Dread Not Rasta

On April 5, 2011 by admin


                                                                                  Richard C. Salter  

The dusty street into St. Thomas, a medium-sized coastal village in the eastern Caribbean island of Dominica, ran east to west along a garbage-strewn stream spiked with disposable diapers and trash. Matewé was taking me to visit Duke, a fellow well-known by youth in the area for his wisdom and the small “church” (his term) that he ran. After traversing a few alleys, and gaining entrance to Duke’s grandmother’s yard with an identifying whistle, we passed through the wooden shack into the backyard where the church sat. The church was about six feet wide by eight feet long and was built onto another building that served as its back wall. The church was an appropriate symbol for subaltern resistance, for the building that served as the church’s back wall was actually the village police station.

Duke welcomed us, and with three other dreadlocked church members we entered the building for what could be called a five-hour “reasoning” session. After we entered the church and turned on a boombox inside, Duke cut and sorted the seeds from some ganja and then heated the ganja on a hot plate to remove impurities such as fertilizers, pesticides and “things used on plantations” that may have gotten into it. He then packed it into the “chalice” and lit it. The chalice was a water pipe made with a large bamboo stem, a hollow water-filled coconut as a base, and a hollowed out stone bowl. It resembled the water pipes favored in many Rastafari yards, and it was similarly passed member to member throughout the reasoning session. Duke did not use the term “reasoning” to describe the church activities, instead referring to the passing of the chalice as “prayer.” His young daughter (perhaps 5 years old) was with us and was surprised to see me, a white man, in the church. She asked, as the chalice was passed to me, “You praying now?”

For some of the time at church we sat quietly, but at other times we reasoned and discussed the world. Duke said he was trying to get away from “churchy stuff” at his church: “We come when we want. We talk about what we want.” Typical of many Rastas, Duke was critical of Roman Catholics and distinguished the rules at his church from those of the Catholic Church, where formality made it impossible to eat or for kids to walk around during the service. Many of the topics we covered could be found at any Rastafari reasoning: what is a proper diet? If you avoid eating blood, is it okay to eat siwik (river crab), since it does not appear to have blood in it? What about crayfish? Salt?

We talked about the merits of “bush medicine,” the benefits of zèb chèpantyé (Carpenter Weed) as a blood cleaner. We talked about the roots of reggae and jazz. We talked about the “wickedness” people do and our responsibility to improve the world for children in this generation. Duke was particularly interested in talking about the merits of ganja. That was not surprising, and indeed the merits of ganja as inspiration, herbal remedy, or tea, or the economic benefits to be had through hemp production would also be a topic at any Rastafari reasoning. But Duke was particularly emphatic that ganja should not be smoked with any sort of tobacco, including the local Indian Tobacco (lobelia inflata). According to Duke, ganja is “lamb’s bread,” and “smoking is eating.” He reasoned that “Jesus broke bread” (i.e., he smoked marijuana) and that “real food” means “to be contented with God.” He considered smoking ganja to be eating real food because it satisfies, it brings “peace,” it “brings one to God.”

Physically, Duke and his church members resembled any other Rastas on the island. They wore dreadlocks and used much of the same argot as other Rastas. They also smoked ganja in the same way, using similar accoutrements, and they reasoned about the same topics in a common format. But although Duke would fit into what I have broadly defined as the Rastafari movement, he and his other three church members were adamant that they were not Rastas. Duke was a Dread. Dreads do not always constitute a self-identified group as they did at Duke’s church, but there are certainly many who call themselves Dreads in order to differentiate their beliefs from orthodox Rastafari.

In addition, there remain some general social and organizational differences between the two groups. For example, unlike many orthodox Rastas, Dreads are with rare exceptions from the lower classes. The Dread movement is far less hierarchically organized than most Rastafari groups, and with a few exceptions, like Duke’s small church, Dread practices are individualized, and often ad hoc and idiosyncratic. The Dreads remain a movement of small groups, without systematic communication among themselves, and thus they also tend to be associated strongly with particular villages or locales. There are also areas of worldview, ethos, rituals and food practices that differentiate Dreads from orthodox Rastas.

The clearest divergence between Dreads and more orthodox Rastas is in their attitudes towards a deity. Orthodox Rastas tend to maintain a belief in Haile Selassie, former Emperor of Ethiopia, as God. Dreads, on the other hand, tend not to proclaim the divinity of Selassie. Duke, for example, ridiculed Selassie and Rastas who claimed any belief in him. Even Dreads who acknowledged Selassie as a great leader, or as a great African statesman, suggested that it is dangerous to worship a human being. Francis was representative of many Dreads when he said that he would not call himself a “Rastafarian” or anything else: “I would just call myself a living man.” To him the term Rastafari was a “perversion” because the term “Ras” means king, and it is a perversion to call a man king when in reality we are all just men. To him, Selassie “was man just like me.” It would have made no sense to accept Selassie as God: “How could it be? He lived on earth like us.” Instead, for Francis, “All of God is in everything.”

Most Dreads believe in a Creator god which they see manifested in the natural world that surrounds them. Abu, a more orthodox Rasta, reported that his Nom Tè friends see their religion based on nature, and they believe in the elements of Fire, Water, Air and Earth as that which manifests God. While some orthodox Rastas have criticized Dreads for worshiping the earth or fire itself, these claims exaggerate and misrepresent Dread theology, which instead simply represents a more general sense of the divine through elements of nature. Because Dreads see God primarily in nature, they often extol the time they spend in the forest—“the bush”—as a time of connecting with God through mystical-material  experiences of nature.

Dread and orthodox Rastafari eschatology also diverge. Orthodox Rastas tend to believe in an ultimate repatriation to Africa. Dreads are different: “We don’t really talking about going back to Africa. We establish Africa in ourselves, right here, ” says Matewe. Thus, like orthodox Rastas, Dreads reclaim the value of Africa and African heritage, but they continue to regard the physical connection to local territory as the primary marker of identity. Others echoed Matewé’s point. Vé valued his African heritage—and his Carib Indian heritage—but he saw Dominica as a “part of Eden” and was not interested in returning to Africa.58 Dread X said that repatriation to Africa would not be a bad thing as such, but added “I wouldn’t do that to myself.” He saw Ethiopia as something of a hostile place and preferred to remain in Dominica, his home. In general Dreads hold more of a realized eschatology than do orthodox Rastas.

Finally, many Dreads understand Dominica to have a special cosmological destiny that can be understood by exploring cycles in local Dominican history. Thus, where orthodox Rastas tend to hold the more linear conception of history that fits with messianism and apocalypticism (i.e., captivity in Babylon followed by redemption through Selassie in “Zion”), Dreads tend to hold a more cyclical conception of history that dovetails with the cyclical nature of agriculture and rural life in Dominica.

As Trouillot put it, Dominica is “a patchwork of enclaves.” More than any other concepts, “Apwé Bondye se Laté” and the ideal of local self-sufficiency reflect the ethos of the Dreads.

 Richard C. Salter is Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Religion & Human Sciences, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, New York.

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