Thursday, March 24, 2011

Obeah and politics in the Caribbean

By Oliver Mills

We as human beings, when faced with challenging situations, often like to resort to measures and practices that are beyond what is normal in order to seek, or find solutions to them. After we have exhausted the religious figure, friends, and stretch ourselves beyond our own reasoning, we then resort to strategies that appear otherworldly.

From the era of the Roman Empire, before going to war, the leaders often consulted oracles, soothsayers, and their gods to determine when they should act. After being given the assurance that things will work out fine, they proceeded. If told there would be adversities, they would refrain.

Oliver Mills is a former lecturer in education at the University of the West Indies Mona Campus. He holds an M.Ed degree. from Dalhousie University in Canada and an MA from the University of London. He has published numerous articles in human resource development and management, as well as chapters in five books on education and human resource management and has presented professional papers in education at Oxford University in the UK and at Rand Africaans University in South AfricaThe Romans also examined the entrails of birds to determine how and when to act. Sorcerers were often consulted in earlier times, and magic was also used to find solutions, or determine when to make a move or not.

Caribbean people have had their full share of using extraordinary sources to tell the future, protect themselves against what they felt were overwhelming odds, and also used these sources to seek revenge, without coming into physical contact with what caused their problems. We call the use of certain forces of nature to bring about certain ends beneficial to ourselves, or to deal with what or who was bothering us, obeah. But what is meant by this term obeah?

The Oxford Dictionary describes obeah as a kind of sorcery, practiced especially in the Caribbean. Another dictionary defines it as a form of magic or witchcraft, and mentions its association with the wider Caribbean. Obeah includes all of these, but more broadly, it has to do with influencing, or manipulating the forces of nature to obtain a particular result, either favourable to the person involved in its use, or to do something unpleasant to the person we feel has wronged us in some way.

In the Caribbean, Nanny, one of Jamaica’s heroes was said to use obeah to repel the British from her country. It was said that on one occasion, she placed an object on fire at the side of a mountain, and when the British soldiers tried to approach the source of the smoke, they fell over the edge of the hill, and met their end. This is the political use of obeah, to bring about a particular result even though you are outmatched. The slaves in Haiti in the 18th century used obeah to battle French forces that were sent against them. They went through certain ceremonies, which they were told would protect them from the effects of bullets. They therefore developed courage and extraordinary bravery, since they felt they could not be harmed. This is the further use of obeah as a political weapon.

In our modern era, the well known president of Haiti, Papa Doc, was said to use obeah as part of his political strategy to deal with opponents, predict how to act, and also to determine the results of his actions. It is alleged that this is what kept him in power for such a long period. However, others say Papa Doc saw obeah as a cultural practice, part of the African heritage, even as a form of religion, and it is an exaggeration to say it was used for ends that could be frowned on.

Even Eric Gairy, the late prime minister of Grenada, was said to be a practitioner of obeah, and used it to remain in power, protect himself from his detractors, and confuse his opponents. Apparently, though, it could not stop Maurice Bishop from overthrowing him.

One of the political neighbours of the Turks and Caicos was also said to use obeah as a political tool to win elections and stay in office for several decades. It is said that on one occasion, when this official visited the obeah priest in Haiti, he explained that he came to get the usual assistance. But the opposition leader for that country had already paid a visit, and had been given the assurance he would be the next prime minister. The obeah priest confused them, so much so that when the sitting prime minister sought help, the obeah priest replied, “Are you not the little short black man who just came here? I thought you were, so I gave the election to him.” This political leader, it is said, was flabbergasted, but the obeah priest could not reverse his act. This is a clear example of obeah being used to practically influence the outcome of an election, whether it was the sole reason or other factors were also involved.

In one of our smaller Caribbean countries, it is alleged that obeah is also used on occasions as a political strategy to unseat a government, or influence voting behaviour. This country is very near to Haiti, which is associated with this practice. It is said that during a certain election period, officials from this small country visited an obeah priest in Haiti, to request assistance in winning the then upcoming election. They were told that one of the visiting persons needed to be turned into a rabbit. It was agreed, and I am told that sure enough, it happened, and a white rabbit was seen jumping about the place. The obeah priest was then free to do his work. Again, whether this affected the election on its own has not been determined.

Again, in this same small country, during another election, a group of candidates met at an outdoor restaurant to discuss election strategies, and Haiti again came up as part of the discussions, concerning who had visited it for help before. One of the candidates, whose seat was being contested, protested against such talk about visiting Haiti. This candidate was promptly told, “You had better shut up, because you have no idea how you were elected the first time around.” This suggested that again, the use of obeah as a strategy was resorted to in securing the seat of this person.

In another election, on election day in one of the constituencies where the contending candidates were observing the voting taking place, it was quickly noticed that there were white handkerchiefs placed inside each desk of the contending candidates except the sitting elected member. The candidates sat around the desks, and all but one did not notice the handkerchiefs. It was later said, that the handkerchiefs had been “fixed,” and they were placed there to cause confusion in the minds of voters who attempted to vote for other candidates apart from the sitting member. They would either spoil the vote, or in their confusion vote for the person they did not intend to, which was the sitting member. Here again, is the use of obeah tactics in determining who would win an election.

Where a recent election was concerned in the same island, the election was regarded as crucial for the supporters of a particular candidate. This was so to such an extent, that someone came up with a suggestion at one of the meetings on the eve of the election, that if their party was to win, then they had to prevent the opposing party’s voters from being among the first thirteen at the polls to vote. The number thirteen seemed so important, that some of these supporters kept up very late on the night of election eve, to ensure they would not allow the opposing political side to form the first thirteen in the line to vote. Here, was the superstition, that an election could be won or lost by heading off the gathering of the first thirteen voters of their opponent. Again the use of obeah as a strategy to influence the results of a political election.

The point is that we really do not know for sure whether the practices and tactics of obeah determined anything, or could determine anything one way or the other. A professional writer on the subject of obeah studied the research done on it, and found that there was no truth or evidence to what was alleged happened, or could happen through the use of obeah strategies. It was all in the imagination, and belonged to the world of fantasy. Still though, obeah has its followers, and practitioners. It is also seen as a religion, and they do believe things could definitely happen, and that it could be used for good, or otherwise.

March 23, 2011