Schools told to honour court order as families seek compensation and training for pupils who missed education because of their hair
Urunji, 14, and Uhuru, eight, whose father, Ezaius Mkandawire, was one of several Rastafarians who won a court battle over schools banning dreadlocks. Photograph: Benson Kunchezera
About 1,200 Rastafarian children in Malawi are expected to return to state schools over the next month after being banned for a decade because of their hair.
After a landmark decision at the high court in March, letters have now been sent out to about 7,000 schools telling headteachers that the exclusion of children with dreadlocks from the classroom has been ruled as unconstitutional.
The high court judge, Zione Ntaba, who presided over a long-running judicial review of government policy in Malawi’s former capital, Zomba, ordered the education ministry to inform state schools that they must admit Rastafarian children by 30 June.
In Malawi, primary school is provided free of charge but enrolment had previously required all children to cut their hair.
Rastafarianism developed in Jamaica in the 1930s, an Afrocentric belief system based around certain tenets of the Bible and against western colonialism. For some it is a religion, for others a way of life, says Ezaius Mkandawire, a father and Rastafarian community leader in Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe.
Mkandawire has been campaigning for several years on behalf of his three children Makeda, six, Uhuru, eight age, and Urunji, 14, who had been excluded from state schools due to their dreadlocks.
Within Malawi’s small Rastafarian minority, an estimated 15,000 people follow Rastafarianism as a religion and thousands more have adopted it as a way of life, or what Mkandawire calls “livity”. As such, their hair has sacred symbolism, as referenced in several passages in the Old Testament, and cutting it or using “a razor” on it is anathema to Rastafarians.
The court ruling has now prompted many in the Rastafarian community to request compensation from the government for their children’s exclusion from school, saying their rights were violated by the “archaic policy” that had classed dreadlocks as “unhygienic” and that their children had suffered as a result.
Mkandawire said their campaigning for the government to address the damage caused by the ban would continue, calling for the establishment of special vocational schemes and loans to help the young people who missed out on education.
“We are not fighting with the government, or throwing stones, but [trying] to reason with them,” said Mkandawire, adding that some young people had slipped into criminal activities because of the ban.
Like many Rastafarian parents, Pemphero George found it distressing when her children were refused entry and sent home from school because of their dreadlocks. “My children’s right to education and freedom of association was put to question” because of the ban, she said.
George, 30, runs a stall in Lilongwe, selling handmade caps, ginger plants and fruit. She could not afford to send her three children to private school, and so felt forced to cut their hair.
“I had no choice but to cut their dreadlocks, a thing which was not easy at all,” she said. “It was painful seeing my own children being deviated from Jah’s teachings. Cutting hair means disobeying God’s commandments, according to our religious beliefs.”
She said she was happy about the court ruling but added that many Rastafarian parents would always feel judged – and compelled to make extra efforts to ensure their children looked neat at school.
Patrick Galawanda, an education coordinator and Rastafarian community leader who was among the group who took the case to the high court, said the resolution was long overdue and that he was delighted to see “this battle” coming to an end.
Rastafarians had complained of discrimination after being left out of an agreement in June 2021, when a Malawian civil society organisation, the Public Affairs Committee, encouraged Muslims and Christians to sign a memorandum of understanding which, among other things, allowed Muslim students to wear a hijab or headscarf to school.