A morbid fear occasioned by useless ceremony and exploitative claims of the ability to control spirit forces
March 18, 2002
Letters on stuff
In view of recent sensational happenings among persons claiming supernatural powers to heal or to harm, the question once again surfaces, what is obeah? Brother Eusi Kwayana in his very informative discourse - African religious survivals in Guyana [ please note: link provided by LOSP web site ] - S/N March 3, 2002 states " ... obeah, in the sense of crime dressed in mystery is a general human practice not confined to or excluding any racial type".
I cannot posit otherwise but concur with the elder brother and suggest further that obeah is nothing more than a morbid fear occasioned by useless ceremony and exploitative claims to the ability to control or manipulate spirit forces, whether originating in Africa or Timbuktu.
When I was a child, it was the custom of parents to get us to behave ourselves by scaring the daylights out of us with telling us that the "bogey-man" or "the old man with the bag" was just behind the door - that is obeah: Hence, if obeah was able to produce some potent evil consequence, that consequence was but fear only, kept alive by white colonial prejudice or resentment of pre and post emancipation African religious and cultural practices resulting in the outlawing of it thus lending creditability and false "Reality" to the concept.
In the cases that brother Kwayana examined one Kathy Benfield and her obstreperous brother swung on the gallows for the murder of young Lilowatie, whom they sacrificed to unearth buried Dutch money. Molly Shultz the infant daughter of a white Estate Manager suffered the most gruesome form of sacrifice by having both her eyes dug out while still alive. The practitioners who were African claimed that this was the instruction of one Buckridy, a recent indentured Indian immigrant whose communication in the English Language standard or creolese was very limited. To his credit Buckridy claimed at his trial that his instruction to the practitioners was a white pickani which meant a white goat in India and not a white pickney or white child, nevertheless he too was hung with the rest.
The cotton tree Maraj was an imposter with a well thought out scheme for duping his gullible clientele. As a creator of fear he came closest to being the popular idea of an obeah man. Indeed he slaughtered quite a few by fear and yes, by white arsenic. You only had to tell a troublesome neighbour "ah gun go to de cotton tree maraj fuh yuh" and that was enough to make him behave himself. The Maraj had a clever and sophisticated operation involving a receptionist and a waiting area with significant chairs, which significance was known only to himself and said receptionist - there was the love problem chair, the court story chair, the bad neighbour chair and so on. After a little wait, just enough to create anxiety and suspense, the Maraj would appear and ask who's next? As the person to be duped is sent forward, the Maraj without question would announce "I can see you have a court matter" thereby hooking the unsuspecting customer by Gill, Gut and Gall. One correction to bother Kwayana's article, the Maraj did not hang. He died of tuberculosis in jail after being nabbed for sending "Jumbie Powder" which turned out to be white arsenic through the post to a client in Trinidad for the demise of some unwanted or troublesome relative. All these stories are told in a booklet by Inspector John Campbell of what used to be the obeah squad and would make very absorbing reading if you can obtain a copy and reprint some in your newspapers.