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Monday, 11 September, 2000, 15:16 GMT 16:16 UK
Malawi Rastas' marijuana struggle
Rastafarian, Bester Hassan
Rastafarians say their religion allows them to smoke the "herb"
By Raphael Tenthani in Blantyre

Rastafarians in Malawi have gone to court to demand their right to smoke Indian hemp or marijuana.

The Rastafarians argue that smoking the drug locally knowns as 'chamba' is part of their religious doctrine which must be respected and upheld.

But marijuana is illegal in Malawi and police are sparing no one, Rasta or non-Rasta, in their crackdown on suspects.

Three Rastamen arrested for smoking the illicit drug have been battling with a magistrate's court in Blantyre saying the constitution guaranteed their "right to conscience, religion, belief and thought".


Natty Lame, one of the three accused, was adamant that they have no case to answer.

Malawi's Ombudsman, Enock Chibwana
Chibwana maintains tough stance against marijuana
"The president of this country, says everywhere he goes that there is freedom of worship in Malawi. I as a Rasta, I use chamba (marijuana) to worship my God."

And he quoted from the bible, citing Genesis 1 verses 11 and 12, as authorising people to smoke the "herb", which he also claimed had medicinal properties.

"So, yeah man, I wonder why it is only us - see?, Rastas, whose religious doctrines, are being ignored. Blessed love!" Lame told the court packed with dreadlocked colleagues.

The country's civil rights violation arbitrator, Enock Chibwana has made it clear that he cannot grant the Rastas' plea to smoke marijuana.

"When a practice infringes on a democratic principles, althought it may be within the constitutional provisions, it has to be put to public test to gauge whether the majority are comfortable with it", Ombudsman Chibwana said.

Banda's authoritarian rule

This came as a blow to the growing Rasta community in Malawi which thought, after many years of being social outcasts, that their much-maligned movement was about to be recognised in its entirity.

Malawi's former president, late Hastings Kamuzu Banda
The late Banda outlawed Rastafarianism
But Mr Chibwana said even in the Unites States which is seen as the epitomy of a free society, possession of marijuana is a crime.

During the authoritarian 30-year rule of Hastings Kamuzu Banda, Rastafarianism was virtually banned.

The wearing of dreadlocks was unheard of, even visitors sporting locks were either turned back or forced to have them sheared off.

And the constitution then, allowed for people to be penalised for their religious beliefs.

But the change of government in 1994 reversed the trend and Rastas started emerging in the public consciousness.

'Babylon village'

Now dreadlocks have become fashionable with Rastas openly advertising their meetings.

There exists a private radio station owned by a son of a senior minister and a group of Jamaicans offering on air Rasta clinics with Jamaican DJs.

The Rastafarians are determined to do anything that can enhance their presence and recognition in the Malawian society.

But there have been setbacks.

On the outskirts of Blantyre, about 20 Rastas created a village called "Away from Babylon" where they intend to practice their faith "free from harrassment".

But they simply played into the hands of the police, who proceeded to arrest several of them for smoking marijuana.

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See also:

21 Mar 00 | Medical notes
Cannabis: The debate
24 Mar 00 | Entertainment
Harrelson's hemp crusade
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