Emndeni is alive with the sounds of children squealing with delight as they bounce on a bright green jumping castle. It is Tshimologo Mofolo’s first birthday and her parents have pulled out all the stops.
Outside the house — which is dotted with red, green and yellow balloons, the colours of the Rastafari — the adults are swaying to the upbeat sounds of reggae. Jabulisile Mofolo, like many of the women who have come to celebrate her daughter’s birthday, is dressed conservatively. She wears a long floral dress and her long sleeved shirt is buttoned to the top, her dreadlocks tied up under a black turban.
The modest attire and the family atmosphere are a bit at odds with the impression some in Soweto have of Rastas, who are often criticised for their appearance. “When people see a hobo in the streets and he has dreadlocks, they think he’s a Rasta, so they stereotype us and assume that all Rastas are homeless and dirty,” says 25-year-old Amlak Alpha, a friend of Mofolo.
He says that dreadlocks are a sign of the Rasta faith, the length of their hair representing their wisdom and the years they have been loyal to their religion, acting like “antennae” to connect them to their ancestors, God and Haile Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974 and considered by the Rastas to be a living God.
But it is not just strangers in the township who have a bad impression of Rastas — some of their own families reject the religion, especially at first. “In my home, my mother was surprised when I told her I was Rasta,” Mofolo says. “But soon she grew to understand that it’s what brings me purpose and peace. She’s learned to accept me — we want our daughter to grow up knowing her African heritage, which is a part of our Rasta culture.”
For Amlak Alpha, which is the Rasta name he took when he began practising the religion and means “the almighty first”, the response of his parents was the opposite. They were shocked when he started smoking marijuana at the age of 13, when he first adopted the culture, and they continue to reject it.
They still hold out hope that at some stage he will grow out of it. But for Amlak Alpha, who grew up in Dobsonville, it’s not likely that things are going to change. He came to the birthday party with five of his friends, all band members of D Gang (which stands for Dobsonville gangsters). As they share a joint among them, they talk about the music, Rasta philosophy and the politics that bind them.
Rastas are strongly tied to Pan-Africanism, the belief that all black people of the world should join in brotherhood and work to decolonise Africa. They also believe in the repatriation of all black people of the diaspora. Smoking marijuana, for them, is a form of religious practice.
Muzzla Menelek, one of the band members, is dressed immaculately in long white pants, a buttoned up white shirt and a high white turban. He speaks in scripture. Rastas are Christians who have adopted the King James version of the Bible and they are often guided by the Old Testament. But when Muzzla Menelek explains their religious beliefs about marijuana as a sacrament, he refers to the New Testament, Matthew, chapter 13, verse 24, The Parable of the Weed: “— collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned and bring them into my chalice”.
“This is why we formed D Gang,” says Igxebe West, another band member. “We don’t do if for the business but for the love of people and the music. We want to teach them about our ways.”
Rastafari became increasingly well known when reggae music soared in popularity in the 1980s thanks to the music of Bob Marley, whose songs are infused with tales of love, relationships and the Rasta’s religious beliefs.
Marley’s song, Exodus, speaks about the Rastafari who migrated from Babylon and are seeking another Moses to lead them out of an oppressive society filled with injustice and bring them to their father’s land — which is Africa. “Open your eyes and look within. Are you satisfied with the life you’re living? We know where we’re going. We know where we’re from. We’re leaving Babylon. We’re going to our Father’s land.”
Music is a fundamental element of the Rastafari and the movement’s history can be learned by listening to it.
Later that night D Gang performs at Soweto’s Mzimhlope Hall. It is a social gathering known as a dance session. Rasta families with their children and dozens of youths dressed in red, green and yellow fill the space. Some couples wear matching outfits, others wear colourful turbans — worn high and low — and every style and length of dreadlocks.
‘Celebration of life, God and love’
The nights are mainly about listening to reggae and live poetry; they meditate on marijuana and praise Selassie. Alcohol and cigarettes are strictly forbidden, although they smoke beedies, which are made from tendu leaves and natural tobacco, with no chemicals added.
The Rastafari call these sessions a celebration of life, God and love. Women prepare vegetarian food (without salt) which is laid out for the crowd, and Rastafari memorabilia, such as badges and posters, are on sale.
Most Saturday mornings are spent in church and some of the Rastas who gather at the party have attended what they call a “sabbath”. There are formal Rasta churches — one in Berea, Johannesburg and another in Pretoria — but the Soweto Rastafari meet on a hill in Dobsonville.
“We prefer to pray in the mountain because it is a part of nature and makes us feel like we become a part of the element,” says Amlak Alpha.
Ruby Maketha, a respected elder in the Rasta community, cradles a baby, while a toddler tugs on her skirt. She and her husband, Mcedisi Mzondo, have five children and have committed their lives to Rastafari for more than a decade.
They share their opinions about the importance of raising a Rasta family in modern society.
“I want my children to grow up Rasta and to be righteous and conscious,” says Maketha.
“To know the difference between what is good and bad, and I can already see that in them. If my children grow up and decide that they no longer want to follow our custom I will be disappointed, but I cannot control what they do. I know that one day they will come back to the ways that we have taught them.”
Mzondo describes the meaning of Rastafari, which he feels is often misunderstood.
“Rastafari is about love,” he says. “If we live according to the love that God has given us, we can bring back Heaven on Earth. “God is not a person in the sky. He lives among us and we can be like the Garden of Eden, as it should be on Earth.”
An earthly salvation
Rastafari believe that Haile Selassie I, the former emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974, is the living God. They do not believe that he died in 1975 — they say he “disappeared” and lives as a spiritual being.
Selassie is believed to be descended from Solomon and Sheba, and Rastafari believe that he is the Messiah prophesied in the King James version of the Bible who will lead the people of Africa and its diaspora to freedom.
Jamaican scholar Marcus Garvey, who died in 1940 and was a vocal advocate of PanAfricanism, is considered to be the prophet known in the Bible as John the Baptist.
One of his most famous prophecies involved the coronation of Selassie in 1927, with the pronouncement: “Look to Africa, for there a king shall be crowned who will be called King of Kings”.
Jesus Christ, who Rastas refer to as Emmanuel, is not the chosen Messiah but the son of God.
According to the BBC religions website, Rastafari believe they are the chosen people of God who are on Earth to promote his power.
They believe that salvation is an earthly rather than heavenly concept, and they have the utmost respect for nature, which is mirrored by their vegetarian diet.
They believe that evil is both personal and corporate and often refer to modern society as Babylon.
One of their major celebrations is Groundation Day, April 21, to commemorate Selassie’s visit to Jamaica in 1966, says the BBC. It involves dancing, singing, feasting and smoking marijuana; the celebrations can last up to seven days.
One of their religious practices is known as “reasoning”, which is an opportunity to discuss their spiritual and philosophical views while burning marijuana as a sacrament. One person is honoured by being allowed to light the herb and say a short prayer.
Marijuana is passed around in a clockwise direction, except in times of war when it is passed counter-clockwise.