Even though my mother was deeply religious, and obeah was against the teachings of the Catholic Church, Mum couldn’t let go of the culture that had been so much part of her life growing up in Kingston, Jamaica. I grew up in Brighton on the south-east coast of England in the 1950s, where there were no obeah practitioners to work their ‘magic’, but Mum often told me stories of how when someone upset any member of her family – her mother, my grandmother Becky – would contact their local obeahman to make a spell so the person would be punished for their wrongdoing.
As far as I could work out from my research, obeah’s power lay in a practitioner working on the fears of a people who were fundamentally superstitious to start with and that included my Mum. Since just about every black and coloured person in Jamaica during the 1920-30s (and the years beyond) believed in obeah, once they knew it was being worked against them, they were convinced they were doomed to either some kind of excruciating pain or worse, death.
Obeah practitioners had other skills too and were often consulted over medical problems rather than a conventional doctor. They were very knowledgeable about plants and herbs that grew in Jamaica, information which had been passed down through the centuries from generation to generation. They would successfully prescribe herbal remedies for a variety of ailments, not only for coloured and black Jamaicans, but white also.
The South East of England is not the West Indies, so when I was ill as a child I wasn’t treated with exotic herbs. My alternative treatments were more down to earth – I can’t tell you the number of times I had boiled onions wrapped in muslin and tied around my feet to bring my temperature down or had to put a matchstick behind my right ear to get rid of some pain I had – usually a stomach ache. Mum told me her mother, Becky, used to do this for her when she was a child. She said it worked for her and it did for me too. Power of suggestion, maybe?