Jah weed is our sacrament, says Kenyan Rastafarians
NATIONAL | By Mercy Adhiambo | May 22nd 2021
The smell of burning incense wafts through a tiny room where a group of Rastafarians is meeting. The distinctive smell of roasted herbs hangs heavy in the air. One of them strums a guitar that is placed delicately on his chest. His eyes are closed. He starts singing and the rest join in. They beat drums and shake their dreadlocks. For a moment, they are lost in their own world. A world they say they love so much, but many people have not made an attempt to understand.
The group members are at their centre in Kibra, Nairobi, where they meet regularly to talk about their religion. They call it the “Rastafari Kenyan Embassy”. They speak pidgin that is characteristic of people in the Caribbean. It is in the same room, they say, that they have got many a beating from police officers who break in and harass them for having illegal gatherings. Outside, a team of police officers has a lorry parked nearby.
“We’re the most misunderstood people in this country. We are harmless and all we care for is love and peace; yet we’re treated badly, as if we have no rights to our belief,” says Ras Lojuron Jaden, the 48-year-old chairman of Rastafari Society of Kenya.
They prefer Ras to be put before their names. Ras is an Amharic word equivalent to duke or prince. The Rastafari movement has strong roots in Ethiopia, which they believe to be the ultimate home of all Africans and the seat of Jah, who they believe to be the ultimate creator. Even though there is no official population of the Rastafarians in Kenya, Lojuron says they are many, and the number has been rapidly growing.
Mudachi Isavua, one of the Rastafarians, says that the misconception that men with dreadlocks are criminals has made their life difficult for them. Being in the slum where there is a high crime rate makes it even more complex. Missing Rotich says he has lost count of the number of times he has been stopped by police due to his rugged look, but there is nothing under the sun that will ever make him cut his dreadlocks or stop believing in Jah. He says even though he drifted into Rastafarianism out of schoolboy curiosity, he has never looked back. He is now in his forties.
“I discovered that the white man was oppressing us with their religion. Telling us that there is a heaven and we should not care for earthly things. But they were stealing our earthly things. Rastafarians believe in creating heaven down here,” he says.
On what Kenyan Rastafari do, he says they are guided by the dogma that man was created to love nature.
Their small room is full of cats and herbs. Lojuron says animals are instinctively trained to follow good vibrations, and the cats Rastafari have ooze of nothing but good vibrations.
“Animals will come where they feel most welcome. We feed and care for them, so they keep coming,” says Lojuron. Their hair are uncut and unmaintained. They believe it is Jah’s command that hair flows without distraction.
They are mostly vegetarians. The one type of vegetable they cherish most is marijuana - and has put them in conflict with the law for many years. The Rastafari members have been in the news recently for their unwavering push for legalisation of marijuana.
“Rastafari use marijuana as sacrament. It is a holy herb. Everyone was born with cannabis receptors and it is sad that the government does not want us to grow our own,” says Lojuron.
He gets slightly agitated when asked how often one should take sacramental marijuana.
“We take marijuana whenever we pray or when we want to feel connected with Jah. That is like asking how often one should pray. The answer is: infinity,” he says.
Contrary to the popular song, You don’t Have to Have Dreads to be Rasta, by Morgan Heritage that suggested Rastafarianism is beyond hair, Lojuron and his team believe hair and reggae music are a big part of the movement.
“Nobody is born without hair. It is our identity,” says Lojuron.
He says that unlike other religions that go about preaching and hoping to fish converts, the Rastafari movement believes one is born with a “Rastafari heartbeat”. It is an inborn gift where one who feels the urgent need to be liberated joins. They then pass the belief to their children who learn about Rastafarianism by watching them.
“Once you become a rasta, you never turn back,” says Maina Mwika, who adds that people focus on marijuana when Rastafarianism is mentioned, but there is so much about them, including the fact that they have demystified the oppression that mainstream religion focuses on.
Karatu Kiemo, a sociologist and lecturer at the University of Nairobi, says it will be a long time before Kenyans fully embrace Rastafarianism. He says the fact that it is a counterculture movement that seeks to revise what people hold to be normal is the greatest hindrance to its growth.
“It is only the youth who are cultivating it among themselves. It is not there among children so it cannot take root,” he says.
He says even though there are ardent Rastafarians, there are others who are attracted by the allure of easy lifestyle it has. The bright coloured clothing, long flowing hair and being allowed to smoke weed is what most people pursue.
Kolua Ochol, who ditched her Christian name and took up Rastafarianism, says what attracted her to the movement was the fact that there were no threats of consequences that define mainstream religions.
“I threw my wig off and started growing dreadlocks. Finally, I was in a religion that does not keep reminding me of how I will burn in hell. Instead, it was telling me to enjoy life and live well with people around me,” she says.
Kiemo says Rastafari is mostly a cultural movement that traces its origin to slavery and most Kenyans who get into it simply imitate what the Rastafari in the Caribbean are doing.
Lojuron says it is small wins, like the court case that stopped a school from forcing a Rastafari student to cut her hair, which make them feel that the movement is gaining momentum. They believe one day many Kenyans will see the light and cross over to a world where cannabis is smoked without restraint and humans live to their true calling without the shackles of mainstream religion that is un-African.
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