Violating Rastafari

Violating Rastafari

We must secure basic human rights for our vulnerable and valued citizens

Jahlani Niaah

Thursday, June 04, 2020

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Over the past nine decades Rastafari have endured notable abuses at the hands of the colonial and post-colonial governments. They have also been significant players within the Jamaican pre- and post-Independence projects, advancing processes of decolonisation and the attendant nation-building.

Just one year ago the local media brought to public attention an incident — the trimming of two Rastafari youth (minors) after they had been temporarily given over to police custody. That case, still unresolved, allowed for ventilation on the matters related to the violation of the rights and personhood of those holding Rastafari faith. In particular, this focused on strict principles and practices such as the non-cutting of hair (locks and beards) and, in some instances, adherence to an Ital or plant-based lifestyle. Both had been violated in the above case.

Several years earlier, a Nyahbinghi elder, in a care home in Kingston, was pressured by the responsible staff to allow them to remove his locks on the rationale that his hair impeded his proper care. His family was not consulted, nor was any effort made to do so.

More importantly, these incidents highlight the vulnerability of Rastafari, and particularly those who are dependent, isolated, and not able to defend themselves in language known as human rights.

A later incident involving the barring of a child with dreadlocks from attending a primary school further highlighted the society's lack of appreciation for Rastafari livity. The Attorney General's Chambers, in a response to the situation following appeals by the child's parents, endorsed the idea that the wearing of locks is inherently associated with poor physical hygiene and suggested that such hair exposed both the wearer and other students to a discipline and/r hygienic threat negatively affecting teaching and learning. Needless to say there was extreme public outrage in reaction to this news and the implications it directed at Rastafari in general and their ability for parental care and development.

With all the aforementioned having occurred, we would sincerely hope that members of our society would have developed an understanding of and respect for Rastafari principles of personhood and a more sophisticated understanding of all people's natural and human rights. More importantly, there is the need for first responders; that is, public servants charged with assisting those in distress, to understand their responsibility to not only mitigate distress but to prevent any harm and suspend personal opinions and prejudices in exercising their duties.

We are once more confronted by a case of the violation of the most vulnerable within Rastafari. I am referring to the recent desecration of the personhood of the Rastafari Nyahbinghi priest known as Binghi Irie Lion. This 78-year-old elder had grown his precepts (as the beard is called) for 57 years. At this point of his life, his precepts represented both his spiritual covenant with the creator as well as his accumulated history and journey in this tradition. It is germane to his dignity and identity almost akin to his processional cross.

Binghi Irie was admitted to hospital due to conditions related to a stroke he suffered some months earlier. Because of limitations imposed by the situation surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, his family had to consent to restricted visitation schedules. It was during a time when family attention was not present that an unthinkable and as yet unexplained invasion of his person was conducted by hospital staff. While he was bound to the bed, one or more unidentified members of staff dishonoured his Rastafari covenant by shaving his precepts. This act not only severely traumatised Binghi Irie, but every member of his family. They are victims of institutional disregard and disrespect for Rastafari codes of sanctity, self-expression, and identity. In the year 2020, one is hard-pressed to accept the idea that such treatment and violation of a Rastafari elder was done unintentionally and without knowledge of the implications it would have for the individual under care. Suffice it to say that the impact of this violation has reverberated across the Rastafari community globally.

Many explanations might be offered after the fact to explain such recurring violations and tragedies. When all is said and done, however, one can only conclude that this speaks to disrespect, hate, and prejudice among some of our society and, most concerning, public officials.

Rastafari has become a known global citizen with high accolades as a pan-African champion. What should we expect of its place of birth in safeguarding this intangible 'cultural broker'. It is therefore with real heartfelt sadness and righteous fury that we again confront news about victimisation and abuse of basic Rastafari human rights. This is particularly unfortunate as it comes at a time when the Jamaican state has been making moves to repair damages inflicted on Rastafari 57 years ago at Coral Gardens by way of an ongoing dialogue, including a financial settlement. It is clear, that the principle of the reparatory justice actions being undertaken by the State have not been generally understood to mean, “These Rastafari people too have rights which we cannot continue to violate without redress.” We must ensure that members of our society — and its first responders, in particular — know that the aged, the youth, the impoverished, every citizen and also the Rastafari must be respected and understood as legitimate beneficiaries of our society. Rastafari, in particular, has made an indelible mark on our society and now represents a highly relevant part of the Jamaican cultural heritage. They deserve not only the same respect accorded to all of our citizens, the most vulnerable among them — their elders — must also be protected.

Jahlani Niaah, PhD, is lecturer and coordinator in Rastafari studies in the Institute of Caribbean and Reggae Studies Unit at The University of the West Indies. He is also board member of the National Council on Reparation.

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