A Grass-roots Jamaican Cultural Model
Consumption of ganja is embedded in Jamaica, but there is a dearth of research documenting the evolved cultural experience and understanding surrounding this plant. This dearth, and the intrinsic value of the humanities for research on cultural practices around ganja in Jamaica, led me to research this herb over the last ten years.
It is timely to share the insights I have gathered in light of moves to legalise ganja in Jamaica. How have ordinary Jamaicans, and Rastas in particular, navigated consumption of the herb?
Ganja or herb camps, the Jamaican cultural system for ganja dispensing and consumption, existed long before Dutch Coffee shops, US Compassion Stores and the recent Herb-houses of Jamaica were conceived. These camps originally were makeshift spaces next to ganja fields in remote regions of the island. From the 1840s for more than a hundred years, formerly enslaved Africans and East Indian labourers gathered to share in the sacred herb referred to as Kali's (collie) weed, famed as the source to the wisdom of Solomon and deemed to bring power over evil, in this life.
Herb camps functioned as sites of anti-colonial celebrations as well as an economic base for curing, storage, preparation, and sale of the herb. After the 1950s, as the plant became more criminalised through official legislation, Rastafari, in defiance, established camps within the urban squalors of Kingston, and soon, areas such as Trench Town, Rae Town, and Rockfort had 'ends' for consumption of ganja and Rastafari reasonings (ritualised group dialogue and explicit teachings). These Rastafari camps provided safe public access to the herb for those brave enough to defy the law and enter.
The participation in ganja smoking is a healing ritual for Rastafari, during which the mind is engaged in elevated thoughts. There are camps devoted to elderly, theocratic reasoning; others with more youth-centred radical philosophies and critiques; and still others like reliable pray-houses, operating as late-night haunts for travellers. From this legacy, a dense network of more than 100 Rastafari herb camps have emerged in the Kingston Metropolitan Area, some of which have operated for over forty years.
The term 'camp' is now generally applied to herb distribution and consumption points, as distinct from street-side points of sale. Camps are mostly inner-city based and diverse in characteristics, some in residential areas, others work annexes, and some independent, many with an air of wasteland or a zone of outcasts. These are of such importance that many operate on a twenty to twenty-four hour basis. In an environment where ganja is still illegal, the camps offer collective security, often through explicit understanding with the police, who recognise them as a part of an embedded community resource helping to maintain peace and harmony, particularly among males.
Smoking of ganja spliffs is the main method of using the herb, but the chalice, or water pipe, is the choice for collective smoking and Rastafari togetherness. The sipping of the cup (as it is called) is a sacred, daily, practice among cohorts, requiring virtue of harmony among the literal 'circle' of participants. In addition to providing the space for smoking, many herb camps sell ganja and make available the instruments for preparation and consumption. Some camps also routinely have available individuals who specialise in a range of food and herbal preparations for members.
The camps follow the "NBA" or "No Babies Allowed" rule, to mean, "this is a big man league". As a result, predominantly males over eighteen years, sometimes from diverse backgrounds, gather, and the chalice becomes a point of unification. Some individuals turn up daily based on their schedules as most camps are sustained by a basic core, who are members, and an expanded clientele based on their referrals. For some underemployed, the camp becomes a refuge space to move away from sometimes conflict-ridden home environments into an alternative enclave, offering sustenance, supportive critique to issues presented, and opportunities for earning, thus a resource pool for males who come together regularly, helping to keep each other 'afloat'.
Within the system that has developed, camps are generally governed by principles conforming to Rastafari philosophy and the overall social norms concerning well-being, food, music, and gender. From this context, originally, women would not be seen participating in smoking rituals and not linked to the herb's cultivation based on menstrual taboos. This is changing. On occasion, females are present at camps usually as observers (some also now cultivate), some smoking spliffs, but generally, they are not party to the chalice. Most often females who visit camps for herb make their purchase and quickly depart without consuming it in that space.
Camps generally have a recognisable host/provider whose charisma draws in (and on) the members to ensure that the camp operates effectively. The reputation of the camp is thus based on the people skills of the host and the quality of the herb provided. Hosts are generally over 40 years old, with long histories connected to herb supply and usage. This individual, when fully engaged, fulfils a range of functions not least of which is the provision of small loans and counselling therapy. The communing through the chalice ritual fills a space of kinship for many who are without close family. So compelling is this bond at some camps that it even attracts non-smokers, who regularly turn up to share in the collective energy.
Herb camps are a therapeutic, communal model, a cultural institution providing a complex contribution developed by Rastafari for ganja-community dispensing. This institution provides a potential safety net, a type of halfway house for cannabis devotees to understand dosage and use of the herb, important aspects of "livity" to maintain wellness, and the related socio-political economy connected to the plant. It is also a place for Rastafari alternative masculine development, often providing the counsel of community 'elders'.
Herb camps are a Jamaican hybrid community therapy model, founded on ancient traditions, providing sacramental and recreational therapy. This Herb camp system has produced positive critique and cultural production in all aspects of folk activities, demonstrating themselves as rational herbal wellness enterprises, providing peace and tranquillity, especially to pressurised urban inner-city communities.
As ganja becomes more legal, globally, there will be need for better understanding of the culture surrounding this plant.
Students of cultural studies in the Institute of Caribbean Studies at The UWI have opportunities to study Jamaican folk religions and engage ethnographically with core celebrations and rituals of Rastafari including the Nyahbinghi as parts of hands-on multidisciplinary training and immersion in understanding and managing local contexts.
- Jahlani Niaah is a lecturer and researcher at the University of West Indies, Mona, and author of Lambs Bread: Rastafari and Ganja in Jamaica (forthcoming, The Press, UWI).