Legalizing Obeah in Jamaica
Kingsley Ragashanti Stewart, Ph.D.
Recently much debate has been raging regarding the prospect of legalizing obeah in Jamaica. The possibility of this happening has been met with significant resistance and condemnation from many, which is not surprising given the prevailing brand of obeah as an act primarily used for evil and to cause harm to others. However, while the wisdom of obeah’s potential legalization continues to command attention, the present debate also provides an opportunity to revisit the elements of this popular and misrepresented Jamaican ritual. This is particularly useful given that obeah has long been pelted with stones of ignorance, resulting in it being one of Jamaica’s most misunderstood cultural practices.
What is Obeah?
In 2010, The African Caribbean Institute of Jamaica/Jamaica Memory Bank published the reader, “Guzzum Power: Obeah in Jamaica,” (many Jamaicans use the term “guzzum” synonymously with “obeah”). This publication provided a brief, credible and ‘to-the-point’ explanation of obeah’s genesis and development in Jamaica.
From the 1600s, British colonialists captured and brought thousands of Africans to Jamaica to work as slaves. The enslaved were mostly from West Africa with some from Central Africa (the Congo). The ritual of obeah came from these enslaved people, who were primarily from the Akan complex of ethnicities in West Africa. Various ethnicities used other names for obeah which include “obei, obia, obea, obayi, obya, obiah, and obeiah.” Obeah in Jamaica is specifically associated with the powerful Akan ethnicity of the Ashanti. The Ashanti primarily speak a language called “Twi”, (pronounced ‘Tchwi’). The Twi speaking Ashanti refer to some religious priests as Okomfo and Obayifo.
The “roles of the obayifo and okomfo were combined and the derivative form of the word obayifo was reinterpreted to describe the practice amongst the enslaved people of invoking the spirit realm in search of solutions to the problems (physical, emotional, economic and spiritual) that confronted them daily…”
Ashanti Africans who were captured and brought to Jamaica as slaves thus used obeah as a ritual in a manner similar to that of peoples of faith the world over. Obeah is but one practice from a pantheon of rituals existing in various configurations of a West African worldview. Obeah is one of thousands of rituals used by its believers to access and communicate with entities in the supernatural world, including those believed to be of the spiritual realm.
The Tacky Revolt
Given that obeah was long since a salient component of the worldview of the captured and enslaved Africans, it understandable then that they continued to practice obeah from the moment they were brought to the shores of Jamaica. Indeed, enslaved Africans continued to use their African worldviews to interpret, understand and cope with the new and strange Jamaican environment through their rituals, which included obeah – and which for the most part was dismissed and ignored as harmless, superstitious behavior by the white European colonialists. However, the White, European view of obeah was to change dramatically.
In 1760, an African forcibly enslaved in Jamaica decided he had had enough of the slavery of himself and his African brethren. He successfully organized other Africans and led a violent revolt in the parish of St. Mary. His name was Tacky. The Tacky revolt resulted in several white slave-owners and associates being chopped to death and significant violence meted to others of the white slavers apparatus. The white slave-owners responded using superior weaponry to quash the resistance. Tacky and his brethren in resistance were killed.
The Tacky revolt was one of the many instances of Africans resistance to slavery that gave the white slave-owners cause for concern. Slave owners knew most of the people they enslaved were perpetually focused on ending their suffering and would welcome any opportunity to end said suffering, any way they could. Consequently, slave-owners were correspondingly continually focused on using a multiplicity of means to control their slaves in ways that served to decrease the likelihood they would resist. Slave-owners also brutally crushed all instances of resistance, many times doing so with unprecedented cruelty. “Guzzum Power: Obeah in Jamaica” explains that the colonial slave-owners’ government in Jamaica investigated the precursors to the Tacky Revolution and found that Tacky and his partners had used obeah practices in their mobilization, implementation and justification for the revolt. This led the British slave-owner government to no longer view obeah as harmless, African superstitious behavior, but rather as a serious threat to their slave enterprise and, indeed, a threat to their survival. The white slave-owners’ government in Jamaica thus decided something had to be done to destroy any further utility of obeah amongst the enslaved Africans.
The Demonization of Obeah
In 1760, British slavers in Jamaica determined the practice of obeah amongst the Africans they enslaved posed a significant threat to the viability and continued success of their slave empire. The British slave-owner government therefore formally and officially declared obeah illegal in Jamaica – in order to protect the benefits and rewards from their slavery of Africans. The British authorities then proceeded to enforce the new law by arresting and imprisoning slaves who were found to practice obeah in various ways.
By creating a law that made obeah illegal, and by arresting and imprisoning its practitioners, the white British slave-owners intended to erase the practice amongst the black Africans in Jamaica. They failed. Obeah was a ritual existing within the core worldview of the Africans. It was firmly entrenched in the collective unconscious of the African identity. Obeah was an internal, psychological property that wasn’t to be easily eliminated with the mere declaration of its illegality by outsiders of its practice. Obeah was not a random activity existing outside its practitioners, rather, obeah lived in its users. It therefore wasn’t an easy task to do away with obeah (and still isn’t). Thus the British authorities realized they had failed in their quest to eliminate obeah in Jamaica and consequently decided it necessary to enact additional measures to get rid of its practice, because, again, they deemed it a grave threat to their enterprise of slavery.
On realizing the Africans in Jamaica were not about to discard their use of obeah, the British colonialist government decided to adopt a different approach in their goal to rid Jamaica of the practice. The slave-owner government launched a campaign aimed at sullying and demonizing obeah in the minds of the people living in Jamaica. The methodology was to use a sustained public relations campaign to hammer obeah with a plethora of negatives, in particular painting obeah as markedly anti-Christian and thus dangerous in satanic profanity. The goal was to have a majority of the Africans in Jamaica being turned-off from its practice and not engage in its use – thereby decreasing its potential and utility to again be used as a mobilizer of enslaved Africans against the system of slavery.
The slave-owner government of Jamaica was relatively successful in the negativizing of obeah in the minds of many, even in many Africans and those of African descent. The demonization of obeah occurred under a wider paradigm of essentially celebrating all that was British (European) and profaning everything African. Eventually a significantly larger number of non-whites in Jamaica grew to not only despise obeah but many also considered it resolutely evil. To this day the superficially created image of obeah as a malevolent practice from its subsequent demonization under the racist public relations campaign prevails dominantly in the minds of many Jamaicans. Most Jamaicans consider obeah to be inherently bad and wrong.
Obeah, therefore, was a ritual from an African worldview that was used by Africans enslaved in Jamaica, to interpret the injustice of their oppressive economic exploitation and brutal dehumanization, unite themselves, and strengthen their psychological fortitude in their resistance to one of the worst evils ever perpetuated against millions of innocent people over hundreds of years: European slavery of non-whites. Africans, who were forcibly brought to Jamaica to suffer through a most cruel system of labor exploitation, were so effective in utilizing obeah to mobilize resistance against slavery that the colonial powers employed substantial resources to convince all and sundry that obeah was a horrific act not be practiced. The blanket characterization of obeah as an unacceptable act was created and sustained to benefit British slavery in Jamaica.
Thus, the centuries-old characterization of obeah as an inherently evil practice is flat out wrong.
Falsehoods and Corrections
Unfortunately, in Jamaica, the demonization and inaccurate characterization of obeah prevails to this day. Most contemporary Jamaicans believe obeah to be an absolutely awful act. However, while it is true that many Jamaicans do indeed believe they can access obeah for destructive and negative goals against others, many have done so for reasons positive in nature, some even noble. I know parents who accessed obeah to have their children pass exams. Others have done it for various forms of protections for themselves and relatives (guard rings, baths, etc.). Still others have used it to improve their sexual performances. There is the case too of a gentleman who once left Kingston all the way to St. Mary to pay an obeah man to do what he can to reduce crime in Jamaica. The point is, many of the people who practice obeah, do so for good and honorable reasons – just as it was first used by Africans during British slavery in Jamaica – a fact lost on the majority of obeah’s critics.
One of the contradictory, and ironic, modern manifestation of confusion and ignorance related to obeah is evidenced in how many Jamaicans view and treat Revivalists. Revivalism in Jamaica is considered an African-Christian denomination of worship. Despite the fact that the practice of revivalism is loaded with rituals markedly African in orientation, it is arguably more Euro-Christian than it is African, given its unwavering and ultimate focus on the monotheistic Christian God. One key element of Revivalists is that they generally passionately opposed to obeah. Many believe it to be one of the vilest forms of evil ever. Yet, ironically, Revivalists are constantly branded as obeah workers by those in wider Jamaica. Why? Because many Jamaicans still unwittingly subscribe to the dictates of the 17th century Jamaican slave-masters who marketed the principle that activities African in orientation are evil, anti-Christian and ungodly. Thus Revivalists are routinely maligned by Jamaicans for their obvious African retentions, even though said Revivalists subscribe to the same fallacy under which they are attacked. Aay Sah.
One common way in which Revivalists are attacked relative to the issue here discussed has to do with the way they comport their headwear. Many Jamaicans disparagingly identify Revivalists as “obeah workers” with the derogatory term “wrap head”. The “wrap head” term is in direct reference to the practice of Revivalists wrapping their heads with cloths in distinctly African styles, (with the cloths in an array of colors with each color having specific significance and roles based on the “calling” of each Revivalist, or the specific “bands” [church] to which they belong). So Revivalists are routinely derided as obeah workers with a nomenclature grounded in the African way in which they wrap their heads, while the same Revivalists with their African derived wrapped heads simultaneously blast the African ritual of obeah as being evil.
The wrap head confusion is even more poignant in wider Jamaica. Many women from Jamaica’s “educated” and “elite” class love to wrap their heads in the same African styles when they seek to make a statement of solidarity with their African roots. However, many of these same women disparage the Africanism in the headwear of Revivalists with the same ‘wrap head obeah worker’ insults, and would not be caught dead in a Revival church! It’s amusing to observe so-called “bright” and “accomplished” Jamaicans devalue, fear, and condemn “wrap head” Revivalists while they at times conveniently walla-walla inna dem kente-cloth, wrap-up-head, contradictory ignorance. It can bun mi fi dem esi. kmt. Lol.
Anyways…obeah, therefore, is a ritual used by its believers to access the supernatural realm for help with problems and needs in the natural world. Obeah is also used to celebrate supernatural forces that have caused or influenced the production of positives in the natural world. In this sense, obeah, being a ritual that accesses entities in the supernatural world to influence events in the natural world, is parallel to other long-accepted rituals that do the same. Popular and accepted Jamaican faith-based rituals such as praying, fasting, going to church, baptism, etc., are analogous to many of the rituals of obeah. Thousands of Jamaican Christians, for example, daily use these rituals to access the supernatural (spiritual) realm in their efforts to impact the natural world in various ways. The fundamental difference between these accepted rituals and obeah is that those that are accepted are Eurocentric in orientation while obeah is Africancentric in its genesis and practice. Is this a paradigm Jamaica should continue to validate? Perhaps not. In fact, given the undeniable parallels between the rituals of obeah and Jamaica’s popular Christianity, it would make sense that Jamaican Christians who pray to God for something to happen should also supplement and strengthen their prayers with a little obeah in order to achieve their desired goals. To pray to God and to ‘work obeah’ are fundamentally identical rituals. If the Christian ritual of praying does indeed ‘work’, then it is logical to conclude that Jamaican Christians should start practicing obeah. Jamaican Christian churches would do better to start openly practicing some positive, empowering and uplifting obeah sessions.
Legalization and Decriminalization
So, given the actual truths about obeah in Jamaica, how best should we proceed with this discussion on its legalization? I note with interest that the legalization matter came to the fore when Jamaica’s parliament considered increases in the penalties of certain offences under the “Law Reform (Amendment of Penalties) Act,” where obeah was revealed to be one of the offences. It is alleged the Minister of Justice, the Honorable Delroy Chuck, was somewhat surprised and peeved that the Obeah Act was still on the books in Jamaica. He immediately advocated for it to be repealed. Other Members of Parliament expressed same, apparently. I’m admittedly not sure what “legalization” would achieve. Legalization, it seems, would make sense if the goal, for example, was to regulate obeah practitioners and those who access its ‘services’. But if we’re going to legalize obeah for profit, that would immediately open the door to do the same for other faith-based services in other religious denominations – which in turn would guarantee an unprecedented social upheaval the likes of which Jamaica would not be able to manage.
The next reasonable step then is decriminalization: the full repeal of the Obeah act. Doing so would send a bold, political and socio-cultural message that would validate the history and lives of Jamaicans of African descent. Decriminalization would help to correct the unwarranted demonization of an African-centered ritual that played a significant role in our fore-parents resistance to their slavery, which eventually lead to the liberation we presently enjoy.
Overall, the central take-away here is that if 17th century, white, racist slave-owners in Jamaica designated obeah amongst the Africans they enslaved to be abhorrent and illegal, and if said designation was designed in response to said Africans in Jamaica opposing the inhumane and cruel scourge of slavery against them, then it is not only nonsensical to continue sustaining that designation through the laws of Jamaica, in this the year 2019 – but it is also resolutely stupid and disrespectful! There is noble reason to correct the treachery of the colonial racists of Jamaica’s past and finally accord respect to millions of Jamaicans on this matter.
Therefore, many of us proud Jamaicans of African ancestry, and like-minded Jamaicans not of African ancestry, do hereby request that a bi-partisan initiative be invoked in Jamaica’s parliament that will result in the decriminalization of obeah in Jamaica through the repeal of the Obeah Act.
Mek wi dweet nuh.
Kingsley ‘Ragashanti’ Stewart, Ph.D., is a Jamaican anthropologist residing in the USA. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org