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Thread: A Gathering Of The Lions Of Zion

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    A Gathering Of The Lions Of Zion

    The world of a Rastafarian is a quiet, closed one. Lindile Sifile attempted a peek inside. The thunderous sound of djembe drums and African tambourine echoes through the clustered shacks of Silvertown informal settlement in Queenstown. The noise drowns the subdued voices of men and women chanting around the fire.

    It’s 6am on a Tuesday and the weak rays of the rising sun battle to defrost the thin layer of ice covering car windows and grass. But the group, seemingly in a trance, appears oblivious to the icy weather. This is the gathering of Rastafarians – a group who live on the outskirts of society, stereotyped as reggae musicians and dope-smoking dreadlocked fellows.

    This week, Queenstown hosted its first national Rastafarian convention at the Batawi Quarters of the Eastern Cape Nyabinghi Order in Silvertown. Elsewhere across the world, Rastafarians united to celebrate Ethiopian ruler, Haile Selassie’s journey to Jamaica in 1966 – a milestone to his worshippers. This was Selassie’s – considered to be the religious symbol for God incarnate among the Rastafari movement – first meeting with the Rastafarian community outside Ethiopia and strengthened the bond among his followers.

    The Silvertown meeting started last Friday and continued until Thursday. The turnout was low, but some Rastafarians travelled from Knysna, Cape Town and Kimberly to mark the significance of the event. Some married couples hitch-hiked their way to Queenstown with their babies on their backs.

    On Tuesday morning dreadlocked men in red, gold and green outfits formed a circle around the fire, while a heavily-bearded elderly priest intoned a prayer in an unfamiliar Caribbean accent. This is followed by the recitation of scriptures from Psalms.

    A few minutes later, the Rastas proceeded to their church, followed by drummers and their wives. The church, an iron and wood structure, is adorned with pictures of Selassie and red, gold and green colours abound – from the walls, drums to the clothes that are worn. In the centre stands an altar decorated with unrefined ganja, fruit, seven candles (representing the chief angels in the Bible) and more pictures of Selassie.

    This world is not easy to enter. It took two hours of interrogation on Friday night to explain why photographer Masi Losi and I were interested in attending the event. Eventually, by Sunday, we received permission to witness the ceremonies on condition that private meetings would not be recorded.

    To these folk, the seven- day conference symbolises the preservation of their faith and confirmation of their unity. Besides chanting throughout the night, the Rastafarians also conducted exhibitions and workshops to discuss internal issues.

    Ras Ikembe from Port Elizabeth acts as our guide to the closed world of Rastafarai.

    A married father of two, Ikembe has been a devoted Rastafarian for many years. Unlike other Rastas, he doesn’t speak with the Caribbean accent and seldom puffs ganja. His dreadlocks and the use of words like “overstand” (instead of understand) “brethren” (for brother), “Babylon” (trouble or the government) and “I-N-I” (meaning myself) are some of the things that mark him as a Rastafarian.

    Ikembe grew up in the Seventh Day Adventist church and was the only one of seven children who stepped outside the religion of his childhood. His father, a deeply devout Christian, could not accept his son’s decision.

    “He thought I was going to be a nuisance or a rascal but when we started to reason further and got much deeper into the bible we found some revelation. We asked ourselves some questions and what the bible meant to each of us. It was not about him telling me what to do. It was me talking about the bible. What do I see in it and what do I see happening around me,” explains Ikembe before sinking his teeth into a piece of fire-baked bread.

    Ikembe accepts that there is much misconception and confusion about Rastafarianism – whether it should be defined as a cult, religion or social movement.

    “It’s not a movement and it’s not a religion. It’s a way of life. Once you put it within religious context, it comes with certain affirmations like ‘thou shall not and thou shall’. Rasta is about accepting Selassie and respecting all living things.”

    The commercialisation of reggae music and the battle to have ganja legalised have also played a significant role in outsiders’ perceptions of Rastafarians. For many, Rastafarians are just about anyone with dreadlocks. But, of course, these days, the natty dreads have become a fashion statement.

    “Sometimes it pains us that people are using us to satisfy their needs and greed. But there’s nothing we can do about it. It just shows that Rastas are working in one way or the other. There will always be a difference between a Rastaman and a dreadlocked man. Anyone can smoke Ganja and have dreadlocks but not everybody can be a Rasta,” says Ikembe.

    His wife, Sista Zukiswa is a business management student who owns her own business. Her role as a Rasta woman is to look after the wellbeing of her family and to preserve blackness within her community through the teachings of Selassie.

    “Besides that, we find that we have a greater duty because we’ve got children and our youth need to be schooled. Most of us were not privileged enough to get education and it gets difficult for the parent to pass education to the youth when the parent didn’t have education in the first place.

    “The duty to the rising sisters is to be educated. And not just to be educated but we must aim for higher education so we can pass it on to the community,” Zukiswa says.

    And, as with other religions, women Rastas seem to take a secondary role when it comes to matters of the church.

    There are certain rules that they have to adhere to – like covering their dreadlocks with scarves, wearing ankle-length dresses and being barred from the altar. In Silvertown, most of the women were cooking pap while the menfolk chanted inside the church.

    Sista Zukiswa however, defends this. “There’s nothing I do that I don’t want to do. As women we know our place. We are not in a race with men. When God created men He knew man would not survive on his own and formed a woman through his ribs. We were not created at the same time which tells us that our roles wouldn’t be the same. In livity (life) it’s 50/50 but Rastafaria’s 50/50 is not the same as the 50/50 of Babylon (government). I don’t see the need to be inside the church when my husband is already there because we are connected to the same spirit of our Emperor.”

    She is equally forthright about matters of family and responsibility. “Our faith is against abortion, child vaccination and the use of contraception. We believe those are the some of the things that brought about the problems that we have today. Families are breaking up because of promiscuity and babies are dying of unknown diseases and young girls are falling pregnant, ” Zukiswa explains.

    Ras Judah Azania, who travelled from Cape Town, knows all about the prejudice against Rastafarians. Two years ago Ras Azania made headlines for fighting against the discrimination of his children by a Cape Town school which refused to register them as they didn’t have birth certificates. According to him, this was not only a violation of a child’s right to education, but ignorance by the government for shunning children who were not born in a hospital.

    “I had sleepless nights fighting the department of education. I wasn’t prepared to let my children suffer because my wife and I chose to have home-birth and why does the government want to keep us on tight leash by counting us,” says Ras Azania. His actions bore fruit as his children were later admitted.

    The case of Rastafarian lawyer Gareth Prince, who took the Cape Law Society to court in 2003 after he was threatened with expulsion for smoking ganja, will go down as one of the milestones in Rastafari faith.

    Ikembe says ganja plays a small part in their lives. “Not all of us Rastas smoke ganja. I’m an occasional smoker and today I’ve only had two puffs and that’s all I needed to get me through the day. To us, it is just for medicinal purposes and anything beyond that is an abuse of the herb that our master gave us.”

    Still, as I drove back to East London, I wondered whether my guide, Ikembe, had answered all my questions about the group of people to whom he belongs. A little window had opened yes, but the battle to have it opened left many questions unanswered.

    Source: Daily Dispatch Online
    Copyright: 2008, The Daily Dispatch
    Contact: Lindile Sifile
    Website: Daily Dispatch Online
    Last edited by Herb Fellow; 04-26-2008 at 05:33 AM. Reason: website