For years, Rastafarians had to shave off their long hair and beards to conform to work standards.
The Co-chair of the Defence Rastafarian Network believed more still needs to be done for people to see the religious and cultural movement beyond the stereotypes they condemn them to.
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Lieutenant Shabaka Kenyatta, 38, an officer in the Royal Navy, believes many people associate Rastafarians with “the things that people see on TV” such as marijuana and drug taking, despite a “zero tolerance for drugs” policy in the armed forces.
The marine engineer stated “One of the biggest myths is that all Rastafarians smoke weed. That was one we had to shut down quickly.”
According to Lt. Kenyatta, another myth about Rastafarians is that all of them are black informing the Telegraph, “We have to be there to increase awareness that it is not about being black or white,” adding, “It’s open to anyone and everyone, it’s a way of life to follow. You have bald-headed rastas [and] don’t necessarily have to have dread[locks] to be a rasta, you don’t have to be from the Caribbean, Africa or Ethiopia.”
The Defence Rastafarian Network (DRN) was set up in 2017 and comprises almost 300 members from all three services and the MoD civil service. Most come from the army.
Rastafarianism was formally recognized as a religion and culture by the MoD about five years ago and is the fastest growing faith in the armed forces.
Having a formal network like the DRN has allowed the group to speak with a single voice and represent Rastafarian concerns to senior officers.
Leading Supply Chain Kevin Joseph, 35, a member of the ship’s company on HMS Prince of Wales, the second of Britain’s two new aircraft carriers noted that the military has made changes to accommodate his culture, particularly regarding beards and long hair, and allows Rastafarians to wear turbans.
On how he fitted in before the rule change, he said: “The rules say you should be clean shaven (to get a satisfactory seal) so I worked with the instructor. The end result was that he got what he wanted and I got what I wanted.”
For Lt Kenyatta whose hair is over a foot long and the first Rastafarian to serve in the Royal Navy said, “It is not a case of trying to break the rules, it is a tenet of the faith that Rastafarians do not shave and we grow our hair. Your hair is a sign of solidarity and strength,” adding, however, that the Rastafarian culture has to work alongside operational duties and safety when operating military equipment.
Lt Kenyatta said other nations are looking at how the British have incorporated Rastafarianism into military life.
“We have international services looking at us now and by us leading from the front we are influencing policy in different countries.”