Reggae and Rastafari on the Garden Route

I recently had the precious opportunity to go on the road with one of my best friends. We went up the Garden Route to the beautiful Tsitsikamma area and took some time in our journey to visit Judah Square.

This blogpost has also been a topic in our Podcast. Listen to Stranger Talks Episode 3: Religion, Smoking and Reasoning

The entrance to Judah Square

It would be my first time visiting in years. It’s the biggest organised Rastafarian community in South Africa. Despite this fact, it is still a relatively small community which occupies a single street in the greater Khayalethu area, just outside Knysna.

For the love of Reggae

The power of music lies within its ability to express what people are feeling with the greatest eloquence. Melancholy, joy, frustration, shame or shared struggle – music has the ability to capture what words can not due to its ability to evoke raw human emotion.

Reggae is a particularly powerful example of this medium, which overrides class, ethnic and identity differences and appeals to people from all walks of life. As a style of music, it is usually identified by its distinctive and rhythmic heartbeat drumming. Part of its association with Rastafari is due to the continuous popularity of Bob Marley and the Wailers.

I knew and loved reggae music long before I knew anything about the Rastafarian principles of livity, consciousness and reasoning. As time progressed I have had the opportunity to meet some families in scattered communities around South Africa, and slowly became more and more acquainted. While driving through the maze of narrow streets in Khayalethu, a brightly painted wall with a colourful mural indicating the House of Judah, tells you that you are in the right place. Its entrance is marked by a wooden boom which is painted the characteristic red, yellow and green. The street that follows is decorated with murals containing figures, imagery and heroes from the Rastafarian universe.

We met with Brother Zebulon, who kindly showed us around. The community is quite orthodox. A Tabernacle built of stone and corrugated iron, occupies a central space: “We did negotiate, we did contemplate that we want to live our lifestyle peacefully, naturally and based on the Bible.” Every day is started in the Tabernacle at 5 am, where rhythmic drumming, and the singing of prayers hushes in a new day. The drumming is done slowly and deliberately, emulating the beating heart.

The Origins of Rastafari

Emperor Selassie Adorns Many Murals

Rastafari is a cultural and religious movement that began in Jamaica in the 1930s. It is named after Ras Tafari (Prince Tafari), the title Haile Selassie I held before he was coronated Emperor of Ethiopia in 1930. Emperor Selassie was a member of the House of Solomon. Members of this dynasty are patrilineal descendants of the biblical King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.The fact that he was also the emperor of an African country that was never colonised, made him a symbol of liberation, independence, black consciousness and decolonisation. It is believed by Rastafarians that Emperor Selassie was the second messiah – God Incarnated. Ethiopia is thus regarded to be the Holy Land. Undertaking a pilgrimage there is a coveted experience.

 

Playing with Language

The terminological gymnastics of Rastafari is amazing. It is very evident that they believe in the power of the spoken word: “We don’t want to connect with the negativities, so we use a positive vibe, man.” Everyone is addressed as brother or sister. You would never say ‘appreciaHATE’, you would say appreciaLOVE. Instead of “we” or “us”, there is I and I. This is to remove the separation implied by the words ‘them’ or ‘us’. You don’t ‘understand’ something, you overstand it. Neither do you ‘enjoy’, you full-joy!

Brother Zebulon is an eloquent, educated, deeply religious man with a singular, massive dreadlock that almost touches the floor. It’s covered in a white cotton bag, but as he walks and excitedly gestures it keeps falling off. Every now and then he carefully interrupts himself, taking a moment to re-cover the incredible Dreadlock. This specific dreadlock has been a work-in-progress for the past twenty years. He tells us that Rastafarians are strictly monogamous, equally strictly vegetarian and they do not consume any alcohol.

Brother Zebulon, Pictured in front of his favourite Mural: the Lion of Zion

Speaking in Rhymes

He speaks with a slight upward inflection. His accent has a simultaneous Capetonian and Jamaican twang. He constantly twists his sentences into rhythmic rhymes. He humorously describes his vegetarian diet and the herbal sacrament:

“see, I and I Rastafarians,

 are God-fearing, Bible reading, peace loving vegetarians

 – wrongly perceived as outcasts.

 We don’t eat no meat eggs or fish,

 it’s too animalistic,

 barbaristic

and cannibalistic.

Some of us, not even chocolates or sweets,

cause with rotten teeth

you’ll end up a semi-diabeet.

Instead of bread and wine, I and I prefer the natural herbs Sativa Cannabis!

A Powerful substance which cleanses the body and mind.

It heals the soul,

it exalts consciousness

and facilitates peacefulness.”

Ganja (Cannabis) is used daily by Rastafarians as a religious sacrament. Recent legislation decriminalising the use, cultivation and possession of marijuana in South Africa has paved a road towards the necessary de-stigmatisation of this practice. As we had a little roam-around the community, we realised that everyone was preparing for a celebration outside of town – ‘Rastafarian Christmas’. It coincided with the Orthodox Christian dates of celebration in early January. Makes sense.

Despite being the biggest Rastafarian community in South Africa, Judah Square is still relatively small

Admiring the Garden

We are invited to see his garden. It boasts several vegetable patches and many, big – almost wild Marijuana plants. Having been here before I realised that there is definitely a more open atmosphere around the use and cultivation of the plant. Gardens now have the proud addition of quite a few ganja plants, and neighbours take pride in the progress of each other’s plants. It is after all, a central aspect of the Rastafarian livity. Formerly all this had to happen on the down-low, and with constant vigilance.

After sampling some of ‘the new wine’, we are back on the road, left with thoughts about a different way of being in the world. It’s definitely very peaceful here. We sway to the reggae music on the car’s stereo, passing the indigenous forests of Tsitsikamma. It’s a sunny day in South Africa. We drive onward, to the beat. No – to the Heartbeat.

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