Ask a young Jamaican in Kingston or Mobay about obeah and they would probably say it’s just old-timer talk. But the old folk in the countryside will tell you otherwise. They will tell you about healers who can make you feel almost invincible, medicine men and women who have an answer to all your problems and yes, potions that have revived tired and flagging spirits. And all this is attributed to the local obeah man or woman.
Seems a bit too far-fetched? Tell that to admirers of Nanny of the Maroons, the Jamaican national hero that adorns the $500 Jamaican dollar bill. She’s long gone now, having died circa 1755, but she’s still revered as a folk hero, guerilla leader and healer, and her skills are attributed, of course, to obeah. And any Jamaican schoolboy will tell you about Tacky’s rebellion, when the promise of obeah protection spurred the rebels to fight the plantation masters without fear. So, for all the lack of belief, obeah is part of Jamaican identity.
And what is obeah, exactly? Based on ancient African healing and protection practices, intensified by the superstitions of the Irish and Scotch settlers, and strengthened by the Carib knowledge of botanicals, obeah is the Creole system of spirituality.
A sort of a shaman, the obeah man or woman is believed to be born with the gift or otherwise have experienced an epiphany that ignited the gift. People seek out the obeah man to set things right, like straightening a relationship that’s headed nowhere or allaying a fear that taking over their life. The obeah practitioner is also a protector, warding off evil spirits like duppies and the Old Higue.
Call it magic, the supernatural or plain old wisdom delivered with a spell, a prayer and a potion, obeah meant comfort to transplanted African slaves. Eventually, the entire island came to respect and even fear the power of obeah, so much so that the practice was banned in several countries, including Jamaica. There are talks of decriminalising obeah, but as one wise leader put it, “These deep beliefs are part of the folklore of the country and they aren’t easy to extinguish. I don’t think criminalising it one way or another will make much difference to its survival.”
All this talk about obeah may not have any currency among the urbane folks in Jamaica and the rest of the world, but doesn’t it leave you wondering if you could get a bit of obeah to power you through a particularly tough day? A potion to calm frayed nerves even as it lifts the spirits? Something that promises luck, popularity and the good life? Doesn’t it call for a long draught of some potent Jamaican rum? No wonder then, that the popular tipple is distilled in Cockpit Country, where the spirits are still revered and obeah is still sought after. The Wise Monkey, and his master blender, might just be new-age shamans for a generation in need of a different kind of magic.