Rastafari (also Rastafarianism) is a spiritual and political movement which syncretizes elements of Christianity and Pan-Africanism. It started in 1930s Jamaica, inspired by the teachings of Jamaican-born activist Marcus Garvey and following the inauguration of the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie. It is named after Selassie’s pre-coronation name, Ras Tafari. Adherents are called Rastafarians or Rastas.
The first Rastas descended from enslaved Africans, and faced social, economic and political injustice in Jamaica. They believed that the King James Bible and English language, with which their ancestors had been converted to Christianity, were intentionally misinterpreted to subjugate slaves. Rastas therefore repurpose scripture and use language differently in resistance. For instance, in Iyaric, the Rastafari dialect, they say overstand instead of understand, and downpression rather than oppression. Each denomination or mansion of Rastafari, including Nyabinghi, Bobo Ashanti and Twelve Tribes of Israel, interprets differently.
Generally, Rastas worship a single God, Jah. They believe Jah incarnated on Earth twice, first as Jesus Christ, and then as Haile Selassie, to deliver them to the African continent, which they call Zion. According to Rastafari, diasporic Africans are exiles in Babylon, subject to slavery, and other forms of racial oppression as a test from Jah. Rastas often wear their hair natural and dreadlocked. They also follow a vegetarian diet called ital, and wear the colours red, gold, green and black. Communal meetings are called groundations and feature music, dancing, and smoking ganja to aid meditation.
Famous Rastas include Reggae musician Bob Marley, and preacher Leonard Howell (aka “The First Rasta”), who founded Pinnacle, Jamaica’s first Rasta settlement in 1940. Rastafari has since spread worldwide with over a million followers. Increasingly it faces critique for its patriarchal tenets. Rastafari women are expected to submit to men. Unlike men, women should cover their hair and wear loose clothing. And though men can have multiple partners, women are expected to commit to a single male partner. Rastas have also been criticised for their conservative stance against contraception, abortion and homosexuality.
By Nnenna Onuoha