Tyrone Iras Marhguy had to make a difficult decision after being accepted into the high school of his choice: his faith or his education.
An official from the elite Achimota school in Ghana told the teenager that he should cut off his dreadlocks before enrolling. For Marhguy, who is Rastafarian, cutting his dreadlocks is not negotiable so he and his family have asked the courts to intervene.
“I manifest my faith through my hair,” Marguy, 17, told The Associated Press. “I guess that’s like telling a Christian not to read the Bible or go to church.”
Hair is an important part of the Rastafarian faith; believers grow their hair naturally in strands in obedience to biblical commandments. It’s a public symbol of “we’ve made a wish,” said Tereo Kwame Marhguy, who is Tyrone’s father.
Although many Rastafarians believe in the Bible, it is a separate religion guided by unique practices, including adhering to a strict Italian vegetarian diet, using cannabis for spiritual purposes, and avoiding the alcohol.
Short hair is compulsory at Achimota School, a coeducational public institution located in the northern suburbs of Ghana’s capital, Accra. The school did not respond to repeated requests for comment from the PA, but argued in court documents that all boys, regardless of religion, should “keep their hair low and neatly cut.”
The school was founded almost a century ago during British colonial rule. Among its alumni are many members of Ghana’s social and political elite, including four former presidents, as well as the former presidents of Zimbabwe and The Gambia.
Unhappy with the school’s reluctance to adapt to their son’s beliefs, the Marhguys sued the Achimota school and the government in March. A separate complaint was filed by another Rastafarian student, Oheneba Kwaku Nkrabea, who was also denied admission to the school.
The ongoing case of the Marhguy is one of many instances where Ghana’s public high schools, mostly started by Christian missionaries during and after European colonization, have become a battleground for the struggle for religious tolerance. In a separate incident earlier this year, a Muslim student was prevented by school authorities from fasting during Ramadan, Islam’s holiest month.
Ghana, a predominantly Christian country, prides itself on being democratic and religiously tolerant in a region plagued by interfaith conflict. The government and religious leaders have signaled their commitment to religious harmony, including recent financial donations from senior officials, who are Muslims, to church building projects.
For the Marhguys, the case highlights the discrimination faced by Rastafarians in Ghana, where they constitute a small but visible minority. They hope that with attention to the matter, local attitudes will become more tolerant.
A High Court judge ruled in May that the school’s ultimatum “amounts to an illegal and unconstitutional attempt to suspend the protest of the applicant’s constitutionally guaranteed freedom to practice and manifest his religion”, according to court documents consulted by the AP.
While the school admitted Tyrone with his hair uncut into its science curriculum, the school and the Attorney General of Ghana began legal proceedings in the Court of Appeal to overturn the earlier ruling.
The attorney general and the Ministry of Information did not respond to repeated attempts by the PA for an interview.
The legal standoff, led by the attorney general, has raised questions about the country’s image as the most stable democracy in the region.
“Interfaith tolerance in Ghana is very fragile,” said John Azumah, visiting professor of interfaith dialogue at Yale Divinity School and executive director of the Sanneh Institute at the University of Ghana. “It seems that religious minorities have the heaviest burden of sustaining interfaith tolerance. It must be interfaith tolerance in the terms of the Christian majority.”
Despite the offer of a scholarship to study at a private school where he would not have to cut his hair, Tyrone, with the support of his family, chose to stay at the Achimota School. Nkrabea, the other student – who also won her case against the school – took the scholarship, however.
The Marhguy believe they were divinely chosen to continue to fight against the school so that no other student has to choose between their faith and their education.
“They have already done this to other people and they have remained silent and walked away,” Tereo Marhguy said. “Jah, the Most High has given us the authority and the strength to do so.”
Associated Press writer Francis Kokutse in Accra, Ghana contributed to this report.
The Associated Press’s religious coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment via The Conversation US. The AP is solely responsible for this content.