Photo Essay

Wagwan, Your Honour: Meet Kenya’s first Rastafarian lawyer!

Kenyans think Rastas are about dreadlocks, reggae music and ghetto life; but it’s a natural progression towards self realization

Buffalo soldier: Known by his single name like Brazilian footballers- Mathenge-is Kenya’s first practicing Rastafarian lawyer. His folks though, know him as Mathenge Mukundi. He was admitted to the Bar this July spotting a turban peculiar to the Bobo Ashanti (Black Warriors), the strictest Mansion of Rastafarians.

By Mbatia wa Njambi

Visiting Thinker

Rastafarians will now have one of their own at the High Court and ‘Ras Mathenge’ will have his plate spilling with pending issues for ‘I and I’. One is, Rastas and their predilection for smoking something stronger than a cigarette. Known variably as bangi, ngwai, boza, bomu, mbaga, ganja, holy herb and St John’s bread, it is illegal in Kenya where it can land one-Bobo Ashanti turban and all- to 14 years in the slammer.

There is also the ‘Bangi Bill’ pending in Parliament. It was tabled by the late Kibra MP Ken Okoth. Maybe, Mathenge can take a look, see how Rastas can pass the joint, feel Aire, without fear of surviving on government posho in Kamiti.

That will be important. The over one million Rastas worldwide have two religious ceremonies one of which is “A Reasoning”- a simple gathering to smoke and discuss ethical, social and religious issues. In fact, Rastas believes in three things: the ‘religious’ value of marijuana, reincarnation and Emperor Haile Selassie as a prophet and only African linkage to Jesus Christ.

Rastafarians believe their bodies are temples of God and don’t worship in physical buildings. They have no missionaries or street preachers

Mathenge, who completed his pupilage at the Kenya National Council for Law Reporting,  can thus change perceptions about Rastafarians, a movement which  began in the 1930s among oppressed Jamaicans. Most were spurred by interpretations of Biblical prophecy and teachings of Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey who prophesied “Look to Africa, for there a king shall be crowned”. Haile Selassie was crowned as Emperor, the 225th in a complete line of Ethiopian kings from the biblical King Solomon and Queen of Sheba.

I & I: Rastafari is fleshed from Ras (Amharic for prince) Tafari Makonnen; Selassie’s pre-coronation name. Rastas believe he is the Black Messiah and the reason Ethiopia was never colonized. That Haile Selassie fed meat to his lions when Ethiopians were starving to death is to most of the, neither here nor there.

In Kenya, Rastafarians are misunderstood, held in suspicion.  They use the Holy Piby (Rastafarian bible), believe their bodies are temples of God and don’t worship in physical buildings. They have no missionaries or street preachers. Rastafarianism spread globally, through immigration and the power of the social-political messages in the reggae music of Bob Marley. Besides the Bobo Ashanti, the other Mansions or orders are the Nyambighi and The Twelve Tribes of Israel.

Iron, Lion, Zion: In January last year, the High Court in Nairobi declared Rastafarian a religion like Jehovah’s Witnesses. This was after a Form One girl was denied admission to Olympic High School over her dreadlocks. Her dad, John Wambua ‘Prophet’ (in red above) sued arguing her dreadlocks didn’t interfere with her scoring 282 marks at Shadrack Kimalel Primary school. In any case, she had indicated her religion in the admission document. To make matters worse, the Holy Bible forbids Rastafarians from shaving as Leviticus 21:15 warns: “They shall not make baldness upon their head, neither shall they shave off the corner of their beard, nor make any cuttings in the flesh.”
To Rastafarians, dreadlocks are a journey of the mind, soul and spirituality; achieved without a comb, which like the razor and scissors, are ‘Babylonian’ or (white) inventions.
Who the cap fit: In September 2019, Justice Chacha Mwita ruled that the Form One student return to school but keep her hair neat, covered with a turban, black in colour.

The last East African Reggae Festival was held at Splash Waterworld, Nairobi, in 2005 where Don Rawzi, a former Catholic but now a long-serving Rastafarian piped: “Most Kenyans think Rastafarians are about dreadlocks, reggae music and ghetto life. But it’s a natural progression towards self realization, besides caring for humanity.”

Marijuana helps in prayer and meditation and has a rightful place in creation and no laws should hold captive a plant that can’t defend itself

As for that billowy matter of puffing at illegalities, Rawzi offered that “it is a biblically sanctioned communion, though non Rastas have abused it. King Solomon said that wine is good for the heart and chalice (read Marijuana) is good for the soul. Remember Solomon was the wisest man?”

Another Rasta, Martin Simbaoni (Ras Mato) added that Rastafarianism “is a consciousness of being and marijuana helps in prayer and meditation and has a rightful place in creation and no laws should hold captive a plant that can’t defend itself. Jailing a faithful for partaking a communion, is letting evil triumph.”

I shot the Sheriff: Trouble with dreadlocks and by extension Rastas and reggae music appears to have intensified on August 1, 1982 during the abortive military coup (above) by disgruntled elements of the Kenya Air Force led by Senior Private Hezekiah Ochuka. The soldiers took to the streets of Nairobi blaring songs by Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff. University of Nairobi students joined them shouting “Comrades Power.” From then on, dreadlocks and reggae music became synonymous with rebellion. For almost 10 years, Kenyans listened to reggae, chini ya maji, until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Its collapse signaled the end of Communism in Europe and the ushering of democracy and its freedom of choice around the world. Kenya was not left behind.
Don’t Haffi Dread: Radio DJ Jeff Mwangemi (pictured) ushered in the acceptance of the genre to a wider audience with Reggae Time, a weekday morning show on KBC English Service. Its signature tune began with “Jah Rastafari, Jah, almighty I!” cry from, Just a Passing Glance, by Jamaican artiste Don Carlos & Gold. It was like an invitation for reggae artistes to perform in Kenya beginning with British reggae group Abakush in early 1990s followed by Yellowman and Christafari opening a flood gate: Lucky Dube, Israel Vibrations, Burning Spear, Black Uhuru, Glen Washington, Gregory Isaacs, Alpha Blondy, Morgan Heritage and President Uhuru Kenyatta, the reggae lover, attend the UB40 concert at the Carnivore last year.

But Rastafarians got into more problems with the return of the outlawed Mungiki sect around 2006. Mungiki adherents wore dreadlocks, puffed at strong smokables, dispensed with underwear. Kenyan cops could hardly differentiate Mungiki and Rastafarians. Today, wearing dreadlocks is more of a fashion than a statement of religious leanings, but Rastafarianism largely remains misunderstood, held in suspicion.

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