“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots.” — Marcus Garvey
Jamaica is thought of as a Christian nation, yet many of us turn to sources other than God for protection.
Disturbingly, even in the Church there are members who adorn themselves with items of protection as they seek to shield themselves and their families from negativity, such as bad luck and influences of evil, among other things.
If ever there were a paradox, Jamaica is a prime example. Whether we agree or disagree, Obeah is part of our African retention, given that most of us can trace our ancestral lineage to the continent of Africa. It is often said that Obeah is a thriving business in Afro-Caribbean societies and, surprisingly, the belief in Obeah, which is sometimes referred to as science, spreads across all socio-economic and educational levels within the society.
We have all heard stories of friends and/or family members being told, "Someone inna yuh life," or advised to, "Go look bout yuhself."
Interestingly, Obeah is both a verb and a noun.
It is a religious practice based on a combination of religions. In other words, a creolisation of religions. The practice of harnessing supernatural forces and spirits for one's own personal use, known in some parts of Africa as Obeye (an entity that lives within witches), has taken on many names in the Caribbean islands, such as Shango (Trinidad), Santeria (Cuba), Vodun or Voodoo (Haiti), and Ju-Ju (The Bahamas). In almost every community, urban and rural, there is someone who is readily identifiable as an Obeah man.
Of course, the practising of Obeah is not gender specific. There are women who are also practitioners of this religious form.
In March of this year the country was plunged into mourning upon learning of the murder of a grade 10 male student who attended a high school located in Martha Brae in the parish of Trelawny over a guard ring. Guard rings were quite popular in Jamaica a few decades ago. It appears the popularity of this item of jewellery has made a re-emergence, especially in a context regarding the belief in some quarters of the power and influence such rings have on the Jamaican culture.
In local folklore so-called guard rings are said to provide the wearer with protection from a range of ills. Guard rings are not cheap. One must, therefore, ask the question: How is it that students can afford to acquire these rings? According to a media source, a guard ring costs in the region of $100,000 to $150,000 or approximately US$1,000.
One senior police officer in Trelawny told a media outlet that the wearing of guard rings has been linked to lottery scamming. The police have, in the past, said that some scammers in Western Jamaica have been turning to the world of the occult, Obeah, and black magic for protection. "Our investigations have revealed that a number of these students are active in the lottery scamming and these guard rings are purchased through scamming," the senior cop stated. He reasoned that the constant suspension of face-to-face classes over the past two years, due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, amplified the problem of youngsters participating in the illicit trade.
HISTORY OF GUARD RINGS
Evil has always existed. The use of guard rings to protect people from human and supernatural threat to life and limbs has been in practice for many decades in Jamaica. These rings are said to be found on the fingers of some of Jamaica's most notorious criminals over the years. We should be fair in our discussion, in that, guard rings are also worn by upstanding white-collar workers. Interestingly, the discourse takes a different tone when uptown folks are seen adorned with guard rings. This separation of criticism, based on social class, is hypocritical.
It is said that when the ring gets warm, it means that danger is looming and it is time to go into hiding or prepare for a confrontation. The ones that were regarded as the most potent were those "loaded" by practitioners of de Laurence. The name L W de Laurence drives fear into the hearts of many. He is widely regarded as among the best in witchcraft and evil. De Laurence was a pioneer in the business of supplying magical and occult items by mail order. His magical and occult products were regarded as very effective, more powerful that the others, and the use of such became associated with voodoo, Obeah, witchcraft, black magic, white magic, juju, etc.
The Obeah man determines what is used to load the guard ring. In an interview with a local media house, one Obeah man says essential to the ingredients is something from the client's body, be it urinary waste, sex fluids, tears, hair, a piece of skin, blood, saliva, etc. In addition, there might be "a piece of a dead man headstone, grave dirt, dead man tissues, dead man ashes," etc. He also stated that you use a dead person to guard you, so when the 'blow' comes, the spirit in the ring will be attacked and not you because it is an image of someone else that the attacking spirit will see.
RACIST HISTORY OF OBEAH LAWS
The adage, 'belief kills and belief', cures is a timely reminder of the persuasion those who are involved in necromancy have over the society. The stranglehold on our culture is not unique to Jamaica; it is also quite pervasive across the Caribbean islands, all of which were colonised (some still are) by European nations.
Many of the laws that made Obeah illegal during slavery were part of slave codes and expired when slavery was abolished. However, most Caribbean islands replaced them with other laws criminalising Obeah as they became independent.
Trinidad's Summary Conviction Ordinance of 1868 made Obeah punishable with whipping and imprisonment for men and whipping only for women. Interestingly, the anti-Obeah clauses were removed from the law in 2000. In Guyana, an Ordinance to Repress the Commission of Obeah practices was passed in 1855 and Obeah was incorporated into laws against vagrancy from 1893. In Barbados, there is no current legal prohibition on the practice of Obeah. The 1840 Vagrancy Act that had made it similar to an offence of vagrancy was repealed in 1842. In Jamaica, the Obeah Act of 1898 makes it illegal to be a "person practising Obeah", which it defines as "any person who, to effect any fraudulent or unlawful purpose, or for gain, or for the purpose of frightening any person, uses, or pretends to use any occult means, or pretends to possess any supernatural power or knowledge".
Most of the Obeah laws authorised flogging for men as a punishment. Obeah was initially criminalised to protect against slave uprisings and the current law was made to symbolise Jamaica's hostility to its African connections and to suppress poor people's religion.
Obeah was first made illegal in 1760 as part of a sweepingly repressive Act passed in the aftermath of Tacky's Rebellion, the largest uprising of enslaved people in the 18th-century British-colonised Caribbean. Tacky's Revolt (1760-1761), which began in Jamaica's north-central parish of St Mary, is regarded as the most significant British Caribbean slave rebellion in the 18th century, and was second only to the Haitian Revolution in comparative resistance. The law was a direct response to the fact that the rebellion's leaders were advised by Obeah men who attempted to give them courage, solidarity, and spiritual protection.
In practice, the law was used almost exclusively against poor Jamaicans, mostly black and sometimes Indian.
In the event that your recollection of history might be a bit unclear, between 1838 and 1917 European governments allowed their planters in the Caribbean to import an estimated 500,000 Indian indentured servants to work on their sugar plantations. The arrival of these indentured labourers was in direct response to a so-called labour shortage emanating from the abolition of slavery in the British West Indies which occurred in 1838.
But the spiritual guarding of one's self is not confined to so-called guard rings, rosaries, associated with the Catholic faith, are also used to guard against evil spirits, mainly by those in the upper echelons of society.
Popular culture can be understood as a set of cultural products, practices, beliefs, and objects dominating society. Popular culture has the ability to influence those individuals it comes across and incorporates various elements of a culture, from music to dance, movies, literature, and fashion.
It encompasses everything that is believed and consumed by the majority of people in any society. Popular culture cuts across socio-economic and political lines. Oftentimes we view popular culture negatively, however, this is not always the situation. Socialisation begins with the family. However, most families are dysfunctional and this adds to the problems the wider society faces, given the high homicide rates and uncouth behaviour among our people. The school is expected to continue the process of socialisation; however, the current education system is not impacting a significant number of students, especially our boys.
Contrastingly, it appears that popular culture is impacting our students more so than the education system. Given that the inequalities of the education system have been exacerbated by the novel coronavirus pandemic, this is not surprising.
Policymakers should take into consideration that schools operate on a gendered system and, as such, the expectations are different for the sexes. Understandably, this is problematic as efforts are being made to close the learning gap and learning poverty being experienced in the education system. While it is worrying, the society should not be surprised that our students are "guarding up" as they pursue their educational interests.
Our students are acting out what they see adults around them do. The practice of Obeah has been glorified in popular culture. Among the popular dancehall songs which address the issue are Guard Up by Insideeus and Intence by Yahoo Boyz.
As we celebrate Emancipation Day it is imperative that we are aware of our history as we plan for the future. We must never forget the history of our indigenous peoples who were obliterated due to genocide carried out by Europeans. As a region, we must lend our collective voices to the call for reparation and hold accountable those European powers who carried out crimes against humanity in the Anglophone Caribbean.
Unquestionably, the task for the current generation is to ensure that economic independence is realised. May Emancipation Day be one of reflection.
A luta continua.
Wayne Campbell is an educator and social commentator with an interest in development policies as they affect culture and or gender issues. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or firstname.lastname@example.org.