I didn’t know that rasta was an issue in Jamaica today. Remember when Babylon used to hold rastas and trim dem? Used to lock dem up? When locks were infra dig in civilized Jamaican society? So many middle class women sport locks today! In my office, in my family, in senior government positions, women and men with multiple degrees, in traditional professions…so why is Kimani vilified for the same hairstyle? Are dreadlocks are acceptable within the educated middle classes, but scorned in the ghettos, the very roots of the religion that birthed this look? Is Kimani’s experience symptomatic of Jamaica’s bipolar society, so aptly portrayed daily on page 2 and page 5 in the papers? Is the scorn of Kimani’s hair style linked to bleaching practices in some way? And at the same time, why are locks de rigueur amongst the middle classes today? Is society confused? Are our identities split somehow, seeking to be what we really are not, to identify with something that we aspire to?
Rasta is still a problem in Jamaica? In 2014? Really? Here’s why I ask this…
Two weeks ago I was with a small group of third graders at my church’s learning centre where I volunteer. We were doing reading comprehension. The passage under review was a story about a little girl who hated school because she had no friends. The story went on to recount how she found another little girl who looked lonely at play time and how she struck up the courage to make friends with her and they all lived happily ever after. Of course, we discussed the story and we had lively discussion, answering questions and rendering opinions about play time, friends and school. Much to their dismay, I then asked them to write a short story about what happens at their own schools at break time. There were groans and moans: “me cyan write no story, Miss”. “How much sentence mek up a story, Miss?” “Nutten nuh gwaan a fi mi school at breaktime, Miss”. I answered every single question: “Yes you can write a story”. “I will accept a 6 sentence story”. “Use your imagination. Write down what you would like to have happen at breaktime”. Once they started, they couldn’t stop! I helped with spelling and punctuation, but the ideas were all theirs.
There’s a little boy in the class who I fell in love with from Day 1. I will refer to him as Kimani. That’s not his real name. He is tiny for his age, has smooth black skin, and dread locks down to his shoulder. Sometimes he lets them out. Sometimes they’re in a neat ponytail. He can read well. He is lively. He dances like James Brown. Sometimes he looks sad though. Sometimes he gets real quiet and doesn’t talk. Sometimes he looks angry. He always asks quietly if there is any extra food that he can carry home for his mother and baby brother. I have always had a soft spot for Kimani.
So they completed their stories eventually (I had to set a cut-off point for them…they just wanted to go on and on once they got started!) and then each child read their story to the class. The first little girl, I shall call her Janelle, told of a boy in her class named Kimani that the children did not like because his hair was different. She didn’t even try to hide the name. The real Kimani said: “Yes, mi know dem nuh like mi. But ah nuh mi hair!”. She countered with certainty: “Yes, ah yuh hair! Mi ask Lisa and she tell me she she nuh like yuh hair! Mi ask Rashawn and him tell mi she ah yuh hair too! A yuh hair dem nuh like. Dem seh yuh a Rasta bwoy!” I was stunned. We discussed tolerance, empathy and that appearances ought never to be the basis of judgments. I tried to be calm and neutral and understanding. Then Kimani gave me his story to read. He refused to stand up and read it aloud. His story started off in the third person about a little boy who he didn’t name, but as his story went on, he slipped into the first person and named the boy Kimani. Kimani was a little boy who didn’t have friends because everybody “hated him”. It ended with Kimani feeling very alone and unloved.
After class ended I hugged Kimani and told him that his different-ness is what made him great. That he was to be proud of his family and his heritage and that he wasn’t to make anyone cause him to dim his light. I told him to flash his locks when the haters start up. I don’t know if this will make a difference.