By AVA TURNQUEST
Tribune Chief Reporter
RASTAFARIAN communities in The Bahamas are calling for reparatory justice in the form of state recognition and inclusion as national discourse over marijuana law reform picks up steam.
Priests canvassed by The Tribune said they expected the government to follow the track of Jamaica and Antigua, whose leaders have issued formal apologies for the longstanding oppression inflicted on Rastafarian communities due to their sacramental use of the plant.
The government has reportedly held talks with the Bobo Ashanti - formally known as the Ethiopia Africa Black International Congress (EABIC) - for the past three months concerning sacramental rights; however, confidence over the inclusion and equity stake of Rastafarians was not widespread.
An overriding concern among faith leaders was that the community be placed at the forefront of national discussions on marijuana law reform and commerce as it has led agitation over liberalisation of the plant for decades.
“We are the vanguard,” said Elder Peter Sheffield, of House of Nyabinghi. “We are the one with the stigma, who have been persecuted for herb, couldn’t get jobs, banned from society. Right now it is coming to a closure on this but it’s like they pushing us aside and saying they don’t recognise the Rasta. We smoked it straight through so it’s too complicated. It’s a way of life for us, it’s nothing to do with recreational or medicinal or how they glorifying it.
“I’m almost 60 and they still have me as a criminal from 1985. I’m looking for even compensation from the government and all. It’s been too long they’ve hold us back, our families got held back because we are Rasta. Separation of families because we’re going to jail. We look at it as a personal thing, leave it alone and let us be. This is my sacrament, we use it in our tabernacle.”
Although Rastafarianism has no singular hierarchical structure, there are distinct sects commonly referred to as “mansions”. The two groups said to have the largest presence in the Bahamas are the House of Nyabinghi and the EABIC. Prominent study groups include the King of Kings Missionary Movement and the ASFAW, African Sisters for all Women.
The EABIC is headquartered in Jamaica but has branches throughout the diaspora, ambassador and head of the Bahamas branch, Priest Rithmond McKinney told The Tribune.
“(Cannabis) it’s part of our rituals, our celebrations and our service,” Priest McKinney said, “so it was something always been a part of Rastafarianism from conception. We have always used it as a sacrament. From I become a Rastafarian over 30 years ago it was big stigma on us. Something they used to castrate us, oppress us, all negative things toward us they used marijuana. They called it dope, then called us drug dealers. We been oppressed over the years because we know this is a natural plant, this is our sacrament and we use it as part of our service and we continued using it. We never stopped although we went through all the oppression.
“We as a church,” Priest McKinney continued, “we are in talks with the government now concerning our sacramental rights, making them more aware of sacramental rights. We want sacramental/medicinal use so we will be able to make our products for use external or internal, and to be able to achieve revenue also from our products.
“We are a church, this is a community, we believe it’s our sacrament. Our community feels good in ourself, the conversation is on the table, and we are agitating for our sacramental/medicinal rights. Not necessarily we want decriminalisation or legalisation for recreational use - that should be natural. We want our sacramental rights.”
The EABIC’s Bahamas branch compound on Fire Trail Road is commonly referred to as the “Rasta camp”; however, the House of Nyabinghi is located on Polemus Street off Nassau Street.
Priest McKinney said the Fire Trail compound was registered to the EABIC, and represented a formal acknowledgement of the group by the state. He explained while successive Progressive Liberal Party and Free National Movement administrations have recognised the church, stigma surrounding marijuana has heavily influenced the government’s approach.
Priest McKinney said the compound should be afforded the same respect and protection as any other embassy or diplomatic community.
The Rastafarian population in the Bahamas was said to be around 10,000, according to House of Rastafari chairman and EABIC priest, Philip Blyden. House of Rastafari is an inter-mansion umbrella committee established to arbitrate with the public on issues where there is a consensus among groups in the Bahamas.
Priest Blyden, 60, recalled making a presentation on marijuana legalisation before a Select Senate Committee headed by PLP Chairman Fred Mitchell in 1993.
“Our culture, well-being, and spirituality has been interrupted by first, the colonial powers. Slavery is the biggest interruption of our civilisation. Rastafari members were then hunted by the neo-colonial authorities and our service sacrilegiously interrupted, and sometimes our camps burned down, and our women are sometimes being violated by officers and it’s a number of things.
“We are being eclipsed by those snakes and vultures that are coming up now and everybody’s seeking to benefit from our pain and suffering,” he added. “We suffered under the criminalisation of marijuana more than any other social group in the Bahamas and if it is to be legalised, I think that there should be a pardon issued to the group on behalf of the government of the Bahamas - simply because it’s the government who would be seeking to benefit.”
Priest Blyden noted there has also been a paradigm shift within the Rastafarian community with groups moving from isolationist to more engagement with the wider public.
He said despite the use of Rastafarian culture like Ital food and health practices becoming more mainstream, the groups have not been recognised as pioneers and thought leaders for social change.
“We are still being pushed back and our message is being suppressed and eclipsed by all of this sensationalisation of medical marijuana and CARICOM reports, reparations, and yet we are the leaders in all of these fields,” Priest Blyden said.
CARCOM’s report released last week suggested expunging criminal records to remedy past injustices as it called for its declassification as a dangerous drug.
The commission recommended marijuana is decriminalised for personal use in private premises and medical purposes before being fully legalised.
Priest Jevon Thompson, EABIC, explained the absence of a standardised policy for the community has left its membership to battle legal challenges over their sacrament on an individual level with varied success. Priest Thompson said he has successfully defended his rights in court but the community was currently engaged in raising funds to assist with legal costs of an incarcerated member.
Priest Thompson expressed optimism that liberalisation will affect a lessening of the discriminatory practices but only if Rastafarians are included in the debate.
“The public needs to have an understanding of the debate,” he said, “what we have come to understand is what we were taught about marijuana was wrong. We were taught lies and propaganda, the public has to recognise that wasn’t the truth.
“Learn the truth, accept the truth,” Priest Thompson added, “and I think it will take some of the stigma from us. We would be more recognised because we are like shrouded in mystery.”
Yesterday, Priest McKinney invited the public to the Bobo Ashanti’s celebration to mark the birthday of Emperor Haile Selassie I at the Fire Trail compound on July 23.