularity of reggae music.

Then there is the perennial negative image. "The basic message of Rastafarian is the dismantling of all oppressive institutions and the liberation of mankind. People don't understand that. Then there is our hair. 'Dread' means fear and dreadlocks have always instilled fear," says Wailer.

To Rastafarians, dreadlocks are a journey of the mind, soul and spirituality; achieved without a comb, which like the razor and scissors, are "Babylonian" (white) inventions.

"Dreads are the fullest expression of nature in man and a vow to fight for equal rights and class inequality," says Mato.

For justification they quote the book of Leviticus 21:15- "They shall not make baldness upon their head, neither shall they shave off the corner of their beard, nor make any cuttings in the flesh."

In Rastafari: Roots and Ideologies, Barry Chevannes notes that the movement began among oppressed Jamaicans in the early 1930s who were spurred by interpretations of Biblical prophecy and the idealisation of Africa through socio-political aspirations from the teachings of Pan-Africanist Marcus Mosiah Garvey.

His most famous 1920s prophecy was, "Look to Africa, for there a king shall be crowned". And ten years later, Haile Selassie was crowned as Emperor, the 225th in an complete line of Ethiopian kings said to be descended from the biblical King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

This prophesy is validated by some chapters in the book of Psalms and The Holy Piby (Rastafarian bible) that says, "when a black man is a king in Africa it will be the right time to migrate to "Zion." Zion is understood to be Ethiopia and some Rastas classify themselves as its citizens.

"Some chapters in the book of Psalms end with the word Sellae, which is Kiswahili equivalent of thelatha or three. Which is why we believe Selassie was part of the holy trinity as his name, Haile Selassie, means the power of the trinity," says Rawzi.

The name Rastafari comes from Ras (Amharic for prince) Tafari, Makonnen; Selassie's pre-coronation name whom Rastas believe is the black Messiah.

The movement spread globally, through immigration and interest generated by the ragged cadence of reggae music-most notably, that of Bob Marley. But funny enough, devote Rastas scorn at reggae as commercial music and a "sell-out to Babylon."

Eileen Barker in New religious movements: a practical introduction notes that Rastafarianism hasn't been recognised as a standard denomination, but like all religions, has its divisions called orders or mansions. There is the Nyambighi, The Twelve Tribes of Israel and the Bobo Ashanti mansions.

The Bobo Ashanti was founded by Prince Edward Emmanuel Charles VII in the 1950s. Its members, called "Bobos" or "Bobo dreads" wear turbans and robes and carry brooms to signify cleanliness. To them, blacks are the true Israelites.

The Twelve Tribes of Israel, founded by Dr Vernon Carrington, base their beliefs on the twelve astrological signs of the zodiac. They believe Haile Selassie is God incarnate who'll head a universal religious order during the day of judgment.

The over one million Rastafarians have two religious ceremonies: "A reasoning," writes Chevannes, is a simple gathering to smoke marijuana and discuss ethical, social and religious issues. The other is a Binghi or "Grounation." It is a holiday marked by dancing, singing, feasting and smoking weed. They take place during the Ethiopian Christmas on January 6, the anniversary of Selassie's visit to Jamaica on April 2, and his coronation on November 2; the birthdays of Bob Marley on February 6, Selassie's on July 23 and Garvey's on August 17.

Rastas draw extensively from the Bible, though they don't stick to what may be termed as mainstream interpretation. For this they have been criticised for misinterpreting the Bible.

In 1996, Rastafari was officially recognised as a movement by the United Nations.