Should the Obeah law be repealed?

Raulston
Nembhard

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

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OBEAH, a system of spiritualism or occultism which employs magical rituals to either prevent or cause harm to offending individuals, is one of the most enduring aspects of West African culture that has survived in Jamaica and the British West Indies after slavery. Under colonial rule, the practice was banned in Jamaica. In 1898 the “Obeah law” was enacted by the Legislative Council and signed into law by the governor.

The law is very harsh against those who practise Obeah and those who support it by seeking the services of those who practise it. Very few Jamaicans know that if they consult with an Obeah man or woman they could be imprisoned with or without hard labour for six months. Furthermore, it is lawful for any member of the constabulary force to arrest, without warrant, anyone who is deemed to be practising Obeah. These, among other aspects, are still the law of the land 121 years after it was put in place by the British colonialists.

It is interesting that it is the death of Edward Seaga that has ignited a debate on whether this law should be repealed. This is not to suggest that Seaga was an Obeah man, but his involvement in pocomania, another important aspect of African culture that has survived in Jamaica, has brought the issue to the forefront.

The Government now seems determined to have it removed from the books. What seems clear is that many Jamaicans now believe that the country has come of age and the old fears which informed the promulgation of the 1898 Act no longer exist in the wider population.

With the coming of the Internet and the easy access to information, more people are likely to see it as an activity indulged in by the superstitious among us. We hear of people practising Obeah, but what percentage of the citizenry sees it as a sufficient threat to their personal well-being has not been clearly established.

The law as a vestige of our colonialist past is impatient of repeal in my view. What brought it into being in the first place is not of sufficient warrant for it to be perpetuated in 2019. As an indigenous cultural practice, Obeah worked on the minds of the colonialists. Their suppression of Obeah by legislation was part of their attempt not only to subdue the slaves but to liberate themselves from the fear that operated in their minds. For the Africans, Obeah and other spiritual practices were indispensable to their survival as a people, and were important elements in their struggle to preserve their identity in their rejection of European culture. That culture is no longer with us, but Obeah is still practised by elements in the society.

There are people, including Christians, who will still fear what may be described as the dark, evil elements of this practice, just as they will fear witchcraft, voodoo or De Laurence practices.

I grew up in a rural district and I can still remember the fear we had as children of the “black heart man” — that evil monster that prowled even in the day and would kidnap children. Today, the black heart man seems to have morphed into the human traffickers, whose hearts are perhaps more devilish than what consumed my childhood nightmares.

It should not be assumed that it is only the poor or marginalised rural member of society that fears or practices Obeah. From what I have gleaned, the services of an Obeah man are not cheap. Also, you would be surprised to know of the people in high society who believe in and seek the assistance of the Obeah man. I believe that it is more than folk tales when you hear stories of even Christian people who leave church and head straight to the Obeah man.

When people live in fear of what other people can do to them it is not hard to get them attuned to so-called magical powers that can assist them in overcoming the enemy they fear. Fraudulent practices of the kind identified in the 1898 Act are no more than a fee that people are willing to pay for such services. If there is overt fraud, extortion, or any other criminal behaviour there are already laws on the books to deal with such behaviour. If it is deemed to cause harm and does cause verifiable harm to people, then this is something that legislators must address, especially if such concerns are not already captured in existing legislation.

Obeah is an art form and a way to make a living for those who practise it. It is a part of their belief system and should not be proscribed apart from the caveats aforementioned. It is not a religion but has features of religious practices, which is perhaps why the Bible is sometimes used in Obeah rituals. It can exercise a profound hold over people's minds, especially over the weak and vulnerable. At any time we must be concerned about these things as a society. Ultimately, the choice will be left to the one who chooses to indulge the practice. In an informed, modernising democratic society we have to be careful about what we condemn, especially if it does not conform to our own belief systems. The legislation is worthy of being revisited and our legislators must weigh the cultural merits of retaining it over the fears that may still exist as to harm that it may present to individuals.

Dr Raulston Nembhard is a priest and social commentator. Send comments to the Observer or stead6655@aol.com


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