Makeda Mbewe was just six years old when she was kicked out of her primary school in Malawi for wearing her hair in the dreadlocks of her Rastafarian religion.
Two years later, she is back in the playground, thanks to a landmark court ruling last month forcing state schools to accept children wearing their hair the Rastafarian way.
The case was galvanized by her family, who joined forces with dozens of other Rastafarian parents to try to force the education system to end discrimination against children from one of the country’s smallest religious minorities.
“I am delighted with the ruling, because it takes a huge burden off my shoulders,” said Wisdom Mbewe, Makeda Mbewe’s dreadlocked father.
At first there was no problem when Makeda Mbewe enrolled at Blantyre Girls Primary School.
However, after two years — and as her hair grew long and prominent — the child was told to leave.
“They demanded that we cut her hair,” said Wisdom Mbewe, a 40-year-old truck driver.
Rastafarianism is a religious movement of Jamaican origin that considers former Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie to be its messiah.
Many Rastafarians sport dreadlocks, which for them symbolize the Lion of Judah, one of the late emperor’s titles.
Dreadlocks gained global recognition thanks to the cultural influence of reggae star Bob Marley, also a Rastafarian, and have since become popular the world over.
Malawi’s 15,000 Rastafarians have long suffered discrimination because of their hairstyle.
In government-run schools, children were told either to shave or cut off the locks, refused enrollment or simply thrown out of class. Whether the practice had a legal foundation was the central point of the courtroom battle.
The Malawian Ministry of Education said that the ban was justified under a policy that required all students to have a smart appearance and keep clean hair.
However, challenged by lawyers for the Rastafarian children, it was unable to produce documents to prove that the policy existed.
As a result of her exclusion, Makeda Mbewe was homeschooled for two years — a change that placed a strain on her family’s finances.
Enraged, Wisdom Mbewe asked a local advocacy charity, the Centre for Human Rights Education, Advice and Assistance, for help.
Subsequently, the group received complaints from the parents of 76 other Rastafarian children about being “denied admission into government schools,” center lawyer Chikondi Chijozi said.
It then took the issue to court.
On Jan. 14, Malawian High Court judge Zione Ntaba ordered the country’s about 7,000 government-run schools to admit “all children of Rastafari religion, who have dreadlocks.”
Ray Harawa, a Rastafari leader in the forefront of the fight for the rights of his coreligionists in Malawi, welcomed the ruling.
“This judgement will go a long way in showcasing how seriously advanced our democracy is,” he said.
The order is in line with judgements by courts in Kenya, South Africa and Zimbabwe, which ruled that excluding dreadlocked children from school was an infringement of their right to freedom of religion, the Southern Africa Litigation Centre said.
“The court’s order recognizes the injustice endured by many Rastafari children,” Southern Africa Litigation Centre litigation director Anneke Meerkotter said.
The practice was a clear breach of Malawi’s constitution, which guarantees the rights to freedom of religion and to equal treatment, University of Malawi law professor Edge Kanyongolo said.
“In the case of Rastafarian children, I cannot see how allowing them to keep hair in dreadlocks harms anyone at all,” Kanyongolo said.
Makeda Mbewe was back in school days after the court ruling. In the playground, the other children touched her hair with curiosity, but she appeared used to the attention and took it in stride.
For Rastafarian parents, the court victory is bittersweet.
Ezaius Mkandawire said that the judgement was “just the beginning” of the battle for compensation.
“There has been lots of damage,” Mkandawire told reporters. “What about those people that have not gone to school for the past 25 years?”
“Someone has to pay for that,” Mkandawire added.
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