Malawi’s Rastafarians win landmark dreadlock ruling

Ezaius Mkandawire, a Malawian rasta poses for a portrait in his office in Lilongweon January 29, 2020. - Dreadlocks dominated headlines early in January in the southern African country after a landmark court ruling forcing schools to accept children with Rastafarian hairdos.
Ezaius Mkandawire, a Malawian rasta poses for a portrait in his office in Lilongweon January 29, 2020. - Dreadlocks dominated headlines early in January in the southern African country after a landmark court ruling forcing schools to accept children with Rastafarian hairdos.
Image: AMOS GUMULIRA

Makeda Mbewe was just six when she was kicked out of her primary school in Malawi for wearing her hair in the dreadlocks of her Rastafarian religion.

Two years later, she is back in the playground, thanks to a landmark court ruling in January forcing state schools to accept children wearing their hair the Rastafarian way.

The case was galvanised by her family, who joined forces with dozens of other Rastafarian parents to try to force the education system to end discrimination against children from one of the country’s smallest religious minorities.

“I am delighted with the ruling because it takes a huge burden off my shoulders,” Makeda’s father, Wisdom Mbewe, said.

At first there was no problem when Makeda enrolled at Blantyre Girls Primary School, in the country’s capital.

But after two years — and as her hair grew longer — she was told to leave.

“They demanded that we cut her hair,” her father, a truck driver, said.

Rastafarianism is a religious movement of Jamaican origin which considers former Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie to be its messiah.

Many Rastafarians sport dreadlocks which symbolise the Lion of Judah, one of the late emperor’s titles.

Dreadlocks gained global recognition thanks to the cultural influence of the late reggae star Bob Marley, also a Rastafarian, and have since become popular the world over.

Malawi’s 15,000 Rastafarians have long suffered discrimination.

In government-run schools, children were told either to shave or cut off the locks, were refused enrolment or simply thrown out of class.

The ministry of education said the ban was justified under a policy that required all pupils to have a neat appearance and clean hair.

But, challenged by lawyers for the Rastafarian children, it was unable to produce documents to prove the policy existed.

As a result of her exclusion, Makeda was home-schooled for two years which placed a strain on her family’s finances.

Her father approached local advocacy charity, the Centre for Human Rights Education, Advice and Assistance, for help.

Subsequently, the centre received complaints from the parents of 76 other Rastafarian children about being denied admission into government schools, the charity’s lawyer, Chikondi Chijozi, said.

It then took the issue to court.

On January 14, high court judge Zione Ntaba ordered the country’s 7,000-odd government-run schools to admit “all children of Rastafari religion, who have dreadlocks”.

Ray Harawa, a Rastafari leader in the forefront of the fight for the rights of his co-religionists in Malawi, welcomed the ruling.

“This judgment will go a long way in showcasing how seriously advanced our democracy is,” he said.

The order is in line with judgments by courts in Kenya, Zimbabwe and SA.

They all ruled that excluding dreadlocked children from school was an infringement of their right to freedom of religion, according to the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC).

Makeda was back in school days after the court ruling.

For Rastafarian parents, the court victory is bittersweet.

Ezaius Mkandawire said it was “just the beginning” of the battle for compensation.

“What about those people that have not gone to school for the past 25 years?," Mkandawire asked.

“Someone has to pay for that.” — AFP

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