July 20, 2009

Cover your shoulders!

Sunday afternoon, Nando, the girls, and I set out for an outdoor festival, hosted by one of the Wailers (as in Bob Marley and the Wailers). It was a Rasta community event, with free food and drink, a sound system, and a variety of Rasta items for sale. Nando set up his jewelry table next to a table full of Rasta flags and paraphernalia. There was a waterslide for the kids, and plenty of ganja for adults who wished to indulge.

The food was delightful vegetarian fare – spicy vegetable soup to start with, followed by a plate of rice and beans with tofu stew. Raymi ate all of her soup, and asked for some chicken. This being a Rasta event, she had to settle for tofu. In addition to the vegetarian-only fare, long dreads, and pictures of Emperor Haile Selassie, apparently, women are supposed to cover up.

I found out the hard way. I was sitting next to Nando’s jewelry table when one of the guys with a security badge asked me if I had something to cover myself with. I told him I did not. He said it was okay this time, but I should know that, for the future, I needed to cover my shoulders.

Me in my "scandalous" tank top and shorts

I noticed that, although the women had on long flowing dresses and T-shirts, some of the men had on tank tops and shorts, some a lot skimpier than mine. One man was wearing a mesh tank-top that was completely see-through. I suppose the standards are different for men and women.

There also were a lot more men than women at this event. At the beginning, there were about 100 people, and no more than ten of them were women. The absence of women is something I have noticed in Rasta communities in Kingston. Each time I point this out, however, it is met with denial. So either the women tend to stay home, or the Rasta community is predominately male and people don’t like to talk about it.

As the afternoon progressed, more women showed up. Perhaps they were cooking the delicious food, or attending to their own household duties. At one point, the festival was up to about 20% women. Some of them had bare shoulders too, making me feel less out-of-place. The Rasta women with bare shoulders, however, did pull out shawls as they got closer to the prayer tent. However, there were two non-Rasta women who sat down near me who were wearing tank-tops that showed a lot more cleavage than me. As you can imagine, it is very hot in Kingston, so people don’t tend to cover up very much here.

The central focus of this event was a sermon, carried out by various individuals, mostly men. It began with a prayer song, and then people took the microphones to talk about community issues. They began with a discussion of a family who lost their home to a fire, and other families who lost their youth to gun violence. Others talked about community development, especially agricultural export. Perhaps most interesting was the juxtaposition of how Rastafarians are stigmatized for smoking ganja, yet utilized by the Jamaican Tourist Board as an example of Jamaicans’ cultural vivacity. One of the speakers argued that Rastafarians should have intellectual property rights over the use of Rastafarian symbols. One of the main reasons for this is the abuse of these symbols by tourist venues in places like Montego Bay and Ocho Rios. Another argued for the legalization of ganja. Since it is illegal, anyone with dreadlocks is presumed by the police to have marijuana. Therefore, the police frequently stop them to search their cars for ganja.

After a while, the kids got bored of the long sermon. So, we decided to head out to our friend, Kenny’s house. Kenny is a Rastafarian, and he had invited us to the event in the. Kenny has a small pool in his yard. As the waterslide had been shut down for the duration of the sermon, the kids were happy to leave to cool off in Kenny’s pool. They had a blast there, jumping around in Kenny’s pool.

Soraya cooling off in Kenny's pool

Kenny’s wife offered us some food – this time with chicken. It was a stew with chicken, bammy, coconut milk, and some herbs and spices. It was so good! Overall, it was a great Sunday in Kingston.


  1. That's very interesting that you have been noticing unequal gender representation at Rasta events. My husband and I listen to a good amount of Reggae and I chafe at how frequently the lyrics promote heteronormativity. Also tank tops are the only way to go in very hot climates. Harumph.

  2. Emily: Jamaica has a pretty openly homophobic society. I saw an article in the newspaper recently where it was reported that two women were run out of town after engaging in "freaky" behavior.