Rastas gather for world conference

KINGSTON, Jamaica (AP) – Hundreds of dreadlocked Rastafarians gathered in Jamaica’s capital Wednesday to talk about the future of their faith, including how more followers can be repatriated to Africa and how to convince governments to allow marijuana use.

Rastas from the Caribbean, the United States, Europe and Africa gathered for the weeklong meeting in Kingston, where reggae artists like Bob Marley and Peter Tosh gave the religion a world stage in the 1970s through songs promoting peace, nonviolence, legal marijuana and “one love.”

Trevor Stewart, a leader from the Bobo Ashanti sect, said the conference will discuss the Rastafarian faith and trying to end global conflict.

“You can’t rule the world with vigor and guns and bullets. It’s love that rules the world,” Stewart said.

Fueled by anger over the colonial oppression of blacks, Rastafarianism emerged in Jamaica during the 1930s and spread throughout the Caribbean. Followers practice a strict oneness with nature, eating only certain foods and growing their hair into long strands called dreadlocks.

“Everywhere in the world, the movement means liberation,” said professor Rex Nettleford, a social scientist who is vice chancellor of the University of the West Indies.

About 700,000 people practice the faith worldwide, but their numbers among Jamaica’s 2.6 million people are not known.

Jamaican Rastas say they still endure discrimination in the birthplace of the religion, maintaining they are looked down upon for their dreadlocks and ritual use of marijuana, or ganja.

“People always associate us with ganja, but that’s not what we’re all about,” Makeda Hannah said. “We have to educate people and tell that we’re about peace and togetherness and family.”

Others accused government and business leaders of denying them jobs while exploiting Rastafarian images for commercial gain.

For example, they said Jamaican travel promotions entice tourists with smiling, dreadlocked locals on beaches, even though few Rastas work in hotels or the service industry.

“It’s a form of terrorism,” Ras Astor Black said. “They’re exploiting an indigenous group to make money while our people suffer.”

Jamaican Prime Minister P.J. Patterson declined an invitation to speak at the conference because of a scheduling conflict, his office said.

Instead, he sent Information Minister Burchell Whiteman, who said Rastas have created “a unique psychological space for people in the Caribbean struggling under colonialism.”

A prominent issue on this year’s agenda is repatriation to Africa, a key tenet of Rastafarianism. Some followers worship the late Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie – even though he was a despot in his native land – and believe returning to Africa would complete the cycle broken by slavery.

Last year, Rastas in Jamaica, a former British colony, unsuccessfully petitioned England’s Queen Elizabeth II for free transportation to Africa.

One Rasta not interested in that trek is Yvonne Douglas 55, of Red Hill, England, who is studying in Jamaica.

Douglas said she was drawn to the faith 11 years ago to achieve a purer lifestyle, not a cultural identity.

“It’s not about back to Africa. It’s about protest and looking after the world and making it a better place for our children,” Douglas said. “Rastafari has shown me how to value life.”

AP-ES-07-16-03 1626EDT

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