Kenyan judge declares Rastafarianism a religion: but what’s its history?

On the very first day at her new school, the confused 15-year-old Kenyan girl was told to go home. She was not to return until her rastas (dreadlocks) were shaved off.

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Violated

Her father believed her rights to education and to religious freedom had been violated by the school and went to court for clarity. Judge Chacha Mwita of Kenya’s high court agreed with him, holding that the decision to remove the student on the basis of her rastas was unconstitutional and that she had to be allowed back immediately.

MNW – her name was withheld by the court because of her age - started the school year at a Nairobi high school on 10 January 2019.  By then, she had already indicated on her admission form that she was a Rastafarian by faith. She paid the admission fee and began attending classes. But later that day, the school’s authorities told her go home and return only once her rastas were cut off.

The education officials against whom the girl’s father brought his application told Judge Mwita that when MNW signed the school admission forms, she accepted that she would have to follow the school rules. Among these rules was a prohibition on dreadlocks. Legal counsel for the authorities further claimed that the Rastafarian Society had nothing to do with the ‘right to education’.

Leviticus

The girl’s father, however, told the court that Rastafarians follow Biblical teachings, and quoted the instruction in Leviticus that hair should not be cut. Because of this, MNW’s hair had not been cut since birth. By requiring his daughter to shave her hair, the school violated her right to religion. He also explained that ‘rastas’ are different from ‘dreadlocks’ because the keeping of rastas is a sign of faith whereas the keeping of dreadlocks is a personal style choice.

The section of the Kenyan constitution that deals with freedom of religion says that a person has the right to manifest religious beliefs through worship practices, teachings and observance both in public and in private spaces. By removing MNW from school because of her hair, which can be seen as a religious practice, the education authorities were making her choose between following her religion or receiving an education.

The judge concluded that Rastafarianism was indeed a religion and ordered that the girl be allowed back to school immediately, without having to shave off her rastas.

Detour

Since this is a new debate for Kenya – the judge stressed that it was the first time the issue had been raised in the context of schools and their recognition of Rastafarianism as a ‘religion’-  perhaps this is a good time to take readers on a brief detour from the judgment for a short history of Rastafarianism.

Protest

Rastafarianism emerged in the late 1800’s in the Americas as a protest religious movement, when the idea of an Africa ruled by Africans became popular. Slaves who were converted to Christianity paid close attention to Bible verses which spoke of ‘princes’ coming out of Egypt and Ethiopia. Marcus Garvey, the man credited with founding the religion, strengthened this longing for ‘princes’ by suggesting that his followers should look to Africa where a black king was to be crowned.

The religious movement grew stronger in 1930 as Ras Tafari Makonnen was crowned King Halie Selassie I of Ethiopia. The prophecies of both the Bible and Garvey appeared to have materialised. A black king, believed to be a descendant of King Solomon and Queen Sheba, and bearing the title of King of Kings, had been crowned. Rastafarians believed that the living embodiment of God was now part of their religion.

Reggae

Rastafarianism continued to grow, with the movement becoming globalised in the 1970’s due to the widespread enjoyment of Reggae music, made popular by Bob Marley.

The globalisation of Rastafarianism created a new issue: how the religion was viewed by the world. Because of its popularity it was no longer seen as a religion but rather as a personal style choice. Dressing in the colours associated with Rastafarianism, smoking marijuana and wearing dreadlocks became part of popular culture. Designer brands started incorporating the ‘Rastafarian image’ into their seasonal trends and the once small religion turned into a widely-followed style choice. The more Rastafarianism spread into popular youth culture, the less it was viewed as a religion by the rest of society.

Religious beliefs

This is the background against which Judge Mwita had to consider the case of MNW and the question of whether her rastas were a statement of religious belief or a lifestyle choice as the education authorities argued.

Examining the Constitution, the judge stressed that it guarantees the right to education and that this right cannot be infringed regardless of one's religious beliefs and the way in which one displays those beliefs.

Judge Mwita concluded that MNW’s rights to education and religious freedom had been infringed because of the school’s decision that she could only return to classes once her rastas were removed.

He declared that the decision to exclude MNW from school because of her rastas was in violation of her rights and was unconstitutional. The school was thus ordered to recall MNW and allow her to resume her education.

Not unique

The judge stressed that this case was in some senses a ‘first’, but it could affect many people: current estimates put the number of practicing Rastafarians worldwide at more than one million. Although MNW’s story may be unique in Kenya, there have been similar cases in other parts of Africa - in South Africa, Malawi and Zimbabwe, among others.

The stories of MNW and Rastafarian people in other African countries have challenged the courts to think differently about aspects of Rastafarian beliefs. But it is not just the courts: our societies generally need a better understanding of African Traditional Religions to avoid decisions that infringe the rights of people genuinely practicing their faith.