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Obeah still with us

Tony Best
Friday, June 30th 2006

A CASE being heard in St Vincent can be expected to raise questions from members of the younger generation about obeah and its practices.

While older members of the society would have grown up in an environment where there was talk from time to time about people "practising obeah", not that much is heard these days about such practices even though it is known that there are those among us who still "believe". These "believers" are not the same as those who believe in God but are those who lean towards the practice of witchcraft which in turn is linked with obeah in the thinking of many of African origin.

The historians tell us that obeah has its origins in Africa and its practice came to this part of the world through those who were brought here as slaves. In a setting where every effort was made to destroy what cultural links the African slaves had with their homeland, obeah was not allowed to be practised as a religion which the Africans claimed it was, but was treated with the contempt and suspicion associated with witchcraft or devil worship.

It became clear that a number of the slave-owners, who were at the time calling the shots, did believe that through obeah the slaves would be able to invoke evil forces which would destroy or harm them. The practice of obeah was outlawed and has remained so in most of the colonies which had African slaves.

In recent times, however, during the administration of the late Forbes Burnham in Guyana, obeah was given the status of a religion and so its practice there was no longer deemed to be a crime.

But the practice of obeah still remains a crime in most of the former English colonies, so although we have not been hearing of any cases recently, the St Vincent case reminds us that it can still have legal implications.

It will be interesting to see how the St Vincent case turns out. In a nutshell it is claimed that an attempt was made to take legal documents out of the country to a person involved in obeah (voodoo) to ensure a favourable outcome for the defendant in a case. To many it will seem weird that forces of evil can be brought into play to influence a court decision apparently by creating confusion in the minds of those who are learned in law, but to "believers" it apparently comes over as possible.

What must also be noted is that some of those named in the case would not be considered from their credentials as "ignorant" men. We immediately realise that it is not that easy therefore to dismiss those who so "believe" as being merely "ignorant".

In Barbados for years those who grew up in villages would hear of neighbours who "believed" in obeah and who were rumoured to have "black art" books, used in obeah rituals. There was also a case in which a child was killed as part of an obeah ritual some years ago in Barbados At the same time not all the talk about obeah is to do with practices at a level of "high rituals".

People, it is claimed, have gone to obeah men or women to bring misfortune on neighbours against whom they bore a grudge, but much more familiar are the cases where it is claimed women have used obeah to get men to marry them if they seemed reluctant to take the trip up the aisle.

The Mighty Sparrow in Melda, one of his popular calypsoes, deals with the subject in which he tells one Melda, who he accuses of taking his "name to obeah man" that all you do/you can't get through/ I still en gine marry to you.

What we have here is more than the use of "love potions" we would have heard about as part of European practices and which some maintained can be administered to make men or women fall in love or whatever. In a West Indian setting an "obeah wedding" is stronger stuff and is one in which the man is usually the victim, ending up in a marriage with little understanding of how he came to be in that position.

What is still paradoxical in all this is that in an environment in which so many seek God's help as Christians, many of these same people, it is claimed, seek "other help" through obeah. It is still claimed, for example, that some church-goers favour "bush baths", with the required ablutions preferably performed at a four-crossed road to ward off misfortunes. For those so thinking, prayers to God for help and guidance are not enough.

The most that can be said in these circumstances is that for many people "a belief" can be so powerful a force in their lives that they are often propelled in directions that defy logic.

-Robert Best is a former

managing editor of the Barbados Advocate

- Column courtesy Barbados Nation

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