/ 2 April 2015

Holy hair: The long and short of it

Members of the Shembe faith walk towards the Nhlangakazi Mountain during their annual pilgrimage near Inanda
Members of the Shembe faith walk towards the Nhlangakazi Mountain during their annual pilgrimage near Inanda

If you watch any crowd of Nazareth Baptist Church members, such as the throngs who make their weekly ascent to Ebuhleni to observe the Sabbath, those with the unkempt look suggested by the old Nazarite oath are few and far between. In fact, many adherents of the church are distinguishable by their combed hair that is trimmed regularly too.

Members of the Nazareth Baptist Church, which is also known as kwaShembe, should neither trim nor shave the hair on the face and head, according to biblical texts related to Nazaritism.

But in the present-day church, it is those who keep to the vow who stand out. Most acutely isolatable is the smattering of “dreads”, or Rastafari, who belong to the church or attend its services.

“The verses usually cited to substantiate adherence to the Nazarite pact among Rastas and members of the Nazareth Baptist Church are the same,” explains one Rasta, who is wearing the flowing white gowns donned by members of the church. “They are taken from the biblical book of Numbers.”

He was on his way to the Sabbath service at Ebuhleni in Inanda, north of Durban. Ebuhleni sits on a plateau separated on its north and south sides by deep valleys, and has the largest congregation of the Nazareth Baptist Church, founded by Isaiah Shembe.

It is Saturday morning and the lone Rasta is hurrying towards the gates of the church village for the morning service. In the wave of white robes that has slowly waned to a trickle, the man stands in contrast to his fellow churchgoers neither for his stark barefooted limp nor for the fact that he is late. It is his hair: the healthy, shoulder-length, thick-as-a-pen strands, matted by time into triplets and quadruplets. Their lower ends, burnt the colour of copper by the sun’s rays, match the man’s complexion.

Yearning for a deeper connection
Although interpretations of the scripture, the pervading influence of Western modernity and the observation of cultural rites seem at the heart of the disjuncture between Rastas and Nazarites (Shembe), most Rastas are drawn to the church by a yearning for a deeper connection with their ancestral lineage and the need to observe customs. The church becomes the Rastas’ gateway for doing this without relinquishing the belief in their God.

Mduba ka Khoza, a Rastafari who is a sangoma and a member of the Nazareth Baptist Church, says when he first came to Ebuhleni he was there to observe the ritual of umdedelo, in which one atones for the omissions of one’s deceased family members.

That day, a loud voice called out from behind him, as if aware it was his first time at the church site. ” Phathani kahle lowoRasta ngoba uyabuya,” the voice declared. “Treat that Rasta with kindness, because he shall return.” Khoza says he was startled, just as he would be at a later date when a visiting preacher told him to cut his locks off.

Khoza says he did return to the church and eventually became a member because an ancestor, his namesake, asked him “to place a prayer mat” in the temple for him.

“People, especially from certain quarters of power, always find a reason to exclude others. And that is not Shembe’s fault because Shembe actually goes even beyond race.

“Shembe, like Rasta, are both orders of peace. But [metaphorically speaking] people who carry izihlangu nemi khonto [large war shields and spears] can handle you with rough hands.”

For others, the church represents a stateliness that offsets Rastas’ contempt for hierarchy. “I was in search of a royalness that I just couldn’t find with Rasta,” says Mbali Thwala, a high school English teacher turned Nazarite member.

“When I knelt in front of the king, Unyazi Lwezulu [the Shembe leader at Ebuhleni], or when I’d kneel in church, it felt like it was more than just my body submitting but my entire being, the very core of me. Singing those hymns in Zulu raised feelings of profound transcendence.

“Also with the Nazarite church, you are dealing with people who really keep the Sabbath, every week. With Rastas, it’s not really structured.”

Sizakele Ngcobo
Sizakele Ngcobo says these days “men put all manner of gels and oils on their hair”. (Oupa Nkosi)

A deeper irony, perhaps, can be observed in the fact that neither the Nazareth Baptist Church nor the Rasta movement, both of which emerged in the early 20th century, have observed static practices when it comes to the tailoring of hair.

“In the church back then, you had men who were so fond of the sight of their own hair that they would grow it really long, comb it and then push it backwards,” says a lifelong member of the church. “Overnight, they would wear it in a wrap so that the following day it would retain its shape.”

She says that, as time wore on, this ritual attracted ridicule. “Later it was considered an antiquated style preferred by older men, so much so that women of marrying age in the church would often joke that they would never let a malaleshuqula [a man who wraps his head at night] approach them for their hand in marriage.”

Sizakele Ngcobo, another church member, says: “These days, of course, men put all manner of gels and oils on their hair. They loosen their Afros and trim their hair as they please.”

The ritual of combing is also of obscure origin and has, with time, become part of the church’s folklore.

“Not combing is still associated with being disturbed in the head,” says Ngcobo. “If you’re uncombed in church, people will want to know why that’s the case.”

She says legend has it that at Ekuphakameni, the church’s hilly headquarters in Inanda, the progenitor Isaiah Shembe would carry an iron comb with which he would jocularly groom amasheshakungena, the prepubescent church members. “They would follow him around as he rode his horse,” Ngcobo says. “For these children, they were just happy that the father had touched them and even combed their hair.”

A nonissue for women
Ngcobo says that, with women, hair is a nonissue – much like Samkelo Qwabe, a youngster sporting black jeans, a tucked-in white shirt and a blown-out Afro, explains his understanding of the church rules regarding dreadlocks. “If you have dreads already, usually it’s fine, but you can’t grow them in the church,” he says. “With women it’s okay because their heads are covered anyway; you can’t really see.”

Mbhekeni Makhanya, a Rasta poet who also attends the Nazareth Baptist Church, says that biblically, a Nazaritic order existed before Shembe and was less “churchical” and more “cultural”. “That’s why in Zulu you have the expression, used on someone’s birthday: ‘ Ngikufisela unwele olude [I wish you long hair],'” he says. Hair in this instance refers to time and maturity.

Incidentally, dreadlocks were not always the staple feature in the Rasta way of life that they now are. Jamaican social anthropologist Barry Chevannes writes in his book Rastafari: Roots and Ideology that the dreadlocks trend in Rastafari emerged in the 1940s with a camp of Rastas known as the Youth Black Faith. They institutionalised the ritualistic use of cannabis along with growing dreadlocks. This militant band of reformists, Chevannes writes, were sometimes known as warriors.

“The ‘Warriors’ or ‘Dreadfuls’ were so vociferous that a split developed in which those who could not take the new order … departed their various ways,” writes Chevannes. “The two houses that separated in the 1950s were the House of Dreadlocks and the House of Combsomes. In 1961, when an official government mission was sent to Africa to explore the possibilities of migration for Rastafari brethren, the leader of the three Rastafari members of the delegation was a Dreadlock. Less than a decade later, the Combsomes had all but vanished.”

Although these two movements seem to have moved in opposite directions in terms of how the strictures about hair have been interpreted, with the early trajectory of Rastafari suggesting a bent towards a stricter adherence and the Shembe church the converse, members of both churches suggest that the “human temple” is becoming the site of tacit battles for philosophical supremacy.

What the “dreads” lack in numbers they compensate for in quiet resolve. I ask Khoza, with his long, waist-length hair, whether it matters at all what one looks like when dealing with matters of the soul. After a short pause, he responds: “I’d say image is everything, but at the same time, image is nothing.”

Correction: Initially this story spoke of the Nazarite Baptist Church. This has been corrected to Nazareth Baptist Church.