Despite being outlawed in the island for a little over two and half centuries, obeah remains relevant in the lives of Jamaicans and, contrary to popular belief is being practised right across the island by rich and poor people alike.
This is a view shared by a local researcher who has written an unpublished paper on the ‘Persistency of Obeah in Jamaica’ after doing a two-year research which culminated with the paper in 2009.
Kesia Weise, researcher at the African Caribbean Institute of Jamaica in downtown Kingston, told the J amaica Observer during an interview last Thursday that, “Although we haven’t done any statistical studies looking at the prevalence, we can say the research seems to suggest that it is practised across the island.
“A lot of people always point to St Thomas. The truth is that there are a lot of practitioners in Kingston, St Elizabeth, in St Mary, which are commonly touted [as]some of the areas where it is done, but they are not confined to any particular district or parish. They are all over and so, too, is the adherence to those people who believe, and they are not just found among the lower class. That is a misconception,” she said.
“It remains a tool for solving problems, it remains a way for solving disputes, and there is the healing as well as the lucrative or economic component. From the 1800s the economic component was evident, and so it remains relevant in the lives of Jamaicans,” she said.
Asked about some of the reasons why persons had sought the assistance of the obeah man, Weise said: “Business people… they want their businesses to flourish; family disputes, land disputes, health problems as well as there are certain medical conditions that people feel can’t be handled by doctors, and all of those contribute to the persistency of the practice, and so it remains relevant in the lives of the people,” Weise added.
From her research, she said, she was told by some of the practitioners that a lot of family members seek their help to work on other family members.
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Also, Weise said that the practitioners reported that their clients were from all backgrounds and not only from the lower class, which is a commonly held view, but that they have a lot of clients from the upper echelons of society.
She recounted one of the obeah men whom she had interviewed telling her about a client — a professional in the legal system from “uptown” whom he had assisted after her ex-lover tried to malign her character.
“One practitioner told us about a client of his who is a respected civil servant and was dating somebody, and the relationship went awry and he made it public that she was a bisexual. And because she was a very good client of his, they decided that they were going to fix his business,” Weise said.
As to the details of what was done to the man in question, she said she was not told, “but it was clear they want to mess him up and they did, and so some misfortune met him and it was considered to be the result of whatever ritual was done”.
Weise said the research highlighted the fact that there was a fervent belief in the practice by many Jamaicans, and also that young people were among those who share the belief and that they were themselves turning to obeah to solve their issues.
Weise also shared a story told by a 26-year-old man from Clarendon who went to the obeah man after he fell sick.
The young man said that he was walking late one night in his community, which he normally does, and while on his journey he suddenly had a ‘bad feeling’. According to him, he felt like he had dropped in an oven; his tongue was heavy, even though he was cursing, and his head started ‘raising’. In retrospect, he said he did not know that he had encountered duppies.
However, he said after that he started feeling sick in the morning and shortly after he was out in the rain and got wet, so when the feeling continued he assumed that he had got the flu. But he said he knew that this was a different type of flu because whenever he laid in his bed it was always turning over and he had to be holding on, and when others were around he would be okay, but as soon as he was alone the feeling would return.
The young man said that based on what he was going through, he told his sister that he was going to see an obeah man and when he went the obeah man told him: “Bwoy, yuh nuh see yuh a go dead, a three ghosts come up yah wid yuh. Yuh a go dead.”
He said the obeah man asked him if he had any money and he told him ‘no’, and then he asked him if he had any rum and he said ‘no’, after which the obeah man told him to leave as he could not assist him. But the young man said he begged him and he changed his mind and told him to go and get some rum and fowls.
“When mi come back him tek out some dice and throw dem and put me fi sit dung and throw up a knife and it stick up and him say: “Bwoy, mi nearly could a help yuh but yuh ago dead.”
The young man said he in return said: “Do Boss, help mi; mi nuh waa dead.”
According to the young man, the obeah man killed the fowl and bathed him in the blood and told him not to rinse it off, and that he should not eat any meat for 10 days or bathe during the period. He was also told that after ten days he would feel better.
He said the obeah man also told him that a cat was going to come at his door in the night and cry and also that a crab was going to crawl on his house top and that he should not be afraid. The young said he heard the cat crying.
The young man also reported that when he went to see the obeah man, the practioner told him that what made him sick was that while he was walking his hand had caught a “duppy”, and told him the exact spot where it happened and the name of the duppy which he had encountered.
Additionally, Weise noted that based on outreach exercises in school, she found out that quite a lot of the students, especially those in high school, were very knowledgeable about the practice. However, she said she was not sure if the students had gained the information from stories told by the parents or practices.
Weise also shared other stories from her research in which the people claimed the obeah man came through for them.
In one instance, she said, one woman in Kingston told her that her babyfather was set upon by the ghosts of his dead friends by his other babymother. That babymother, she said was dissatisfied with the financial support she was receiving and sued him in the hope of getting more money, but the court ruled in his favour.
“When the court agreed that he could not pay any more, she created a scene in court and had to be escorted out by police and a few days later he was found sitting in the dark and he claim that his deceased friends visited him and wanted him to visit them at Dovecot [cemetery],” Weise related.
The woman told Wesie that upon hearing that, she squeezed a green lime on him and he “bolted” from the house, and she and her neighbour had to chase him. When they eventually caught up with him they bound him up and took him to an obeah man.
According to the woman, when they reached the gate of the obeah woman, she looked outside and said, “don’t come in ya with him”, but she was referring to the two ghosts who she said were behind her child’s father.
“Two guys behind him and anyhow the fat one lick him, him a go dead. Anyhow, one lick him already and if the other one lick him, him ago dead,” Weise said the practitioner told the woman, and her child’s father at that point told them that one of them had slapped him.
“The practitioner told them that the big one is the one who is supposed to lick him to kill him. She said his babymother took his picture to the obeah man and the obeah did it like that for the guy to lick and kill him, but true him and the guy were such close friends, him didn’t want to lick him.”
The woman then explained that the obeah woman then rubbed rum on her partner and gave him something to drink and bathed him and it made him better.
“I don’t know what she did, but it worked,” the womantold Weise.
In another case, one woman said that she was aware of a case in which a woman had bought a car from another woman and made a downpayment but did not honour her agreement to complete the payment. As a result, the original owner went to an obeah man and he sent a ‘rolling calf’ for the woman, but because they did not know the exact address the ‘rolling calf’ wandered around in the community at nights.
However, she said the woman who had bought the car knew that the ‘rolling calf’ was sent for her and so she went to her obeah man and they got rid of him.
According to Weise, based on the people who were interviewed, including the practitioners, it was clear that the belief in the power of obeah is ingrained in the Jamaican culture, and not only by those who sought the obeah man’s help or those who accompany them.
“In some of the interviews we have done, you have doctors who will say to patients ‘go and find somebody because there is nothing we can do’. This goes to show how much this is part of who we are without even understanding it,” she said.
Weise then stated that in the days of enslavement the slaves did not have a judicial system that addressed their concerns, so the gap was filled by obeah trials.
“You even had plantation owners who resorted to that to resolve issues; for example, if they wanted to know who stole something on the plantation they went to a obeah practitioner on the plantation, because almost all the plantations had a practitioner,” she added.
The researcher said that before the Obeah Act of 1760, which made the practice illegal, the plantation owners saw the practice only as superstitious belief of the enslaved people.
“So it was disregarded as having no power, no efficacy, so they dismissed it until they realised that it could be used to unite the people and that some political power could be derived from it to possibly bring down white hegemonic control,” she said.
Weise said that it was only after the Tacky Rebellion in St Mary, in which it is believed that the obeah man had played a role, that the plantation owners had started to take serious note of the practice, which resulted in a ban being enforced.