Understanding Rastafarianism in Malawi
On October 21, 2009, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) reported that the first branch of Rastafari is believed to have been established in Jamaica in 1935 by Leonard P. Howell.
Howell preached the divinity of Haile Selassie.
Many black Jamaicans saw this event as the fulfillment of Marcus Garvey’s prophecy that one day a black king would be crowned in Africa, and that this event would signal the resurgence of the African peoples.
There are three distinct orders of the Rastafarian movement which hold different beliefs and symbols. These are: Boba Shanti, Nyahbinji and the Twelve tribes.
In Malawi’s old capital, Zomba, Nyahbinji members of the Rastafari community have existed since 1992.
According to one of the old members of the Nyahbinji Rastafari community, Ali Dread Nansolo, there were a few numbers of them as early as 1992. In a district like Zomba, there would only be two of them at that time.
Thirty one years later, the Rastafari community has grown up to about 15,000 nationwide.
Nansolo, who is a Secretary for Namilongo Nyahbinji Elders Council, says the Rastafari community is a traditional, cultural and religious way Rastafarians live.
He says this guides how people in this community must live based on cultural and religious values and beliefs.
“There is a day when we gather and pray in our religious faith. So, for example here in Zomba we gather at Namadidi every Saturday. We use a different spiritual book including a Bible and other books which talk about black people,” he says.
He also says they are guided by the words which Emperor Haile Selassie preached way back.
In a Rastafari community, they believe in a “biblical aspect” that Emperor Haile Selassie is a King of kings, Lion of Judah and Lord of lords, according to a prophecy on Revelation 5 verse 5, Acts 2 verse 30 and Isaiah 9 verse 6.
“From these scriptures, the one who accomplished this prophecy was, is and will be Emperor Haile Selassie. He is a King of kings, Lord of lords and the Lion of Judah,” Nansolo says.
The community members set every Saturday as the day they are supposed to meet and gather for a prayer session.
“So, on Saturday we spend the whole day at a temple. We have several temples in Zomba but the centre is Namadidi. Others are Chiphoola, Domasi and Thondwe,” says Nansolo who until last year was a Secretary for Southern Region Nyahbinji Elders Council.
According to Nansolo, the temple at Namilongo area in Zomba is where Rastafarians from Matawale, Namadidi, Mpondabwino, Chinamwali, Kazembe, Kalimbuka, 3 Miles and TA Mlumbe’s area meet for a prayer session.
The session is led by priests who are titled based on odd numbers (1, 3, 5, 7, 9). The priests who currently reside in their own places, are supposed to be married.
They are also supposed to have a special place to reside close to their temple but due to scarcity of resources the house is yet to be constructed.
One of the priests at Namilongo, Luciano Jah Black says he has been among the Rastafari community for over 19 years.
“We can call the presence of the Rastafari as one of the modes of salvation. This came to save us. Now, we gather in unity to promote oneness. This is very important because we do this to promote peace,” he says.
The Rastafarians also have women’s union among the religious groups in their community.
Martha Gawa Nansolo, wife to Ali, is Chair Lady for Zomba Sistren Council. She takes note of the disparaging remarks people say about them.
“They may be talking much. Things like what are they doing?” “May be they are just smoking.” But that’s not the issue because every gathering we make is always spiritual. So the word says, I the Lord will be there when two or more people meet,” she says.
She adds that the Sistren members, who gather together at Namilongo in Zomba, make up about 35.
In every community, religion or society, councils exist. In a Rastafari community, there is a Nyahbinji Elders Council which guides morals, the do and donts of the community.
The community’s members follow the Rastafari Nyahbinji guidelines which were established long time ago. Nansolo adds that when people break the guidelines in their community, the law takes its course.
“Some are punished to stop gathering with the rest of the members for three, four, six months or even a year to be disciplined,” he says.
Every July 23, the community remembers the birthday of Emperor Haile Selassie where they gather up for a national ceremony.
In Malawi, the Rastafari community is led by Ras Mathews Sandikonda, who comes from Balaka but resides in Mangochi, where he is working.
Like elsewhere, in terms of music and arts, the most recognizable face of the Rastafari movement in Malawi is the late musician Bob Marley, an icon of reggae music and a messenger of the movement.
But the movement is not just about singing reggae, according to Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History cultural anthropologist, Jake Homiak.
“It taps into an enormously deep root—a sense of longing for a place in the world by peoples of African descent,” Homiak is quoted on https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/rasta-revealed-8219257/ as saying.