“Yesterday was one of the strangest days I’ve experienced. It started innocently enough with Lucy and I having breakfast on the veranda overlooking their plantain field. A plantain is almost exactly like a banana and grows in enormous bunches just the way bananas do, but they are bigger and green, not yellow.
From the verandah I could see John at the entrance to a field listening intently to a wizened old man. Standing next to the old man was a small black boy who carried a large basket.
“Who is the old man” I asked Lucy
“He’s an Obeah man and he’s going to dress the garden”
“What on earth are you talking about, Lucy?”
Then she explained Obeah was a form of witchcraft and that an Obeah man or woman is the person, or practitioner, as they like to be called, who controls the supernatural world using spirits to harm people with techniques passed down in secret from one generation to another. I was fascinated and wanted to hear more.
“There could be many reasons why someone might want the services of an Obeah man. It may be for a medical reason, if someone is ill in which case the patient would be given a bottle of something to take or they would have to follow certain instructions. But often it’s to do with getting revenge on someone who has caused you harm in some way; maybe you wanted to discover a thief or sometimes it’s for more romantic reasons – you want to make a particular person fall in love with you or you might want to win at gambling.”
But do you and John believe in it, Lucy?”
“We don’t, but many white Jamaicans do and John is certainly prepared to indulge in it if it is to his advantage.”
“We’re being robbed of six or seven bunches of plantain every week in spite of employing extra men to watch the fields and that’s why we’ve arranged for an Obeah man to solve the problem for us” she said.
There could be something in it, Becky, if for no other reason than the Obeah man’s knowledge of poisons is far beyond that of the European druggists. Most practitioners learned how to use herbs for cures. The practitioners knowledge of the roots and herbs brought over from Africa remained with them since most of the same plants grew in the tropical climate of Jamaica and so the customs and practices were passed down from generation to generation.”
The old man took the basket from the boy and went into the field where there were rows and rows of plantain trees. He took out from his basket different sized bottles, which had some sort of liquid inside them. Then, he walked up and down the rows of plantains and tied a bottle on to some of the fruit, at the same time muttering some sort of incantation. When he had done that he would wave his arms over the plantain and genuflect. Once that was done he would move on to another row of plantain and perform the whole ceremony over again and continue to do that until he’d done the whole field.
After that he produced, from his basket, a tiny little black wooden coffin, which with great pomp and circumstance he placed in the branches of a big old cotton tree. Then he took a saucer from his basket and put some water in it and dropped some egg shells in the water and then put the saucer on top of the coffin in the cotton tree. The old man walked right round the field again waving his arms all over the place, still muttering and went over to John who gave the old man some money and he and the boy then left the field. “And that little exhibition is known as “dressing the garden” and, hopefully, that will be the end of the thieving now”. Lucy said.
She continued, “Once word gets around that the Obeah man has been in the field people will believe he has put a curse on anyone entering it. They will be convinced that terrible things will happen to them if they do.”
According to John the Government made Obeah illegal and it was hoped that after emancipation, with the missionaries bringing Christianity to the freed slaves, Obeah would be wiped out – but it just continued in secret, pretty much the same as now. It’s deep rooted in the black and coloured Jamaican’s heritage and culture and even though you might come across a family that is both Christian and well educated, the likelihood is that someone in it will be dabbling in Obeah.
It strikes me that emancipation hasn’t changed much in Jamaica, her present is still very much tied to her past.”
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