USA Today
July 17, 2003

Rastafarian conference draws all kinds

KINGSTON, Jamaica (AP) With his shoulder-length dreadlocks and knitted cap, Patrick Nyfeler was like most people Thursday at the Global Rastafarian Reasoning Summit except for one small detail.
"I'm not black," said Nyfeler, 24, of Zurich, Switzerland.

Founded by descendants of African slaves in response to black oppression, Rastafarianism has attracted a new and unexpected following among white Americans, Europeans and Asians.

Most got a warm welcome among blacks at the conference in Jamaica the birthplace of the religion where 90% of islanders are black. But some resentment was evident.

Nyfeler said a woman shoved a chair at him Wednesday when he tried to snap a souvenir photo of her a sign of disrespect among Rastas who complain that white-owned businesses routinely exploit Rastafarian imagery to sell everything from T-shirts to tourism.

"Having lived under colonialism, there's an instinctive reaction to white skin that is going to take stages for us to overcome," said Adugo Ranglin-Onuora of Kingston. "That's the reality."

The conference, which ends next week, has drawn Rastas from all over the Caribbean, Europe, Africa and the United States, and has included spiritual talks, drumming and copious amounts of marijuana, even though it's illegal here. Police have kept their distance.

Besides the well-known ritual use of marijuana, Rastas practice a strict oneness with nature, eating only unprocessed foods and leaving their hair to grow, uncombed, into dreadlocks.

Though there are no restrictions to becoming a Rasta, the faith's devout "Back to Africa" belief and disdain for white Western culture has led some to label it racist.

"You have some ... who only want black people, but all of us are of one blood," said 72-year-old Vivian Key Stewart, a black Jamaican whose calf-length dreadlocks have turned yellow with time.

The faith emerged in the 1930s and its message was carried across the world by the reggae music created by masters Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. Believers say about 700,000 people practice it worldwide, but no one knows how many are among Jamaica's 2.6 million people.

Nyfeler, a student in Jamaica studying English, said he began adopting Rasta ways four years ago after meeting Jamaican immigrants in Zurich and listening to reggae. But he admitted an occasional indulgence in pork and other meat, something strictly prohibited by the faith.

"Before I came, I was worried about how they would see me," said Nyfeler, clouded by a haze of marijuana smoke. "But when I look into their eyes, I can see that they really accept me."

Copyright 2003 The Associated Press.