‘Food is the stuff of life’ and, in the case of Rastafarians around the world, this idea is at the core of our spiritual connection to the earth, each other, Jah and explains why Ital is vital.
Long before vegetarian cuisine, veganism or the current trend of organic eating became mainstream, a global religious community, born in Jamaica, embraced a philosophy and religion that ran counter to the direction the rest of the world was taking. Bubble Gum and Pez candy, those iconic favourites of children, were introduced to the world and Clarence Birdseye had invented the frozen food process. Televisions and radios were common place and colour movies were being shown in cinemas even as canned beer, TV dinners and instant freeze dried coffee became the norm in many households.
For Rastafarians in contrast, pure, natural unprocessed food was a central part of the religion. One would say this was, and is, in fact, vital. And it is from this word, vital, that the name of the Rasta way of eating comes about. That is, eating ‘Ital’.
Following this primarily vegan diet is intended to increase Livity, or the life energy that Rastafari generally believe resides within and connects all human beings, indeed, all living things. That this energy is carried by anything we consume makes the rules of ital eating fairly logical. Simply, that anything we put inside our bodies should enhance livity and not diminish it. Although sometimes interpreted differently by the various ‘mansions’ of the Rastafarian religion, the food should always be natural with no preservatives or chemicals. This includes in general, any additives, foods stored in cans, food grown with chemical fertilizers and using iodized salt.
In the 1930s, on the small island of Jamaica, this movement began known as Rastafarianism, after Marcus Garvey, the civil rights activist, made a prediction that a leader from the African nation of Ethiopia would arise and be the manifestation of Jah (the Almighty) on earth. His role being to lead all Africans back home after Europeans had helped enslave them and shipped them off to live a life of subjugation. Shortly thereafter, Haile Selassie I was crowned Emperor of Ethiopia, which was viewed as the fulfillment of the prophecy.
The ‘Back To Africa’ rallying cry over the decades since actually manifested as a possibility for many with Haile Selassie granting lands in Ethiopia to ‘returning Africans’, some of whom were indeed Rastafarians, along with a much heralded visit to Jamaica by the Emperor, also called Jah Rastafari in reference to his divinity. The story in Ethiopia has not unfolded the way dreams do, as Haile Selassie was killed a few years later and is seen by some Ethiopians as symbolic of a not-so-popular former colonial life and of a tribe not embraced by all. Another tenet of Rastafarianism, the mystic practice of smoking marijuana to bring one closer to a spiritually enlightened state, was viewed less favorably in Ethiopia. However, those who moved there integrated through marriage and by starting families, while back home in Jamaica the Rastafarian movement continued to grow.
Leonard Howell is at the heart of the beginnings of the Rastafarian movement in Jamaica. Known as “Gong” (a name later also given to Bob Marley, arguably the most famous Rastaman of all time), Howell would base a lot of his teachings on the Hindu lifestyle and their healthy vegetarian-based diet. He also learned from indentured servants who had come to the island, and whom he greatly admired, as well as Books from the Old Testament of the Bible.
“I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food.” (Genesis 1:29)
As the years have gone by various ‘mansions’, or arms of the Rastafarian religion have developed, and similar to Christianity, some lifestyle practices differ. Some are more fundamentalist than others, like the Bobo Ashanti who live in closed communities and refrain from smoking ganja in front of outsiders, as it is regarded as a private religious experience. They also dress more conservatively. The Twelve Tribes of Israel and Remi on the other hand are more relaxed, while the Nyabinghi mansion must follow the ital dietary guide, which dictates that its followers eat food grown from the earth around them – unmodified, and typically, it’s a plant-based diet. As with kosher and halal laws, Ital food adheres to the Old Testament rejection of pork and shellfish, while some Rastas eat no meat at all and others make an exception for scaled fish.
“These shall ye eat of all that are in the waters: whatsoever hath fins and scales in the waters, in the seas, and in the rivers, them shall ye eat.” (Leviticus 11:9)
Many Rastas actually avoid meat entirely, for several reasons. Some prefer not to have anything “dead” on their plate, in keeping with the idea of absorbing the high positive energy and vibration of plant life instead of the possible fear and trauma that animals may have experienced. According to the concept of livity, they would be consuming that negativity. There is also the very practical reason that, as time has gone by, more and more hormones are being introduced to meat to both artificially enhance the size and flavor of the product, as well as to increase shelf life. By extension, they also avoid dairy products based on the view that a human drinking an animal’s milk goes against nature. Soy and almond milk are usually their preferred choice.
Eating ital goes beyond these ‘forbidden foods’ however. The aim is to heighten health and energy and therefore the preparation of meals is also about ways to achieve this. Food is meant to be enjoyed, it is meant to be nutritious and colour plays a large part. Serving up a plate of naturally seasoned, nutritionally dense, vibrant yellow ackee or sweet pepper, bright orange pumpkin and dark green callaloo is also a part of eating ital. Snacks are usually vitamin- and nutrition-rich fruits and nuts. Rastas also avoid eating simple white carbohydrates like refined bread and pasta, because they don’t feed the body as well as other foods, and instead eat white potatoes and yam in moderation. The preparation of the food is also taken into consideration with some staying away from preparing food in metal containers and using only clay and wood pots, crockery and utensils.
As more and more people become aware of the benefits of certain foods, eating organic, and avoiding chemically enhanced and overly processed foods, the idea of eating ital is becoming appealing to many outside of the Rastafarian religion. Their goal is the same – feeding the body in the healthiest way possible. In Jamaica, ital restaurants are drawing regular dining crowds, including those whom have never considered being Rasta. Restaurants have also been popping up in the UK, the USA, Canada and elsewhere.
During the 70s, Rastafarianism became popularized through the music of Bob Marley, and for some, there was a fear that the faith would become over commercialized. However, over the years the word has spread and, while some dabble on a superficial level, treating the movement as nothing more than a phase of their lives where they wear dreadlocks and clothes with the black, red, green and gold, others instead found a new path for themselves.
Similarly, as more people have the opportunity to try the benefits of eating ital and the world catches up with the idea of nourishing their body, mind and spirit, the result is hopefully not simple commercialism but a worldwide introduction to a greater connection with themselves, and with each other.
Deanne Allgrove started writing because she couldn’t help it, luckily, along the way she found people who were willing to let her do it for a living. She has written for projects in Jamaica and abroad, both commercially and for artistic purposes, and in the past has written for a travel TV series, for marketing and advertising campaigns and for a morning TV show for which she was one of the Producers. She continues to write scripts for films, documentaries and commercial endeavors while exploring her own writing. As the Managing Editor of a travel magazine, newspaper and website about Jamaica, she has found herself blessed to share stories about the many wonderful aspects of her island home.