A most sacred plant

In Editor's Pick, Food by Donisha Prendergast

I love ganja, herb, marijuana, cannabis, weed, trees… whatever name the plant goes by in your world. I love everything about it. The colour, the smell, the taste, the texture, what it represents, how useful it is in the world, how it makes me feel, the ceremonious way I encounter it within Rastafari, the space that it brings me to. 

My family and the Rasta community have always treated it with reverence and respect. We smoke it, we cook with it, we use it as medicine. Every Jamaican household has a bottle with a concoction of herbs and spices with 100 per cent overproof white rum and some ganja. I remember being about 15 years old and having the worst cramps of my life. Curled up in bed, my grandmother came into the room with the concoction and poured some on my stomach and rubbed my belly and my back with the remedy. This remedy has been used to cure anything, from an ache to a fever, even colds. Every grandparent uses it on themselves and their offspring. 

In the Rastafari culture, ganja is looked upon as a sacrament and a daily part of life. I prefer to contextualize ganja as brain food, especially when I consider the key role it plays in the culture and spirituality of Rastafari. As a Rasta, I use it freely to heal the mind, body and soul. This sacred plant elevates my thoughts to a higher vibration where I can tune into the frequencies of other energies around me. Sometimes it feels like an out-of-body experience, especially when paired with the sounds of drums holding the heartbeat throughout the night under the open sky by the blazing bonfire.

Every now and again, the community gathers around special calendar dates to host what is known as a ‘Nyabinghi trod’. This is where men, women, and children make the journey from all across the island, carrying fruits, vegetables, pots and drums to create a camp for a few days. It is a time of celebration and reflection, where many activities occur. One such activity is a communal reasoning, usually held under the tabernacle by the firelight which burns for the duration of the gathering, which sometimes lasts for up to seven days. To initiate the reasoning, a Rastaman holding a chalice will chant a prayer, as another one brings fire to the coals in the kutchie. Others will draw near and stand in reverence, absorbing the words and the energy, setting intentions for the gathering and sharing of the sacrament. Once the chalice is lit, it is passed around freely with each individual in the circle taking a turn to speak or just partake in the experience.

As the embers cool, the pungent smell of homegrown ganja will permeate the air. The kutchie will be refilled throughout the reasoning, as the chalice moves from hand to hand as a form of communion. The enlightened meditations will stretch from the politics and governance of H.I.M. Emperor Haile Selassie I to philosophies on farming and self-sufficient living. On occasion, there will be updates about recent repatriates and the challenges and successes they encounter on the mission to make Africa home again. The gathering will laugh, lament and reflect on how far the movement has come and how far we have to go. Once the chalice is out, a prayer will be said to close the reasoning. Ganja has become ingrained in Rasta and Jamaican culture, even though it isn’t indigenous to the island.  

 Between 1845 and 1917, British records show that ships brought close to 40,000 Indian indentured labourers to be distributed for plantation labour on their various colonies throughout the Caribbean. Colonizers sought to transition labour from enslaved Africans to a different system which saw some of these East Indians being deposited in Jamaica. The Indentured labourers would get a minimum wage as compensation for their labour. In the previous system, enslaved Africans were never offered any kind of financial compensation for their labour. The Indians brought with them herbs, spices, ancient practices of Hinduism and a plant that would take root in Jamaican culture and history in a way that no other plant has done before or after, ganja. 

Back on the sub-continent, ganja was primarily used by those identified as ‘holy men’ or sadhus, as it was seen as a gateway to a higher plane. The sadhus would use the plant in ceremonies to recognize the presence and importance of their ancestors and to honour their Gods Ganesh and Shiva. When the Indians introduced it to Jamaica, it created a safe space and spiritual pathway for the African and the Indian labourers to become friends and begin sharing cultural practices. 

The plant flourished on the Jamaican terrain. So too did the Black Jamaicans who found a sustainable way to live off it. The Indians would spend all their time labouring on the plantations, denying them the chance of planting and harvesting for themselves. So the ex-slaves grew the ganja and would sell it back to the Indians, as well as other fruits and vegetables. Thus, ganja became the first way the free Black person in Jamaica was able to make money after slavery was abolished, and they used it to build community. 

In the 1930s, a Jamaican man named Leonard Howell began to journey across Jamaica, hosting small gatherings with the oppressed men and women who were still labouring on the plantations basically for free. Howell was a follower of Garvey’s message of organizing, centralizing and mobilizing. He denounced the Queen as leader of the colonized world and proclaimed the Divinity of Emperor Haile Selassie I, citing his Coronation in Ethiopia as evidence that Babylon was falling. Howell challenged them to thrive instead of just survive. He told them of a place named Pinnacle, a property that he had signed papers for and was in the process of buying from a Chinese man who he also did other business with. 500 acres of land up in the mountains, where they could come and live as a part of a community. Together, they would work to establish their own Nation. Soon the hills of these 500 acres of land were filled with ex-slaves and a few Indian families who were seeking refuge from the plantations. At its peak, close to 5,000 people lived in the community that sustained itself from the sale of fruits, vegetables and ganja. 

Soon, there would emerge a way of life called Rastafari, which would incorporate elements of Hindu cultural practices and African spirituality into a new sense of spiritual identity in the context of an anti-oppression movement, and ganja would become the sacrament.

Pinnacle was raided a number of times by the colonial forces who confiscated money, personal property, food and ganja. Seeing the power of ganja to liberate the minds and spirits of formerly enslaved people, colonials attempted to ban it, illegalize it, and regulate it. Ganja would continue to be used as a tool by the colonial forces to abuse Rastafari because of the threat that it presented to their power. Finally, the colonial government destroyed this self-sufficient community in 1954. Hundreds of people were arrested, while many others fled the mountaintop. The movement dispersed throughout the country. As members of the community sought refuge in ghettos and bushy hilltops across Jamaica, different mansions of Rastafari were born… The Twelve Tribes of Israel, the Nyabinghi Order and the Bobo Shanti. The Rastafari culture would make a significant imprint on the lower-class of society, and again, ganja would be central in the evolution of a new movement, Reggae music.

The role that ganja has played in Rastafari spirituality and now world culture is enormous. It is a liberator; it is a manifester. Ganja has empowered humans to heal, to commune, to meditate on a higher plane, and in the case of Pinnacle achieve economic sustainability. These days, the Rasta no longer has 500 acres of our own land to grow and self-sustain from the sale of ganja. Very few Rastafari members and small farmers have had the opportunity to partake in the burgeoning global ganja industry. And even though ganja became decriminalized in Jamaica in 2014, and fully legal in Canada in 2017, there still is no levelled playing field. Our brothers that were locked up on ganja related charges are still serving time in the penitentiary, and the families that got destroyed in its wake have yet to heal.

 Even though many countries around the world are now introducing legislation that will decriminalize the plant, the bitter truth is, she still isn’t free. She is being owned, mistreated and exploited by the hands of the same Babylon system that once tried to defile her existence. The truth is, the safest ganja plants that you can find today, are growing in the gardens of the Rastaman. No one else honours the plant with the kind of reverence and adoration as the Rastaman does; the Rastaman will pray over the plant, showering it with positive vibrations. Today, the world eagerly indulges in the recreational use of the plant, but I hope that one day they will take heed to the Rastafari community’s teachings and come to recognize how sacred the plant is, and its power to truly heal Nations.