Rastafari - Cool Runnings
Cool Runnings could be one of the best ways to describe or sum up Rastafari “livity”. One might ask themselves, what is livity? It is a “lingo” word used by Rastafarians to describe their balanced way of life which is beyond a splif (rolled up ganja) or red (blood), gold (African minerals) and green (African vegetation) beads.
In my teens (growing up in Secunda) and early adult years I was privileged to be a scholar of the Rastafarian movement. It is believed that being a scholar or to “trod” in the movement (becoming Rasta) means that one needs to “Rise”, meaning reach a higher level of consciousness. In so doing you are able to emancipate yourself from mental slavery, free your mind from foreign ideologies so that you are able to reach a spiritual consciousness of universal love. As to what these foreign ideologies are, they are ideologies that require us to live unnaturally, in circumstances in which we have, in many instances, been forced to abandon our own ideologies and to accept the conventions of mainstream society.
Before I lose you let me slow down a bit.
I mentioned that I grew up in Secunda which is a small town that weirdly had a fairly progressive library that had Rastafarian books in its collection. At that time, I was listening to music from Dead Prez, Eyrkah Badu etc and I also began to avidly consume all of the reading material on Rastafarianism that was available to me. I use the word weird because even though what I was learning and reading about was all about a beautiful and empowering culture, Rastafarianism has long been regarded as taboo in South Africa. So, when one “feels the iration” to trod/practice Rastafari principles, you are, sadly, more often than not, branded as being crazy. Despite this the wonder grew in me and I became more and more inquisitive. The more I “trod” the more the world started to open up bit by bit. Rastafarianism became a school of life, where I met like-minded people, who I never thought existed and were asking the same questions I was asking about life, people who respected the order of nature, promoting the idea of “living naturally” in accordance with nature’s laws. Everything that I was learning and being exposed to just made so much sense and provided me with the answers that I was searching for but could not find.
So, this is how I began my journey and how I found my way and, more importantly, my home in Rastafarianism which, despite being grounded in Judeo/Christian religious principles, is far more than a religion. It is in fact a way of life, a social movement, as well as a mindset.
Why then is being Rasta a taboo……, Of Course!! It’s the “weed”, the “herb”, cause it’s not the healthy diet, it’s not the self-reliance, it’s definitely not the dreadlocks because they are a fashion statement these days, and it’s certainly not the music either. It’s the weed, ganja. Rastafarianism is, however, such a beautiful culture with such rich history and so much depth. To be clear, Rastafarianism is certainly not about getting stoned. Ganja, for Rastafari offers a gateway to understanding by opening the mind. It is a meditative tool that allows a connection between oneself and Jah.
The dynamic nature of Rastafarianism is also evidenced by the fact that it is comprised of a number of different orders. Ever heard of the bible verse “My father’s house has many mansions”, that is the Rastafarian Movement. It has a variety of ideologies that differ from one another. There are different groups, known as Mansions, within the movement. The common ones are: The Twelve Tribes of Israel; an order which was formed in 1968 by Vernon Carrington, who is known to the movement as “Prophet Gad”. This is the most liberal of all the other Rastafarian orders. Members of The Twelve Tribes consider themselves the direct descendants of the 12 Sons of Jacob. The 12 Sons are divided into 12 Houses which are determined by your birth month. Bob Marley was a notable member of the Twelve Tribes.The Twelve Tribes is the closest, from a belief perspective, to Christianity and The Twelve Tribe’s beliefs are based on the teachings of The Holy Bible, particularly the Books of the Old Testament and this group reads a chapter a day of the King James Version of the Bible. As they say, “A chapter a day, keeps the devil away”. One of the big differences from the other Mansions is that The Twelve Tribes of Israel do not separate themselves from society and members are free to worship in a church of their choosing.
Another mansion is the Nyabinghi order which is the oldest of all the Rastafari Mansions. Nyabinghi was a legendary Rwandan/Ugandan/ Tanzanian woman, whose name is reported to mean “the one who possesses many things”. The date and place of her birth are contested. The Nyabinghi movement in Rwanda/Uganda, dates the birth of Nyabinghi between 1750–1800. She was known to have possessive power and would go into a trance when chanting. She was a warrioress who led a number of rebellions. It is believed that her strength came from the drumbeat. Today the Rastas in the Nyabinghi order have adopted the ideology of beating a drum to transcend to higher spiritual realms. The Nyabinghi order regards water, air and fire as representations of the elements of life and they eat organic produce only, such as vegetables, fruits, herbs and barks, and they avoid the consumption of salt. Ethiopia is especially important to the Mansion, and they emphasise the importance of the repatriation of black people to Africa.
Then there is the Bobo Ashanti – “Bobo” meaning “black” and “Ashanti” to pay homage to the Ashanti ancestors of the Akan tribe in present-day Ghana, known for its warriors. In fact, the name Bobo Ashanti essentially means “Black warrior”. This group originates from Bull Bay near Kingston, Jamaica. The Bobo Ashanti are one of the strictest Mansions of Rastafari, they cover their dreadlocks with bright turbans and wear long robes and can usually be distinguished from other Rastafari members because of this.
So, although there are multiple Mansions in the movement, they do, however, for the most part, all share the same common ideology.
The name of the movement Rastafari is an Ethiopian name (Ras Tafari) meaning Head Creator and it was the birth name of Ethiopia’s 225th and last emperor, who was born on 23 July 1892, and took the name Haile Selassie on his coronation. Rastas accord key importance to Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Ethiopia between 1930 and 1974. Many say he was God on Earth, others regard him as the Second Coming of Jesus, while others see him as a human prophet who fully recognised Jah’s presence in every individual. The biggest question here would be, how does the Emperor of Ethiopia become so central to the ideology of the movement?
To understand this, we need to go back to the 1920’s in Jamaica where Marcus Massiah Garvey told the African people of the world to unite and to return to Africa, their homeland. Garvey’s vision was for black people to overcome their feelings of inferiority and build upon their own unique and evolving culture, and ultimately return to Africa to redeem their homeland and to build a future. Garvey created the U.N.I.A. and the Negro World newspaper, he would use these platforms to inform and educate black people in the diasporas about Africa. Through his teachings and his prophecies, which proved to be accurate, his following grew to more than 4 million devout followers, most of whom regarded him to be a prophet.
Garvey told his followers, “Look towards Africa for the crowning of a Black king – he shall be the redeemer”. In 1930, this prophecy came to pass when Haile Selassie was crowned emperor of Ethiopia and named “King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion of The Tribe Judah, Elect of Himself and Light of the world”. This event is as important to a Rasta as the birth of Christ is to a Christian.
For Rastas there are multiple biblical correlations supporting this prophecy such as the fact that Haile Selassie traced his lineage back to the House of Solomon which was a dynasty of the Ethiopian Empire formed in the thirteenth century. The House of Solomon’s members claim lineal descent from the biblical Kings Solomon and David. In light of the above, verse 5: 2-5 of the book of Revelation is seen as being a direct reference to Haile Selassie in that it states: “And one of the elders saith unto me, Weep not: behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, hath prevailed to open the book, and to loose the seven seals thereof.”
This was proof positive that black people could achieve a better way of life than what they were subjected to. The coronation also gave the movement its political agenda, that of Pan Africanism and African Nationalism, which caused some Rastafarians and other scholars to see the movement as being far more than a religious movement. It was also a political one, by identifying with the new Black king, the powerless became powerful as Selassie was a Black emperor of virtually the only African nation to successfully resist colonialism. He evoked Black Nationalist sentiments and provided hope for an eventual triumph over racism.
So, as I have said the Rastafarian movement incorporates not only religious views and beliefs but spiritual and political views too. These are all accommodated in the numerous Mansions in which these views and beliefs can find a home. The reference to and emphasis on the word “movement” is important as most Rastas believe that a Rastas’ way of life is forever evolving and their spiritual growth does not have limitations (Exodus, movement of Jah People).
It is perhaps now appropriate that we circle back and deal with the “herb”. The burning and smoking of the herb serves as a sacrament which promotes a humble heart and unity. The herb, and its use, are also referenced several times in the Bible these include: ‘ He causeth the grass for the cattle, and the herb for the service of man’ (Psalms 104:14), ‘. . . thou shalt eat the herb of the earth’ (Genesis 3:18), ‘ . . . eat every herb of the land’ (Exodus 10:12), ‘ . . . Better is the dinner of herb where love is, than a stalledox and hatred therewith’ (Proverbs 15:17).
Despite all of the above the Rastafarian community still remains misunderstood, marginalised and is the subject of discrimination. Their peaceful gatherings are normally disrupted by police, often resulting in arrest. For years Rastas have individually, and as a collective, been fighting against discrimination and demanding equal rights and justice.
One of the most prejudicial acts towards the Rasta community in S.A is that we do not enjoy the protection of our own constitution, which in chapter 2 guarantees that everyone has the right to freedom of religion, belief and opinion. Additionally, Section 9, the Equality clause, prohibits unfair discrimination on various grounds including religion. These protections, which are supposed to be sacrosanct, somehow do not apply to Rastas, causing us to be further marginalised and making us easy targets for discrimination.
But what you also now know is that the Rastafarianism of Marcus Massiah Garvey is founded in the struggle for the liberation of the people, and we will continue with this struggle (hopefully now with your help) so that we are identified and respected as citizens of this country.
It is this struggle mentality, our passion and beliefs that have over the past few years brought about some “movement” in the right direction. There have been numerous meetings and discussions between the Government and the Rasta community in S.A. led by the RUF (Rastafari United Front). Some of the victories achieved relate to Rasta children being able to attend school wearing dreadlocks (although some schools in certain provinces (bizarrely and unacceptably) still refuse to alter their rules of conduct) and of course there has been the partial decriminalisation of the herb which we can now grow and consume in private. We still, however, have a long “trod” ahead of us and whilst we may be physically home (in Africa) we will never really be home until we are able to practice Rastafarianism freely and without prejudice and discrimination.
This was a very brief introduction to our way of life and our struggle and I hope that this article has shed some light (even if only slightly) into the Rasta way of life and that you now have a better understanding of the movement and who we are and what we stand for.
I will in the next editions be sharing more with you like our diet, as to how the community upholds the principle of self-reliance, the history of the Rastafarian movement in South Africa, the key role players who are currently active in the movement as well as the spread of the Rastafarianism movement to places like China.
I look forward to sharing these future segments with you.
By Herburn Series