Judah Square, Knysna
Our attitude is to preserve what’s good and what’s good will follow you.
Bra Zeb is a slight man with dreadlocks that hang almost to his ankles. He takes my introduction to his community and his way of life very seriously. I suspect he takes himself less seriously if his funky yellow socks are anything to go by. They are pulled up tight, all the way to his knees.
'We like to welcome people and tell them about how we live and what we believe,' says Bra Zeb reassuringly when I tell him it feels a little voyeuristic to be visiting his home on a tour. In fact, the Rastafarian community sees tourism as an opportunity for them to better their prospects. 'Anyone with an open mind and an open heart is welcome here.'
At the orientation in the office papered with photographs, awards and articles about his community, Bra Zeb transforms from sage guide into animated poet. He uses his whole body in a lyrical enactment of the history of Rastafarianism. Darting around the room, he draws me into his performance and into his world.
'We were squatting here, but then our leader said, "My Rastas, we need to band together, to live together ... we need a voice in the midst of trials and tribulations."'
Members of the Rastafarian community approached the local municipality and Judah Square was founded in 1993. Families were allocated plots next to each other and slowly, the informal settlement became the formal one you can visit today. There are currently between '30 and 35' families living here.
They have built a tabernacle, a crèche, developed some home-stay B&Bs, their office and a community hall. While many of the residents of Judah Square work in town, volunteers take it in turns to make sure there is someone at the boom gate at the entrance to their ‘village’.
Bright murals depict the Lion of Judah and iconic Rastafarian themes; some Rasta tunes waft out into the street. We approach the crèche, where dozens of children, from within and from outside the Rastafarian community, are sitting down to lunch.
'Life is peaceful here. We are about living in peace, in harmony with nature. We don’t do violence,' says Bra Zeb, explaining that most of the community are vegetarian. 'I belong to the Nyahbinghi Order, so I don’t even eat fish. There is a mama and a papa and a baby fish. I can’t kill a member of a family. We are all a universal family,' he explains.
The community has taken on a number of environmental projects, including the development of an eco-trail, which you can book to do with Bra Zeb. 'Nature is us and we are part of nature ... Because of our greed we’re damning the world.' The trail is a little neglected and I wouldn’t walk it without a guide or alone, but Bra Zeb assures me it’s a work in progress; despite challenges like water pollution and poor refuse disposal systems in the township, he believes they’re making headway.
'Nature is very important to us. We work with SANParks (South African National Parks) and have partnerships with the municipality and with CapeNature,' he says. One of the most successful projects has been the clearing of alien trees (which Brother Maxi has been running as a successful business), and the whole community is proud of its medicinal herb garden.
'Our attitude is to preserve what’s good and what’s good will follow you,' he says just before I leave. 'Live like that, sister, and you’ll see what’s possible ...”
He breaks into the lyrics for Ebony and Ivory and is still singing them as I drive away: 'Ebony and ivory live together in perfect harmony…We all know that people are the same where ever we go. There is good and bad in ev'ryone. We learn to live, we learn to give each other what we need to survive together alive ...”
I didn’t get to complete the whole tour as I had a plane to catch, but I left with a firm appreciation for Bra Zeb’s commitment to his job, his wicked sense of humour and the genuinely warm welcome he extended to me. I’d like to go back to Judah Square and see him again sometime. As different as his world is to mine, I feel like I made a friend.
Visitors and tour companies can arrange to visit Judah Square by calling Brother Zebulon on +27(0)76 649 1034 or visiting the Judah Square website.
I was in Knysna at the invitation of Fine Places (a PR company) in anticipation of the Pick n Pay Knysna Oyster Festival (which was held from 3 to 14 July 2014), and this activity was arranged at no cost to me.