Should obeah be decriminalised?
In the wake of the decriminalisation of some usages of ganja (cannabis sativa) and the acceptance of it by the powers that be in the Rastafarian religion as a sacrament, one would have thought that the practice of obeah would have been given a similar treatment by our lawmakers.
Let's face it, the making of obeah as a criminal activity was one conjured up by the white plantocracy who feared that such a practice was some form of voodoo which is part and parcel of our African ancestry. That is why obeah was deemed to be and made synonymous with myalism which, according to the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, is a Jamaican folk religion focused on the power of ancestors, typically involving drumming, dancing, spirit possession, ritual sacrifice, and herbalism.
The late Professor Rex Nettleford, who was unrepentant in his quest to legitimise aspects of Jamaican cultural heritage which were African-based, gave us some memorable moments with his mesmerising choreography influenced by myal on the stage of the Little Theatre, home of the National Dance Theatre Company, which he co-founded.
According to Wikipedia, “Obeah is a system of spiritual and healing practices developed among enslaved West Africans in the West Indies. Obeah is difficult to define, as it is not a single, unified set of practices; the word obeah was historically not often used to describe one's own practices. Some scholars, such as Diana Paton, have contended that what constitutes obeah in Jamaica has been constructed by white society, particularly law enforcement. Accordingly, different Afro-Caribbean communities use their own terminology to describe the practice, such as science, among Jamaican Windward Maroons.”
In today's Jamaica, the practice of obeah is rampant and is big business. Obeahmen and obeahwomen are sought out and consulted by people from all strata of the society: teachers, police officers, politicians, scammers, transport operators, hotel workers, business persons, you name it; yes, obeah pays. Of course, the use of obeah is varied, involving the bringing about of positive as well as negative results.
In 2011 when I was a candidate for the People's National Party (PNP), I was approached by a Haitian gentleman who wanted to know if I would wish to utilise the services of an obeahman. He said he had taken people to Haiti, including politicians and businessmen, and they got very good results. Of course, I declined the offer out of caution for being swindled.
However, as a child I recall my mother taking me to a “Mother” (an obeahwoman) because I was not doing well in school and was somewhat of a truant. I was a third-former at Cornwall College, having passed the Common Entrance Examination in 1958. I was the only one of two boys in my community of Irwin who were so fortunate and the other student was from a much more privileged home environment.
My mother was persuaded that “badmind people” had “obeahed” me because of my academic success so she needed to get me the necessary protection as well as to get rid of the “duppy” (evil spirit) that had been placed on me.
On arrival at a dwelling off the beaten track in a rural village of South St James called Lamb's River, I was eventually taken into a small room to be interviewed by the Mother who sat at a rickety table scrawling what appear to be a series of unrecognisable words in an exercise book. She mumbled during her writing in the exercise book that I was a bright boy and that I would be a very successful person and would end up being the top individual in my family.
She then began to tell my mother a convincing story of what ailed me and informed her that I would have to get a “bath”. She prescribed a bottle of oil named “Wisdom, Knowledge and Understanding” that I should rub in the middle of my head every morning before going to school, while repeating the 23rd Psalm.
I well remember standing in this big bath pan that was filled with all kinds of bushes and potions and being drenched by one of the Mother's assistants who spoke in tongues telling the duppy to “tek weh himself” (my words). Needless to say that the rest is history because I have not been the worse for that intervention by my dearly beloved mother.
Incidentally, according to a reliable source, the first time in Jamaican history the term obeah was used in the colonial literature was in reference to Nanny of the Maroons — an Akan woman considered the ancestor of the Windward Maroon community and celebrated for her role in defeating the British and securing a land treaty in 1739 — as an “old witch” and a “hagg”. Obeah was also said to play a critical role in Tacky's Rebellion (also an Akan), the 1760 conflict that spurred the passage of the first Jamaican anti-Obeah law.
According to Wikipedia, the Obeah Law was passed in Jamaica in 1898 and remains in force, with a few minor amendments today. The law states that “a person practising Obeah means any person who, to effect any fraudulent or unlawful purpose, or for gain, or for the purpose of frightening any person, uses, or pretends to use any occult means, or pretends to possess any supernatural or knowledge.” Item 4 states: “Every person practising obeah shall be liable to imprisonment, with or without hard labour, for a period not exceeding 12 months, and in addition thereto, or in lieu thereof, to whipping.”
Interestingly, of late we see a number of television and newspaper advertisements offering to help people with just about any problem they may be encountering primarily relating to love, marriage, health, work, and happiness. These people purporting to be “Indian astrologers” may well be practising some form of obeah, don't you think? And if their practice is legal, why not obeah?
Some time ago, an attempt was made to introduce legislation to decriminalise Obeah but that effort seemed to have fizzled. I gather Senator Tom Tavares-Finson was one such proponent. Can you enlighten our darkness please, sir?
In the meantime, the practice of obeah continues unabated and it is instructive to note that very few arrests have been made over these many decades which would suggest that there is a high level of tolerance among the general citizenry. Gone are the days when a bullfrog would turn up at a courthouse with a padlock in its mouth signalling that a case was headed for acquittal.
Nowadays, one common practice is that of providing “guard rings” as a form of protection. Many known criminals, dancehall artistes and police officers have utilised this service in a bid to stay alive and be successful in their respective careers. In days gone by, there were drug stores or dispensaries, as pharmacies were then called, which provided a wide range of oils and other paraphernalia related to obeah, including “love powder”, “oil of Pem-Pem”, “oil of mek him/her goweh or stay” and I could go on.
Some time ago, former Minister of National Security Bobby Montague signalled that he had an uncle who was an obeahman who could possibly do wonders for him if needs be. His parish of St Mary, along with Clarendon and St Thomas are said to have the best obeahmen, so beware!
Meanwhile, the hypocrisy surrounding the decriminalisation of obeah needs to be expunged because, like ganja it will always be an integral part of the socio-cultural environment of Jamaica and perhaps plays a very important role in the economic life of those who apply a little “guzzu” to their everyday activities. Abacaba, abacaba! I better “turn mi roll” to ward off any duppy that is following me! Lol.
Lloyd B Smith is a veteran newspaper editor and publisher who has resided in Montego Bay for most of his life where he is popularly known as “The Governor”. Send comments to the Observer or email@example.com.