Rastafarians: The Ital Way Out of Oppression and Illness

vegan rasta

Christian Veganism Part 1!

People most often associate the Rastafari with Bob Marley and weed. The stereotypes and ignorance of this rich spiritual and cultural tradition means that hardly anybody outside the movement knows about ital- the vegan diet long recommended by the movement for its spiritual and physical benefits.

Rastafarianism developed in the 1930s in Jamaica as both a religious and social movement. Many people also don’t realize that Rastas are also Christians- their theology is rooted in the Bible and many see Haile Selassie (former emperor of Ethiopia) as the second coming of Christ. The movement that developed focused on liberation from colonial oppression, practices and rituals to bring one closer to God, and in returning to African roots through spiritual, cultural and health-related means. You can read more about the general tradition and history here.

Since this is a blog dedicated to exploring the world of veganism through a variety of lenses, I’ll be focusing on the ital area of the Rastafari movement. The term “ital” for many Rastas relates to “vital”; i.e. a diet and lifestyle that is vital for a healthy life. There are a few reasons that early Rastas adopted a mostly vegan diet. (Like any tradition, there are some Rastas who eat meat, but the tradition highly recommends a plant-based diet for many reasons)

On a physical level, a healthful plant-based diet was acknowledged to be the healthiest diet (ital-observant Rastafarians don’t eat fried or processed foods, including refined sugar). Their recommendations of eating from the land and letting “food by thy medicine” was a prescription long before Western medicine discovered the links between animal products/processed foods and diseases like diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure. There has even been a recent growth of ital diets being adopted in Jamaica and among diaspora as many seek ways to reverse the diet-related illnesses that have plagued many North American black communities over the past century.

Another important reason relates to colonialism, a return to ancient teachings and a need to fight all systems of oppression. The oppression of humans and non-human animals is linked; this is a common sentiment among many minority communities that have struggled with various forms of oppression and violence (and a reason that many Holocaust survivors are vegan, more on that in another post). As the author of Black Vegan Diaries writes,

 “For Rastafari, promoting healthy foods and criticizing the establishments which do the opposite are all integral parts of the same movement. Just like veganism, the consideration of the food that one consumes is not only about improving one’s health, but also about the greater struggle against oppression. The only difference is that there’s a certain level of privilege attached to the ability to make the dietary change solely about animals. For Rastafari and Black vegans in general, the struggle against systemic oppression isn’t new, it’s been an ongoing struggle. Animal abuse is just another form of oppression to add to the list.”

Civil Rights, Human Rights and Animal Rights are intrinsically linked in movements like these. As one Ital chef notes: “If an animal has been bred for slaughter and kept in a space where it’s not allowed to move freely or live a happy life and then you eat that animal, you take all of that history on.”

Which is another reason that many black vegans get so frustrated when mainstream society equates veganism as akin to wealthy, white people. In fact, by doing so, mainstream society continues to further ignore and marginalize these cultures, traditions and their voices.

The Ital lifestyle discussion is not complete without a discussion of its relationship to spirituality. As a National Geographic article notes on Ital:

“Eating naturally is both a spiritual and practical matter for Rastas: The healthier you eat, the less you have to see a doctor—a concept just now catching on in the mainstream. As processed foods were being introduced in the 1950s, Rastas took a firm stand against them even before research proved how unhealthy they can be. Staying away from processed food keeps Rastas away from Western medicine, another thing the religion avoids.”

Many Rastas who are not entirely vegan do at least adhere to dietary structures closer to Kosher; they do not eat pork or shellfish, among other items. Many see the ideal diet as one that returns to the Garden of Eden before the Fall. In the Book of Genesis (1:29) God says to Adam and Eve, “Behold, I have given you every seed-bearing plant on the face of all the earth, and every tree whose fruit contains seed. They will be yours for food.” God continues that every creature on earth has been given green plant for food. This notion reminds many of the later idea of the “lion laying down with the lamb,” an idea that denotes that the Kingdom of Heaven will also be a vegan paradise for all creatures, free of predator and prey. Thus many Rastafarians (among other Christian groups, more later) see the ital diet as another way to return to the original, healthful, peaceful Kingdom of God.

There is so much more to say about the Bible and Veganism (both from a Jewish Bible and Christian Bible perspective), so I’ll leave some of that for future posts. For now, I encourage any curious person to check out the following links for more information about Rastafarian diets, spirituality and recipes! Thanks for reading!

YouTube

What a Rasta Vegan Eats in a Day https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nKkwZsvNH0k

Rasta Vegan Food in Jamaica Vlog: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c8ELzB_iT_M

Articles

https://www.vice.com/en_uk/article/43pdgm/meet-the-new-faces-of-jamaican-veganism

https://www.onegreenplanet.org/vegan-food/how-to-make-your-own-jamaican-ital-food-at-home/

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