Obeah is a reality of the West Indian region
March 25, 2002
Letters on religion
I have been wrestling with a decision of whether to respond to Albert Lewis' letter (SN 18/03/02) titled 'A morbid fear occasioned by useless ceremony and exploitative claims to the ability to control spirit forces'. My decision to respond was partly based on the fact that I could not live with myself if I did not at least attempt to refute some of his claims. As well as that, his letter suggests to me that the knowledge I have acquired over the years about Guyanese (and by extension, the Caribbean) cultural sensibilities are discreditable.
I should hardly be surprised. I recently completed my undergraduate (1st Degree), for which my dissertation was titled 'Re-crediting the Knowledge: Spirituality and Healing in Three Texts by Women in the African Diaspora'. The texts were Myal (Erna Brodber), I Tituba, Black Witch of Salem (Maryse Conde) and Beloved (Toni Morrison). I used these texts to show a) that spirituality -in all its guises-is central to African Diasporic experiences; b) that these experiences entail knowledges and ways of knowing (dreams/visions, sixth sense, comfa, mystic/marvellous reality- and multiple other, so-called 'primitivisms') that have been discredited over time by the dominance of western history; and c) that healing and recuperation of the colonised mind (and body) entails - in some part- the embracing of ancestral knowledges and 'neglected traditions'.
Therefore, what concerns me with Albert Lewis' letter is the total illegitimacy he ascribes to obeahism. Whether he, or anyone else among us, want to admit it, obeah - good or evil- is a reality of the West Indian region. I take his point that in some cases, people are manipulated and controlled by fear. But obeah is much, much more than a 'bogey-man' (I notice he didn't use 'jumbie') story to frighten little children, and terrify the weak and unsuspecting.
At the most basic level, obeah is described as a form of witchcraft pertinent to the West Indies, with its root in Africa, which combines elements of Christianity (believe it or not) and African religions. An obi (or obeahman - they are usually male, but there are female practitioners of obeah also) is a shamanic figure who possesses the knowledges of herbal medicinal properties to cast spells, to undo spells, to heal the sick, to communicate with spirits and to act as mediums of communication and so forth. Therefore, obeahism is not simply an evil practice per se, but rather it has been demonised. The demonising of the practice goes back to slavery and colonialism. As a cultural phenomenon that was incomprehensible to the slave owners, it was outlawed, which contrary to what Lewis says in his letter, did nothing to give the practice creditability, but in fact discredited it. Therefore when Albert Lewis asks 'what is obeah?', he should also ask 'what is witchcraft?' In my dissertation I made the point that the title of Maryse Conde's novel 'I Tituba, Black Witch of Salem', deliberately establishes the pride to be had in being identified as a black witch, because western dominant history had imposed its demonising perspective unto 'blackness' and African cultural practices. In the novel, Tituba says this: 'What is a witch? I noticed that when he [her husband to be] said the word it was marked with disapproval. Why should that be? Isn't the ability to communicate with the invisible world, to keep constant links with the dead, to care for others and to heal, a superior gift of nature that inspires repsect, admiration and gratitude? Consequently shouldn't I the witch be cherished and revered rather than feared'? Quite frankly, obeahism is not that far removed from the secrecies of the masonic lodges. But far more clandestine in nature, it escapes the wrath of open criticism and public debate, keeping it shrouded in a kind of mysterious sacredness.
I think then that Albert Lewis' interpretation of Eusi Kwayana's article that 'obeah, in the sense of crime dressed in mystery is a general human practice not confined to or excluding any racial type' is taken slightly out of context. What I understand from this is that obeah, along with various other indigenous cultural practices has been mis-appropriated for ill benefits. This does not suggest to me that it is illegitimate, but rather it has been expropriated (in the first instance) by western hegemonic interpretations, and then mis-appropriated by bogus practitioners. Having said that, I accept that it has become largely associated with devil-worship and all manner of evil, as a scourge of our cultural sensibilities. It is worthwhile to mention also that countless slave rebellions were aided by so-called obeah men (Haiti is a glaringly obvious example, whether we care to admit it or not; and despite the depressed situation in which it now finds itself). There was also the Tacky Rebellion of 1760 in Jamaica, in which the leader, Tacky, sought the help of an obeahman, who provided the slaves with a magic powder to make them invincible to the slave owners' weapons. There are other examples, too much for the limited space, but suffice it to say that Europeans are readily admitting that some of these rebellions, in which they suffered massive and inextricable defeats, were linked to the practice of obeahism. I should also like to recommend an essay by Wilson Harris; 'History, Fable and Myth in the Caribbean and Guianas', which identifies the ways in which vestiges of the Caribbean subconscious imagination have become discredited by colonial and postcolonial historians. Consider, for example that the limbo, was at one time thought to be a primitivism deserving of censorship. But the limbo, is traced (in Harris' essay) to the myth of the African Anancy spider (we call it 'nancy' - as in 'nancy story'), whereby during the Middle Passage, slaves contorted themselves into human spiders (figuratively) to negotiate their spatial confinement. This cultural art/dance form (much taken for granted) of the Caribbean is derived from a brutalising and inhuman and dehumanising experience. And although it was regarded as a 'primitive manifestation', it is a testimony of the 'inventiveness' and creativity of historically dispossessed peoples. Therefore, I would seriously urge Albert Lewis and other Guyanese to reconsider the ways in which we ascribe meanings to things we don't understand figuratively and literally. If we continue to disregard our realities, perceiving them to be evil, odd, primitive, nonsense and so forth, in the long run that's what they become. Hence, we have obeah, considered by Albert Lewis' reductionist account, to be an evil, non-sensical, criminal activity and a false reality. But, hopefully, no one will un-tell the story of the miracles Jesus and Moses performed. (Are they not real? Let's consider!)
Myths, however they come about give pertinent meanings to our everyday, and where we can apprehend those meanings figuratively (as Harris argues in his essay) we are able to move away from notions of historylessness; that we in the Caribbean have no creativity. All in the end is a matter of interpretation and intuitiveness - what we know- but don't quite want to know-what we see-but yet refuse to believe.