They are known for their unique lifestyle, dreadlocks, love for reggae music, the colors red, yellow and green, and love of the ‘herb’, aka marijuana. Rastafarians are fast becoming an integral part of the mosaic that is Rwandan society.
The word ‘Rastafarian’ is derived from the words ‘Ras’ and ‘Tafari’, titles given to the last emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie. The Rastafarian movement traces its roots back to both the Jamaican tradition and the influence of Jamaican born American Marcus Mosiah Garvey; who had a vision of African redemption after colonialism. In the 1930`s, four clergy men Leonard P. Howell, Robert Hinds, Archibald Dunkley and Nathaniel Hibbert all claimed to have had a revelation about the coronation of Haile Selassie.
Howell, the most outspoken of the four had an agenda of establishing a community of followers and succeeded in 1940 by forming the pinnacle community of St. Catherine Jamaica; this became the first Rastafarian community. If you think they are just an isolated group of people with a penchant for reggae music, you have another thing coming.
Society Magazine caught up with the Rasta community living in Rwanda, seeking first hand knowledge of Rastafarian culture and how it fits in Rwanda. Ras Kayaga, a law graduate from the University of Bukavu turned artist, was among the many Rastas we spoke to.
What we discovered was a complex belief system and not one merely governed by music and marijuana smoking. “We do not belong to any sect, religion or denomination. We also believe in the power of reincarnation, clinging to the belief that from one birth to another, the same spirit persists”, he says. “This according to us makes all prophets equal, from Elijah to Garvey to Haile Selassie”.
On the subject of why he didn’t pursue a career in law, Ras Kayaga said, “I love thinking, to me law never allowed me to think other than follow drafted guidelines. I love drawing, it makes me paste a smile on people`s faces because of its beauty,” he explains.
Their distinctive identity and curious traditions have remained relevant in their day-to-day lives. For instance, the use of marijuana commonly referred to as weed is tolerated. “If you have strength you can use it. It is like food; you take what is enough for your body,” the eloquent Ras Kayaga explains.
“God created things and we respect His creation and so we live in harmony with the natural world and we have persistently upheld this by taking natural food. I cannot for example slaughter an animal because that is going against the will of Jah (God). Our hairstyle, sense of community and simplicity paints this well. When I’m ill I don`t go to the hospital, I treat myself with what nature provides,” Ras Kayaga concludes.
To get a variety of views we talked to Ras Mike, Ras Jungle, Ras Fabris and Ras Kimeza, a group of musicians who play together. On this particular day, they were having rehearsals for a performance in memory of Lucky Dube who died on 18th of October 2007. On arrival, I was greeted in a unique manner that took me slightly aback. “ Rasta Jah bless”, I was welcomed.
This greeting moved me my first question, about how they greet. “This is to show we are sons of Haile Selassie; the king, lion of Judah, the black messiah,” a cool Ras Fabris answers. “So, what is the importance of Haile Selassie in the religious lives of Rastafarians,” I asked? Ras Mike, referring to the book of Book of Revelations 19:15, said that he was ‘THE KING OF KINGS’. “He is with us and manifests in each and every one of us who practice love, peace and harmony,” says Ras Mike. And apparently, Jah is worshipped to the sounds of the ‘Nyabingi’.
At that pronouncement, an uneasy silence descended.
“ So, I asked, what is Nyabingi? “These are drumbeats. We play them while praising Him so that people can hear the message,” a passionate Ras Kimeza responds.
To sum up the teachings of Rastafarianism, we talked to Ras Natty Dread, a renowned reggae artist. “Rastafarianism is non-political and non-religious and is out to follow the culture of our fathers. We believe in God and read religious literature. We respect every institution in the land. We detest fornication and always believe that family is at the core of society. The king is the husband, the wife, the queen, and their children the seeds. We are bound together as a family-the Rastafarian community. We have our own challenges but Jah stands by us always,” he explained spiritedly.
So, Rastarariansim wasn’t all about dreadlocks and marijuana. It was a complex and quite confusing summation of beliefs and cultures.