Blunts, Dreadlocks and Prayers: Rastafarians in Kenya want to be recognized as a religion

KEN190127TO006NAIROBI, Kenya – Dressed in a red turban and black robe, Douglas Okello bowed and gazed at the portrait of Emperor Haile Selassie pinned up in his one-room mud shack in Kibera slum in Nairobi.

Then he prayed, and smoked a joint.

“I believe in Haile Selassie I, the Ethiopian emperor who will deliver us to the promised land,” said Okello, 28. “This is a calling from Jah, and a true Rastafari must smoke weed to cleanse his soul.”

Rastafari, increasingly popular in Kenya, is a faith that started in Jamaica in the 1930s following the coronation of Haile Selassie I as King of Ethiopia. Rastafaris regard Haile Selassie as God of the black race even though there is no central authority in the faith. They believe he will one day return all black people living in so-called exile – outside Africa – as the result of migration and the slave trade back to the continent.

To keep their faith, Rastafaris don’t cut their hair but grow it, uncombed, into dreadlocks. They smoke marijuana and reject materialist values. They practice a strict oneness with nature, eating only unprocessed foods.

Okello who has been a Rastafari for the past five years said he joined the movement after he developed aliking for reggae music while studying at the University of Nairobi. The reggae musicians singing about how black people were oppressed spoke to him, he said.

“I received a spirit that led me to start growing dreadlocks and learn how to smoke marijuana,” he said. “If you are a true Rastafarian, everything changes and you start to understand the Bible. I don’t consume animals nowadays.”

The faith has grown so much among the young in Kenya, its leaders say, that they have developed social media platforms to address issues affecting the youth. There are no official figures on Rastafaris in Kenya but estimates put the global figure at one million.

Last year, for example, the group, the Rastafarian Family Elders, estimates that more than 1,000 people shifted from Christianity to Rastafari in Nairobi’s Kibera slum alone. The Elders said the youths in the country have started realizing the religion favors their interests.

"Youths who are black have been oppressed since the days of colonization,” said Ras Malonza, one of the group leaders. "They were made slaves to whites and that’s the reason they found themselves in Jamaica,”

“Jamaica is hell to us and Ethiopia is our heaven,” he added. “Finally, we will be repatriated to Ethiopia which is our promised land by Haile Selassie. Black youths will no longer be oppressed and we will live in freedom and peace.”

Malonza, 43, who was a staunch Catholic, says he regrets the years he wasted not believing in Haile Selassie.

Instead, he says Rastafaris are the true believers, quoting Jeremiah 8:21: “For the hurt of the daughter of my people am I hurt; I am black; astonishment hath taken hold on me.”

“We are the only religion that follows the Bible,” added Malonza who confirmed that they will be celebrating the coronation of Haile Selassie on Nov. 1 this year. “It’s always a big day for us. Our God is black and the Bible confirms that.”

Anthony Maiga, a theologian and pastor for the United Methodist Church of Kenya in Nairobi said the faithful of the group trace Haile Selassie's lineage back to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, and therefore to Jesus.He added that the faith is seeing rapid growth because many young people see themselves reflected in the language and behavior of Rastafaris.

“Youths love something that does not restrict them, like smoking and abusing drugs, listening to secular music and sharing things instead of working and paying for their own," said Maiga. "The sect encourages such behavior and obviously they are likely to get more youths.”

Like Jacob Maina, 35, who also lives in the slum, said he joined the faith because he was looking for freedom. Originally of the protestant faith, he said Christianity restricted him: He could not smoke marijuana, question oppressors or listen to his favorite reggae musician Bob Marley.

“I was actually in prison when I was a Christian,” he said. “Christianity condemns everything that youths enjoy. The Rastafari faith allows youths to live good life. We don’t give offering on Sabbath day and we are allowed to smoke marijuana and listen to reggae music.”

Rastafaris, meanwhile, do face discrimination and are viewed as criminals because of their pot smoking and their appearance, especially the dreadlocks, local leaders say. In Kenya, a neat and smart appearance is important socially.

Recently, a court in Nairobi ordered officials at Olympic High School in Kibera slum to admit a Rastafari student after she was refused due to her dreadlocks.

The Rastafari prophet, according to the Rastafarian Family Elders, Ras Lojuron, defended the student's right not to cut her hair citing prohibitions in the Bible, while accusing the school and other institutions of religious discrimination.

“It’s time for people to understand and respect our faith just as we respect other religions,” he said.

Meanwhile, Okello hopes society and especially the government stops its harassment and discrimination of Rastafaris.

“The police should treat us well,” he said. “We are a religion just like Christianity and Islam.”

Photo: Rastafarian family elders John Wambua (left) and Ras Malonza (right) at their social hall during prayers in the Kibera slums in Nairobi on January 23, 2019. The religious group has attracted thousands of youths across the country.
Credit: Tonny Onyulo/ ARA Network Inc. (01/23/19)

Story/photo publish date: 04/17/19

A version of this story was published in Religion News Service.
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