Are we being obeahed?
Martin Henry, Columnist
When Richard Byles told journalists at a press conference that the seven-year failure to get the fuel diversification and price-reduction energy project going was "like we are obeahed", the room was tickled into giggles.
Byles is the private-sector co-chair of the Economic Programme Oversight Committee (EPOC), which has been set up to monitor the current IMF programme, and he was expressing his disappointment over the seven years of iffing and butting by two administrations without any deliverables on the energy project, "the single most important project to all Jamaicans", in his view.
Obia (the preferred spelling which links the practice to its African roots) is no joke. A recent newspaper headline says, 'Mother blames obeah for death of daughter'. In another reported case, a mother and daughter were charged for murder after the deceased was stabbed in the presence of the police who had been called to intervene in a tenement yard quarrel involving accusations of working obeah.
The deceased had been complaining that the accused had sprinkled white rum, chicken blood and white rice in her yard. One of the two women charged for murder was also charged with soliciting the practice of obeah and the other with preaching obeah. The obeah charges were quickly withdrawn in court, however, after the prosecutor reminded the court that it was no longer unlawful to practise obeah in Jamaica.
The British colonial authorities (responsible for the anglicised spelling with which we are familiar) would have been interested in obeah from the time of their defeat by the Maroons led by Nanny and her brothers. Nanny is supposed to have deployed the magic arts of obia in besting the best European army of the 18th century in the 1730s and '40s. But it was after the Tacky Rebellion in 1760, with an obia man providing services to the rebels, that the practice was made illegal.
OBEAH ACT REPEALED
The Jamaican Government has recently repealed the Obeah Act. The law against obeah, much like the law against ganja, originating in a similar intent to control a potentially rebellious population, has never had much of an impact upon practice by Jamaicans in low and high places.
At its heart, Obia is a religion, with the name probably derived from an African serpent god, Obi. Its origins are lost in the shadows of the history of the transatlantic slave trade. But links have been made to beliefs and practices among the Igbos, Ashantis and Akans of West Africa. Very likely, Obia is a unique Caribbean creation mixing multiple African elements with elements of European Christianity and indigenising the whole lot.
Mystical Obia aims to manipulate spiritual forces for both malignant and benign purposes. And to be manipulated by them! Which takes us back to Richard Byles' little joke. Which may neither be little nor even a joke at all.
The Jamaican State, now mired in debt and crime, economic stagnation and social disorder, political tribalism and contention, which seem unable to seven or eleven despite strenuous efforts by leaders and vast opportunities, and "uncannily" is unable to get a straightforward energy project off the ground, was founded as a 'Christian' nation.
Jamaica was bound to be a battlefield between contending spiritual forces. And cumulative choices, especially by leadership, would determine the outcome of the battles. A number of our current leaders, despite their veneer of worldly-wise sophistication and public criticisms have sensed and commented upon the contending of spiritual forces in national affairs. The current minister of finance, Dr Peter Phillips, charged with balancing the books - and with running a government - when he held the national security portfolio with vicious crimes spiralling upwards - exclaimed that it seems as if an evil spirit has been let loose in the land.
The current minister of national security, Peter Bunting, willing to admit in public that the task of tackling the crime problem sometimes "seems overwhelming", has said that the nature of some of the crimes being committed makes it appear that the battle is not against flesh and blood but against principalities in high places.
GUNMEN SEEK 'PROTECTION'
The reliance by gangsters, criminals and gunmen on obia for protection is well known.
Just a couple of days before my column, 'The commissioner, gangs and the occult', was published (June 9, 2013) to both reception and ridicule, THE STAR carried the story, 'Obeah man held after shoot-out - Oils to prevent gunmen from being captured seized' (June 7).
The Gleaner headline under which Minister Bunting was reported from his contribution to the Sectoral Debate in the nation's Parliament was 'Politicians have a hand in Jamaica's crime problem - Bunting'.
The minister urged fellow politicians to "acknowledge our contribution" to Jamaica's crime problem. Quoting from the Gleaner story, "The minister said Jamaica has, for decades, developed a subculture of violence and lawlessness that has been reinforced and promoted by segments of the society. He said the connection between elements of both political parties and criminal gangs and dons is one of the causal factors in the culture of violence.
"'Hopefully, the worst days of this criminal gang-political nexus are now behind us, but we must acknowledge our contribution,' Bunting said." Christians would call that acknowledgement confession and repentance.
But enough of the religious and spiritual analysis which has made some wince and some froth and some pity the analyst!
From a 'scientific' sociological and anthropological point of view, we know very well that the culture and world view of a people are powerful determinants of how they will deal with their social and economic problems. Modern science itself arose in the clear historical context and culture of the Protestant Reformation with its transformative attitudes and values about authority, law, enquiry, knowledge, nature, and work. A society oriented towards magic, the capricious actions of spirits, and the manipulation of a spirit world for benefits will not flourish and will not develop the scientific attitudinal and values foundation for flourishing.
A great deal of Jamaican culture as celebrated and lived is exactly this. At the level of policy and governance, as in the balm yard, we really believe in the magical potency of words and incantations. We have had prime ministers, Joshua with the rod and Eddie at the revival table that we could publicly see, parading magical approaches to national life to the roar of the masses.
The annulling of the Obeah Act may simply be an innocent dragging of the country into modernity and freeing up harmless folk practices. Or it could mean new counter-commitments, with their own set of consequences.
Freeing up obia is added to the intent to free up the stupefying weed, sometimes called 'kali', after the Hindu mother goddess of death, sexuality and violence, among other things, with her necklace and earrings of human heads and her skirt of severed human arms. Weed is a core defining element of our chug-along, don't-care, underproductive culture. We may be redefining in law the vision for the Jamaican State. In the folk tales, obia itself, like ganja, can make the targets of its malevolence stupefied and drowsy. And the laws of a people reflect their moral stances which are not without consequences.
What is holding us back? Richard Byles, from the upper echelons of corporate Jamaica and from the chair of the EPOC, may have expressed a greater truth than his attempt at jest would suggest.
Martin Henry is a university administrator and public-affairs analyst. Email feedback to email@example.com.
Richard Byles, the face of EPOC, has facetiously wondered aloud if Jamaica's energy diversification project has been cursed by obeah. - Rudolph Brown/Photographer