There are just about a million Rastafarians on the planet but they punch well above their weight. Almost everyone has heard of them, of the musician Bob Marley and the island of Jamaica, where the Rastafari movement started. Beyond that, we have some sketchy ideas. They are a religious sect of African origin from the Caribbean. They worship the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie I, the Lion of Judah. They wear their hair in dreadlocks, play reggae music and exude a cool vibe.
But there’s a lot more to the Rastafari people, their beliefs and knowledge, that is fascinating and worth emulating.
Over the years, I have met Rastas in Ethiopia, London and New York, and especially in the West Indies, where the sight of long, open locks swaying against the hips of a man, or a high-piled head-wrap on a woman, is not an uncommon sight. More recently, a journey of discovery was triggered by conversations with Rastas I met in farmer markets, their specialised herbology, and food stalls with their typical diet, known as Ital, in Saint Lucia, Grenada and Barbados.
The story began in the 1920s in Jamaica, with the ideas of Marcus Garvey, a political activist who addressed the displacement and suffering of African people victimised by colonialism and slavery. The loss of their language, culture and family connections had stripped them of their bearing. They came together, and like a tree, sought strong roots to thrive. Repatriation to African soil became a theme and a longing. “Look to Africa where a black king shall be crowned, he shall be the Redeemer,” Garvey had said, and when Haile Selassie was crowned in 1930, he became their messiah, and his pre-coronation name, Ras (Prince) Tafari Makonnen, the name of their movement.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Christian (Tewahedo) church had its very own link to the Bible, for it was believed that the Ethiopian queen of Sheba visited King Solomon in Jerusalem and had a son by him called Menelik, who ruled Ethiopia. The Ark of the Covenant had been brought to Ethiopia by him when he visited his father as a young man. His descendant, Selassie, who remained unconquered by the Italians, upheld the pride of Africans. He was seen as the Lion of Judah, their saviour. This direct African connection to Christianity was held sacred, and the Rastafari, to this day, live by the words of the Bible. Jerusalem, the promised land they long for, is represented by Africa, especially Ethiopia.
They adopted the colours of the Ethiopian flag, red, yellow and green. Some Rastafarians even migrated to Shashemene in Ethiopia, where a community still exists.
The interiors of Rastafari homes, craft studios and shops have pictures of Selassie as well as Marley, whose poignant lyrics, such as “one love, one heart, let’s get together and feel alright”, resonated with rebellious sentiments against the oppressors and a desire to seek what really matters in life.
Rastas believe they have had a spiritual awakening, gained consciousness, and they understand better how to live alongside the planet, rather than dominating it and profiting from it. They turned to their African roots and regained an affinity with the soil; some turned to animism, a belief that even the mountains, springs and trees have spirits.
Ras Moses, a renowned herbalist in his late 70s, tucks his felted hair in a tam (knitted hat). He listens closely to the people lined up at his stall of tonics and plant extracts at the Holders Farmers Market in Barbados. He’s known to cure all manner of ailments. “I stayed in isolation for years, foraging, fasting and sleeping in a cave,” he says, “and I observed what the birds and creatures ate, and learnt a lot from them. I tried the effects of plants and roots on myself.”
He has shared his knowledge of plants, such as the immune-boosting noni flower, cancer-fighting soursop leaves, and asthma-calming milk brush. All this can be accessed on YouTube: Ras Moses—medicinal plants of Barbados.
Another time, I meet Jarius Mayers, a tall, stately gardener with a dazzling smile, the embodiment of rude health. “The whole idea for us Rastas is to live closer to nature,” he says. “With my diet, I find my body operates better and I recover from sickness sooner than other people. I purge myself with herbal remedies such as dandelion, pusley and sea moss. Spirulina keeps me moving. I can withstand the heat and cold much better.”
When asked about the typical Rasta diet, he says: “We call it Ital food, and it’s a plant-powered, vegetarian diet (although some people have a little fish too). We grow a lot of what we eat in our backyards. Things like lentils, legumes, peas, sweet potatoes, yams, pumpkins, carrots, onions, breadfruit, green bananas and plenty of leafy greens. We season our dishes with lots of herbs, root garlic, ginger, turmeric, tamarind and cayenne pepper. Almost everything is cooked in coconut milk.”
In Saint Lucia, I try a plateful of Ital food at a market—a medley of vegetables and beans heaped on chunks of breadfruit. It tastes sublime. Lucy, the chef, says with pride: “You won’t find any processed or artificially flavoured things in my kitchen. Nor anything from a tin. There’s very little salt, and the sweetness comes from moringa powder, a super food which is also high in protein.”
I was amazed at just how well the Rastas have thought through and adhered to the healthiest, greenest, kindest and most planet-friendly principles. I struggled to find an overweight Rasta.
“Dairy is not my thing,” says Lucy, “but I can offer you many kinds of bush teas to wash it all down.” I opt for a memorable chocolate tea boiled with freshly powdered cacao, coconut milk, ginger, nutmeg and agave.
Having had a closer look at this unsung tribe, I am full of admiration for them. Ya, man. Respect!
Geetika Jain shares notable notions from around the world.