Ghana’s Rastas and the year of return

Ghana's government likes to advertise its "Year of Return" to welcome members of the African diaspora back to the country, but the first returnees, Ratafarians, are still fighting for their rights.

Obed, an elder of the Amamole Rasta Camp leadership, and Hanson, a younger member, share peanuts and ganja during a meeting. Image credit Sam Broadway.

Twice this year, so far, the cannabis decriminalization efforts of the Rastafari Council of Ghana have been blocked by the police. Securing injunctions through two different courts, first on May 8th and again on June 26th, the Ghana Police prevented the group from proceeding with peaceful demonstrations in favor of ushering in a cannabis economy they view as increasingly legitimate.

Coming out of their annual conference in Kumasi, the seat of the Ashanti region, the Rastafari Council decided that 2019 was the year to ramp up their advocacy of cannabis legalization. Among the topics discussed was the persistent profiling of Rastas during routine traffic stops, which led to a much larger conversation. According to Rastafari Council President Ahuma Ocansey Bosco, better known as Daddy Bosco:

One of the things that came up was that we needed to step up the advocacy for decriminalization because it is the criminalization of herb that leads to police people wanting to pick on you because they think you carry and once you’re implicated, you know, it’s either a way of extortion or something.

Ironically, and perhaps fortuitously, the Rasta community’s increased advocacy has coincided with what has become widely known as the Year of Return.

Speaking at the UN General Assembly in September of last year, Ghana’s president, Nana Akufo-Addo, declared that 2019, which marks the 400th anniversary of the first African slaves reaching the shores of Jamestown, Virginia, would be the year to welcome members of the African diaspora back to the country where over 70% of West Africa’s slave forts can be found.

“We know of the extraordinary achievements and contributions they [Africans in the diaspora] made to the lives of the Americans, and it is important that this symbolic year—400 years later—we commemorate their existence and their sacrifices,” said Akufo-Addo in his speech.

While Akufo-Addo and his administration intends, through the Year of Return, to recognize the “achievements and contributions” of American descendants of enslaved Africans, some of Ghana’s earliest returnees, members of the Rasta community, still face discrimination.

Arrival of the first Rastas

“Here in Accra there’s a place they call Brazil House. That is where the first, or some of the first, returnees, who came from Brazil, lived,” Daddy Bosco said describing the origins of Ghana’s vibrant and robust Rasta community. “So, there is that connection to Ghana and the African diaspora, especially in the west… I remember growing up in the 70s, you know, seeing the Brethren that came from particularly the UK. So those Brethren lived in Labadi.”

Labadi is a subregion of Greater Accra where the popular Labadi Beach, which hosts weekly reggae nights that famously last until sunrise, is located.

The leadership council of Amamole Rasta Camp, more officially known as Ethiopian World Federation Local 24. Image credit Sam Broadway.

During our interview, Daddy Bosco, reminiscing about the early days of Rastafari culture, told me of returnees, like Zebbi Carlos, the first Rasta he encountered in his youth, and Big Dread, who lives in the Amamole Rasta Camp, also known as Ethiopian World Federation Local 24. Dread whose origins are mysteriously unclear (some said Jamaica, some Birmingham, though he himself told me he was from Ghana). It was abundantly clear from Bosco’s memories that musicians played an outsized role in the establishment and proliferation of Rasta culture in Ghana. Bosco spoke passionately about musicians of days past, such as Felix Bell, who not only recorded several hit reggae songs but also acted in a local television series, as well as a band called Classic Candles which, after the rest of their members locked their hair, changed their name to Classic Vibes. But music is not where it started and not where it ends.

Surviving the stigma

The early days of Rastafari culture in Ghana were rife with familial rejection and systemic discrimination. “Cast your mind back 40 years, conservative Ghana… Rasta was a strange phenomenon back then,” said Bosco. Rastas in Ghana have never had the sort of privilege of multitude like those in Jamaica enjoyed.

It wasn’t until 1983, when many of Ghana’s Rastas, along with over one million Ghanaians, returned from Nigeria, where they had emigrated as economic refugees and subsequently kicked out under the Ghana Must Go policy, to a home country in the midst of a severe famine brought on by drought.

Hanson sitting near to the drum used to call and accompany council meeting discussion and prayer. Image credit Sam Broadway.

It was at this time that Ghana’s no-longer nascent Rasta community had the opportunity to advance their standing in the eyes of the larger Ghanaian society. As part of the Food for Work Programme instituted by military leader Jerry John Rawlings, Rastas started their first farmers’ coop, which was so successful it was covered on national news. Seeing this, the chief of Amamole decided to grant the Rasta community land in his jurisdiction. This was the birth of Ethiopian World Federation Local 24, or better known as Amamole Rasta Camp.

Complete with a meeting center and Rastafari church, Amamole is still home to a sizable Rasta community, at the center of which is the same Big Dread of unknown past nationality.

Today, the Rastafari Council continues to carry the torch of these early organizational efforts of the Rasta community. Forming just over 10 years ago, the Council’s first act was to create the Black Star Line Cooperative Credit Union. It is an organization that, according to is mission statement, promotes financial self-empowerment, wealth creation, and the Pan-African agenda through the pooling of member resources. These efforts, however, have not been without certain setbacks.

Overcoming the disconnect

Within the last few months, a regional official for the Driving and Vehicle Licensing Authority issued a statement saying his office would not issue licenses to Rastas. In response, the Rastafari Council issued their own statement calling for the official’s dismissal which prompted the CEO of the DVLA to contradict his official’s statement and issue an apology to the Rasta community.

While this was certainly viewed as a success by the Council, it exposed a disconnect between what Daddy Bosco called the “rank and file” and the leadership of the country’s administration and its institutions. “The big men, they train in America, Britain, Germany. So they know, they meet people, they know what time it is, where the world is going to. Unfortunately, the rank and file, the foot soldiers… They’re full of some colonial,” Daddy Bosco said.

Nowhere is this disconnect more apparent than in the Rastafari Council’s reinvigorated advocacy for the decriminalization of marijuana. Highly influential people within the president’s own administration have spoken out in favor of legal cannabis. In June, Gabby Asare Otchere-Darko, a family member of Akufo-Addo’s and founder of the Danquah Institute (named after the political ancestor of the New Patriotic Party) asked publicly, “Are we going to have a debate… about Ghana cashing in on the new legitimate cannabis trade for medicinal and cosmetic purposes, etc?” Moreover, it is widely rumored that Akufo-Addo himself has smoked marijuana. Perhaps this is a sign that if the Rasta’s claims were to reach the top, they would be met with sympathy.

One of the Amamole leaders passing a burning joint to a fellow Rasta. Image credit Sam Broadway.

On July 23rd, the Rastafari Council held its first National Cannabis Conference in Kumasi. Despite being invited to speak at the event, the Narcotics Board Public Relations Officer declined to attend. Instead, he spoke out against the inclusion of his name on the original event promotional flyer, stating that “the move by the Rastafari Council is a ploy to discredit my reputation and institution (NACOB) with their insignificant and mischievous agenda.” His statement, appealing to the moral question behind the marijuana legalization controversy, not only attempted to delegitimize the event but also served to further stigmatize the use of the herb in question.

As the Year of Return moves well into its second half, it is clear that the impasse between leadership and the rank and file civil service over the place of Rastas and their culture in Ghana has yet to be moved by peaceful public pressure.

Further Reading