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Nursing with Dignity Part 5: Rastafarianism

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VOL: 98, ISSUE: 13, PAGE NO: 42

Carol Baxter, PhD, MSc, RN, RM, RHV, DN, FETC, is professor of nursing and head of the Centre for Nursing and Midwifery Research and Development, Middlesex University

Rastafarianism is a way of life largely associated with people from an Afro-Caribbean background. The movement, which began in Jamaica in the 1920s, emerged as an alternative to the predominance of western colonial influences and values. It was inspired by the teachings of a Jamaican, Marcus Garvey (1887-1940), who worked to promote the interests of people of African descent.

During the early 1970s, it was estimated that six out of every 10 Jamaicans followed the Rastafarian way of life. Although the total number of Rastafarians living in the UK is not known, there are sizeable communities in London, Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Bristol and Nottingham.

Philosophy and culture

The main aim of the movement is to bring about the fundamental transformation of an unjust society. However, as a relatively young religion, Rastafarianism is still developing and this is reflected in its fluid structure and non-rigid belief system.

Rastafarianism stresses the importance for black people to:

- Become aware of worldwide western economic and cultural domination;

- Gain a clearer understanding of their African heritage;

- Commit themselves to working towards a return to Africa (their true home and heaven on earth);

- Develop their own independent potential.

Most Rastafarians are politically aware and have a particular consciousness of white racism and its effects. Self-determinism, sufficiency and cooperative group production are central to its teachings. Reggae music (an inseparable and expressive ingredient of Rastafarianism) is an area where the movement has been particularly successful. The rise in popularity of reggae music, led by the late Bob Marley, a practising Rastafarian, has also stimulated interest in Rastafarianism outside Caribbean communities.


Spirituality is central to Rastafarianism, with a particular emphasis on mysticism. Recognising the dignity of each individual, the assertion of self and the importance of humility and peace come through strongly in their beliefs and attitudes. There is a deep conviction that God (called Jah) is within everyone and that everyone can speak directly to God. The spirit is believed to live on after death.

The influence of religion on the movement’s development reflects Jamaican history, which was deeply influenced by Christianity. While not regarding themselves as Christians, many Rastafarian beliefs are influenced by this religion. The Old Testament is a major source of scripture, although the notion of original sin is rejected.


Rastafarians in the UK may belong to one of four major groups: the Ethiopian World Federation; the Twelve Tribes of Israel; Nyahbinghi; or Boboshanti/ Ethiopian National Congress. Believers may also be affiliated to the Ethiopian Orthodox or Judah Coptic churches. Members are all regarded as equal, with nobody having any special position or power. Fasting and praying may be practised as a way of spiritual cleansing.

Distinctive characteristics within Rastafarian patterns of speech include the phrase ‘I and I’ (meaning ‘you and I’) which reinforces the oneness of people and the interconnectedness of people with God. ‘Irie’ is a term of greeting and a compliment. Fellow members are referred to as brethren (males) and sistren (females).

Rastafarians generally place little emphasis on formal theology and there are variations in forms of religious worship among individuals and groups, but much of their religious expression is personal and private. Meetings are held to discuss and debate issues of importance and to provide support and fellowship to members.

The secularism of the young (and increasingly the middle class) often vies with the pious spiritualism of many of the elders.


The body is regarded as the temple of God, which should be protected from contamination. Food is considered to have a key influence on the well-being of body and soul. Many Rastafarians adhere to a system of dietary and hygiene laws, which uphold and advocate a naturalistic and holistic lifestyle.

What is acceptable is down to individual choice, but on the whole natural food that is as fresh and pure as possible (known as ital) is highly valued. Pork, predatory fish and some types of crustaceans are regarded as especially unwholesome. Dairy products, white flour, sweets, sugar-based beverages and anything containing salt is generally avoided. Preserved foods, such as those in tins and foods containing additives, are avoided. Alcohol is rarely taken. The most orthodox Rastafarians are vegans.

Nurses may well be expected to explain the content of hospital meals to allow Rastafarian patients to choose a suitable diet. Nurses also need to recognise that patients may wish to fast or pray.

Herbal remedies

Many of the traditional aspects of Afrocentric Jamaican culture are preserved within the Rastafarian lifestyle. The use of herbal remedies and massage are important. While some Rastafarians abhor smoking of any kind, others use cannabis, which they regard as a herb that aids religious meditation.

Their belief in the body’s natural ability to heal itself leads to much scepticism about invasive forms of medical treatment that ‘interfere with God’s plans’.

Nurses should be sensitive to Rastafarians’ beliefs and provide detailed information about the options, risks and benefits of treatments and tests.


Most families reflect traditional gender role patterns, with men seen as providers and women seen as needing protection. Women are put on a pedestal and a man may refer to his wife as his queen. However, in reality, as in the rest of society, most women play a substantial role in contributing to the welfare of the family.

Some Rastafarians believe that men who are prepared to support more than one partner should be allowed to do so. This remains a long-running debate between the sexes both inside and outside the movement. However, children are highly valued and it is rare for fathers not to acknowledge and support them.

Some Rastafarians have biblical or Ethiopian names. Old Testament names such as Moses, Benjamin, Ezekiel and Zephaniah are common.

Maternal and child health

There are a range of issues that nurses should be aware of when caring for Rastafarian women and children:

- Decisions about contraception are a matter of personal choice, although natural means may be felt to be more acceptable;

- Circumcision is a matter of family choice;

- If internal examinations are necessary, most women prefer it to be done by another woman;

- Breastfeeding is highly encouraged. Where bottle-feeding is necessary, women will want to know the content of the milk and will avoid brands containing animal products.

Dress and modesty

Many Rastafarians wear their hair natural and uncut in obedience to God who told the Nazarenes (a group of ancient Israelites) to do so. Their distinctive dreadlocks and beards are regarded as a symbol of physical and moral strength as well as of black pride.

Some Rastafarians, both male and female, keep their heads covered: hairnets or scarves for women; knitted woollen hats for men. Many Rastafarians may not agree to have their hair cut or shaved. Where this is necessary, it should only be done as a last resort and kept to the minimum required.

Modesty in dress is important. Clothes influenced by traditional African fabrics and designs are often worn. Some Rastafarians dress in a robe and turban and women may wish to keep themselves covered at all times. Many women consider hospital gowns to be immodest.


Cultural and religious issues are always dynamic. Rastafarianism is a developing system of religious thought and a lifestyle and there will be many individual differences. Never assume that someone is a Rastafarian by their appearance, as popular hairstyles and dress can mimic the appearance of genuine Rastafarians. It is essential to find out directly from patients what forms of care will be important for them and to listen to their concerns.

Most Rastafarians will be unsure whether their beliefs will be respected while they are in hospital. It is therefore important to create an environment in which they feel able to ask questions and share their views.

The following are important areas to consider when caring for Rastafarian patients:

- Some will want to avoid any medication that is not entirely necessary;

- Blood transfusions or organ donation may not be acceptable;

- Procedures such as organ transplants, dialysis, amputations and the fitting of a prosthesis may need to be discussed within their community before a decision is made;

- Rastafarians have a duty to visit the sick and may do so in groups - a practice which may be difficult to manage on the ward.


Friends and relatives are likely to visit and pray for a gravely ill patient. As there is no formal structure or hierarchy, someone such as an elder may approach staff to request administering last rites to the dying person. Others may wish to avoid touching a dead body, as to do so would require them to shave off their hair. Staff should be sensitive to the wishes of the patient and their family, as there are no firm rules on who should carry out specific duties.

After death there are no particular requirements and, with the relatives’ consent, the body can be prepared in the usual way with the arms placed at the sides. Post-mortems, unless ordered by a coroner, are likely to be unacceptable because of their unnatural invasiveness. Rastafarians prefer burials to cremation.

- Cannabis and cannabis resin are class B drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, and cannabis oil is deemed class A. People found in possession of or supplying the drug face a fine or imprisonment. However, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has recommended that cannabis be downgraded from a class B to a class C drug, paving the way for a relaxation in the law. Subject to the outcome of current trials, cannabis could be prescribed by doctors.


Ethiopian World Federation,

28-34 St Agnes Place, Kennington,

London SE11 4BE

Tel: 020 7735 0905

- This series has been endorsed by the Transcultural Nursing and Healthcare Association.

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