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4 February 2016updated 27 Jul 2021 8:00am

The last Rastafarians

“Babylon is not about race,” he says. “It’s about any unjust state or system."

By Tom Sykes

Looking over the space where the Rasta Village used to be, it’s hard to imagine that two thousand men, women and children used to live here, supporting themselves through farming, fishing and the arts. Today it is little more than a rubbish-strewn beach the size of four football fields beneath a smoky oil refinery. My guide, Ras Kevin, who is 50 years old and slight from hunger, stares at the sea through eyes grown milky from an infection he cannot afford to treat.

Rooted in Ethiopian Christianity, the Rastafari belief system emerged in 1930s Jamaica and took hold in Côte d’Ivoire in the 1960s. In an African context, Rastafarians believe in spiritual and political liberation from what they call Babylon – mainstream society, devoted to materialism and ruled over by corrupt and oppressive forces. Sick of police persecution and job discrimination, Rastafarians from all over Côte d’Ivoire started coming to the bleak industrial fringe of Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire’s biggest city) in 2007 and built a self-sufficient commune. They sold jewellery, grew ganja (though it was not for sale to outsiders, Ras Kevin asserts) and put on concerts by reggae stars, from U-Roy to Alpha Blondy, Côte d’Ivoire’s most popular recording artist. The Rasta Village became a cultural centre, attracting young, middle-class Abidjanais looking for a good time in “the ghetto” (Ras Kevin’s term) and, later on, drawing the anger of powerful interests.

“We thought this was free land,” Ras Kevin says, “but Babylon say no.” In 2012, a Lebanese-Ivorian developer the Rastas refer to as M Zaher claimed he owned the land on which the village had been built. He used his government contacts to have all its wooden huts razed to the ground.

Ras Kevin, a gigging musician, lost his livelihood, his possessions, and his eight-year-old son when the village’s women and children were forcibly relocated. He became a displaced person, along with two thousand others. Fearing the persecution wouldn’t stop, the notables (elders) of the Rasta Village fled to Senegal. Ras Kevin refused to move: today he lives in a shack just 100 metres from the site of the village, along with a hard core of Rastamen who dream of rebuilding their community.

The men are young and photogenic and wear flowing dreadlocks. They roll gigantic joints and smoke them quickly, like cigarettes. Jerome, who is half Ghanaian, says that after the Rasta Village was destroyed, no charities or NGOs were interested in helping them. “The Red Cross gave the children some blankets, that was all,” he says. “Nobody care for the Rastaman,” Ras Kevin adds. “Wherever we go, they don’t like us. I can’t even get a job without cutting my dreads.”

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Instead Ras and his comrades tried to take legal action against Zaher. “But in Côte d’Ivoire,” interjects the muscular pastor of this tiny Rastafarian flock, “there’s no justice when a man has friends in high places.”

However, during the proceedings, Zaher was unable to produce deeds to the land. One judge suggested he should serve time for harassment and criminal damage. The flaws in his case have persuaded the Rastamen to launch a second legal challenge, for which they are now raising funds.

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Outside the shack there are murals of Thomas Sankara, Kwame Nkrumah and other revolutionary nationalists whom Ivorian Rastafarians revere for their commitment to socialism and African self-determination. I imagine such loyalties do little for the Rasta Village cause, as the Ivorian government is vehemently neoliberal and pro-Western. I ask Jerome if he really would accept aid from anywhere in the world, the powerful, white West included.

“Babylon is not about race,” he says. “It’s about any unjust state or system. Believe me, brother, we have Babylon right here in Côte d’Ivoire, too.” He laughs and grips my hand. “There are people like us all over the world.”

This article appears in the 27 Jan 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Should Labour split?