Rastafarianism Grows in Jamaica After Long Disdain

Rastafarians listen to opening speach of the Ras Tafari Global Reasoning conference 2003, in Kingston, Jamaica Wednesday July 16, 2003.
Associated Press + More

By DAVID McFADDEN, Associated Press

BULL BAY, Jamaica (AP) — The robed Rastafarian priest looked out over the turquoise sea off Jamaica's southeast coast and fervently described his belief that deliverance is at hand.

Around him at the sprawling Bobo Ashanti commune on an isolated hilltop, a few women and about 200 dreadlocked men with flowing robes and tightly wrapped turbans prayed, fasted, and fashioned handmade brooms — smoking marijuana only as a ceremonial ritual.

[Enjoy: The U.S. News Collection of Political Cartoons]

"Rasta church is rising," declared Priest Morant, who wore a vestment stitched with the words "The Black Christ." ''There's nothing that can turn it back."

The Rastafarian faith is indeed rising in Jamaica, where new census figures show a roughly 20 percent increase in the number of adherents over a decade, to more than 29,000. While still a tiny sliver of the mostly Christian country's 2.7 million people, Jalani Niaah, an expert in the Rastafari movement, says the number is more like 8 to 10 percent of the population, since many Rastas disdain nearly all government initiatives and not all would have spoken to census takers.

"Its contemporary appeal is particularly fascinating to young men, especially in the absence of alternative sources for their development," said Niaah, a lecturer at the University of the West Indies.

Founded 80 years ago by descendants of African slaves, the Rasta movement's growing appeal is attributable to its rejection of Western materialism, the scarcity of opportunities for young men in Jamaica and an increasing acceptance of it.

For the black nationalist Bobo Ashanti commune, the Rastafarian faith is a transforming way of life, where Rastas strive to live a frugal existence uncomplicated by binding relationships to "Babylon" — the unflattering term for the Western world. They share a deep alienation from modern life and Jamaica is perceived as a temporary harbor until prophecy is fulfilled and they journey to the promised land of Africa on big ships.

[Related: Jamaica Travel Tips]

Life is highly regimented at the isolated retreat, cut off from most of the comforts of modern society. But it has a strong appeal for some, among them 27-year-old Adrian Dunkley, who joined the strict sect two months ago after years of questioning his Christian upbringing and struggling to find work as an upholsterer.

"This place is helping me a whole heap. I'm learning every day, and things are starting to make sense," the new recruit known as Prince Adrian said in the shade of one of dozens of scrap-board buildings painted in the bright Rastafarian colors of red, green and gold.

Other Rastafari adherents follow a more secular lifestyle, marked by a passion for social justice, the natural world, reggae music and the ritualistic use of pot to bring them closer to the divine.

A melding of Old Testament teachings and Pan-Africanism, Rastafarianism emerged in colonial-era Jamaica in the 1930s out of anger over the oppression of blacks. Its message was spread by the reggae songs created by musical icons Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Burning Spear and others in the 1970s, and the movement has attracted a following among reggae-loving Americans, Europeans and Asians. Academics believe at least 1 million people practice it worldwide.

In the United States, the population of Rastafarians appears to be steadily growing due in part to jailhouse conversions, said Charles Price, associate professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of "Becoming Rasta: Origins of Rastafari Identity in Jamaica."

"I regularly get letters from inmates seeking information," Price said. "I also get regular invitations to talk to prisoners at local North Carolina juvenile facilities, often from chaplains trying to figure out what to do."

Besides the well-known ritual use of marijuana, Rastas endeavor to reject materialist values and practice a strict oneness with nature, eating only unprocessed foods and leaving their hair to grow, uncombed, into dreadlocks.