By Yusimí Rodriguez
HAVANA TIMES – I got to know Wollette Tsehay Gabriel Tafari (Marbys Guzmán Palomo) in 2010. We were trying to sign up on a diploma course on Humanism and Society being given at the San Juan de Letrand Convent. I was accepted but she was refused despite having a degree in Physical Education and being only two months away from graduating in Anthropology at the University of London.
HT: Did it have to do with your Rastafarian look?
Tsehay: I’m not sure. I was among the first to fill in the form. But they didn’t call me up for an interview. Maybe it was the way I look, I don’t know. My husband didn’t get accepted either for any of the courses. Teachers work there, we’re talking about science, but stereotypes exist.
HT: But you told me there were major contradictions between the Catholic Church and Rastafarians.
Tsehay: Rastafari thinking about the Catholic Church is quite radical. That may have had an influence, but I didn’t say on the form I was a Rastafarian.
HT: Why is Rastafari thinking about the Catholic Church so radical?
Tsehay: History shows it was instrumental in the conquest and colonization of America, and the extermination of the Indians. We consider them the supreme representatives of evil on earth.
HT: But I have met Catholic priests at San Juan de Letrand. who are very critical of the attitude of the church
Tsehay: I know about very progressive Catholic priests, but they don’t deviate from the mandate of the Vatican. The Roman Apostolic Church was founded after the killing of followers of Jesus. He didn’t found a church or a religion. After so much persecution, the Romans discovered they were creating a myth and used it to found a church. They changed many of the historical facts. You only have to look at how wealthy they are now. They got it by looting and murder. But I accept that there are good men within the Catholic Church.
HT: How did you get to England, and what kept you from graduating in anthropology when you only had two months to go?
Tsehay: When I finished high school, I started a degree in English, but I had a lot of personal and financial problems. I started working at the National Museum of Fine Arts. There I met an Englishman. We fell in love and went to live in England. I came back to do some research in 2003. Here Operacion Coraza was in full swing to arrest everyone involved in drug trafficking. Within Coraza there was an Operation Rastafari. I was arrested because I brought marijuana seeds to plant in my congregation and not have to go to the dealers. I got out in 2010.
HT: So, when did you do your degree in Physical Education?
Tsehay: I started in 2005, in prison. I got out in January 2010, and graduated in July, with distinction. In prison I was responsible for the Chair of Physical Education, was coach of the volleyball team and professor of Social Anthropology in the third year of Social Cultural Studies.
HT: Were you in prison all the time, didn’t they put you under house arrest?
Tsehay: Drug trafficking is considered a crime against state security. They don’t slap an injunction on you or put you under house arrest. We Rastafarians see marijuana as the sacrament of our spirituality. It’s the plant that heals nations, as the Bible says.
HT: Marijuana is mentioned in the Bible?
Tsehay: It mentions a tree that grows wild for twelve months of the year and can be used for everything. Marijuana is food full of protein; you can make clothes and shoes with it. It grows throughout the year. It’s a vehicle for communicating with God and the spirit in all of us. It is good for your health when used with awareness and respect. They say that a glass of wine can cure cholesterol, but anyone who drinks every day to get drunk is an alcoholic.
HT: Do you think drugs should be legalized, as alcohol was after Prohibition?
Tsehay: Would it be a good idea to legalize crack, created in laboratories to keep soldiers awake during the war, and now one of the most destructive drugs around? Marijuana is not a drug. I know people who were drug addicts or alcoholics and after receiving treatment with marijuana, aren’t addicted any more, don’t even use marijuana. Many psychologists however consider it the first step to hard drugs.
I’ve asked for legalization, not of drugs, but marijuana. How can you ban something you didn’t create? Scientific theories and religions say that plants already existed when man first appeared on the planet.”
You can’t get an overdose of marijuana, because it’s not a chemical. No one dies from smoking a joint. At most it can make you sleepy. That’s why it’s prescribed for patients with cancer or AIDS in progressive countries in terms legalization. But opinions are divided. In many places, although it’s not legal, its use by certain communities is respected.”
Contrary to what many think, we don’t use it to get high, but to pray. When you come down from a high you discover that the world is just the same, do you want to get high again? Marijuana gives us the strength to fight.”
Before it was very hard for addicts. Through meditation, under the influence of marijuana or not, I discovered that we live in a very damaged world. Many religious people have told us that marijuana is not necessary to find God, and they are right, but not everyone needs the same [vehicle]. ”
HT: So it’s not marijuana, but what people do with it?
Tsehay: Exactly. Marijuana is not to blame for human wickedness.
HT: Tell me about your encounter with Rastafari.
Tsehay: It was great. Nobody tells you who you are, you find out for yourself. That’s why it isn’t a religion, but a spiritual way of life. My friends used to say that when I went to the congregation of San Miguel del Padrón, the look on my face said “look at those black potheads”. I was also judging people. Later I started studying Rastafari culture, what they did, what they propagated and I discovered that I was a Rastafarian too. When I was at college, I was neither a criminal nor a drug addict.
HT: Are you a follower of Haile Selassie I?
HT: But he is considered a tyrant, even Marcus Garvey criticized him for keeping the Ethiopian people enslaved.
Tsehay: He abolished slavery in Ethiopia. It was legal until he took office. You have to read all about it and listen to both sides. As a Rasta, the first thing I read was The Unknown Revolution, which says he was a tyrant and bathed in a pool of virgins’ blood I was able to visit Ethiopia and see what the Ethiopians think of him. I’ve concluded that propaganda can be very manipulative. The whole story is subject to interpretation.
Garvey prophesied that a black king would be crowned and bring salvation to our race. He didn’t say it was Selassie 1 but the historical fact of his coronation led the Rastas to interpret it was him. Until then, many people from the Caribbean did not read the Bible. They started doing it from the Garvey viewpoint, and saw that the land divided by four rivers in Genesis, is Africa. The Bible is not alien to us.
When Selassie I was crowned, he began his campaign against slavery and in favor of modernization. He promoted the return of Afro Caribbeans to Africa. Allocated some of his own family land to the project. We haven’t gone back from lack of money. We Rastas are demanding the international community repatriate and compensate us in the same way they did with the Jews, the Japanese and other victims of war. Who is going to compensate the African victim of colonization who still doesn’t find their place in the Western world?
HT: You’ve talked about the Bible, are you a Christian?
HT: But you studied anthropology. Do you believe in the theory of the evolution of species?
Tsehay: It’s not a contradiction. Many scientists are Christians. I know there is a force greater than the human will. But I prefer not to comment on the theory of evolution, but to recognize the good in everything. The theory of evolution helped us get rid of the fantasy that God was a mythical being and not something that dwells among us. Everything in life has a role in the development of humans.
HT: You said that black people were unable to find their place in the Western world. Have you experienced discrimination in Cuba?
Tsehay: Daily. My husband has had great trouble finding work. The police stop him in the street. We live in a very prejudiced society, even though they’ve tried to eradicate it.
HT: Last year I asked someone I was interviewing what he attributed the persistence of racism in Cuba to, after fifty years of revolution. He said that the siege by the US had prevented the government from dedicating itself totally to eliminating racism. What do you think?
Tsehay: I think there is racism in Cuba because its history has been manipulated. By not educating children to respect and understand the contribution blacks have made to society, they maintain a mental slavery that is racial. If anything was done to eradicate racism during the Revolution, it wasn’t very much. Ten years ago, I asked the prison instructor to show me the blacks on the Politburo of the Party. He said they were working on it. History in schools should tell the story of the Colored Independents, the Aponte conspiracy, what Maceo thought, not just the machete.
HT: I see you found it easy to get integrated back into society after serving your sentence. Have you been able to get a job in the outside world as a Physical Education teacher.
Tsehay: I don’t think of myself as being integrated back into society. I can’t feel part of a society that alienates me and that brands me a drug addict.
Currently, Tsehay is writing a book about Rastafarian women in Cuba.