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Away With Obeah Laws Say Rastafarians
By Sam Pragg, IPS, 20 January 1999
KINGSTON, Jan 20 (IPS) - If members of the rastafarian community in this northern Caribbean island have their way, no law on the books which lists the practice of witchcraft as illegal would still be in existence.
Calling them totally unnecessary and denying people the right to their "roots" a group of rastafarians have banded together in their effort to lobby government for a change in what they are calling a law whose time has long passed.
"We're calling now for (them) to be totally abolished," says attorney-at-law Miguel Lorne, who is a rastafarian.
"Obeah ah one religion, not witchcraft. The people them come to me when they need help, when them sick, and me cure them. The doctor them just vex with me, and want take way me business," says 34-year-old Quaco who lives in the parish of St. Thomas and practises the craft which is known locally as obeah.
Obeah is an ancient practice which is said to have been adopted from Africa after the slaves from the West Coast of the continent came to the Caribbean.
"This was one of the ways slaves communicated and cast spells on the hated slave-owners," says 26-year-old history student at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Janice Davis. "It was a sign of rebellion that the slave owners didn't understand. Nearly all slave rebellions had obeah men as part of their leadership."
The plantation owners tried to get rid of the original language, religion and customs of their slaves. However, historians say certain beliefs persisted and continue to this day. Obeah is one of those.
But while the Jamaican law states that obeah is illegal and anyone found practising it can be arrested and charged, police officers seldom enforce it so people like Quaco openly carry on a thriving trade to the delight of some Jamaicans.
"They (the practice) have worked for me. I would go to an obeah man any day. Nobody can work magic like an obeah man," says 41- year-old businesswoman, Jasmine Edwards.
"It is a waste of time (to enforce the law). We have much more serious problems, such as drugs, a high murder rate and things like that to bother ourselves with obeah. We have more important things to do," says police sergeant, Neville Williams.
But not all police officers take that stand and Quaco says while the law is on the books, he has to be practising his craft in fear that any day he could be picked up by the police and slapped with a charge.
"Last month, a policeman had a fuss with me over a woman. Him just bring up the obeah law and put me in jail. This kind of oppression can't work," says Quaco.
Dr. Maureen Warner-Lewis, a lecturer at the UWI who has done extensive research into Afro-Caribbean belief systems, shares the view of the rastafarian community that the laws should be repealed as much of what is practised is harmless.
"Once the practice is not Christian, it tends to fit into the ranks of obeah. You cannot legislate against people's habits. Some of these habits have their roots in our culture," she says.
For Lorne, the obeah laws are an anachronistic throw-back to Jamaica's colonial past.
"You must understand, these laws came about from the colonial masters and these laws were intended to suppress the African race and to suppress the spirituality that is within the African. Anything him (the colonial master) can't understand, him call it obeah and witchcraft," says Lorne who is also a rastafarian.
The rastafarian doctrine itself arose in the 1930s stating the inevitability of the transformation which would climax with the destruction of Babylon and return of Blacks to the motherland, Africa.
The term Babylon, covers the western world, the church and government, as agents of imperialism.
One of the more controversial aspects of the practice of obeah is its claim to be able to cure all types of diseases. There have been many cases of ill persons attending obeah practitioners when their family members felt that they would have been better served by a qualified medical doctor
"I personally take objection to some of the ideas contained in obeah practices," says Warner-Lewis referring to its claim of being able to cure all ills.
Meanwhile, the term by which these practices go varies from one Caribbean island to the next. For instance, in Haiti it is known as voodoo and in Cuba as santeria.
But those who have studied the practice have also concluded that the differences go beyond just the names by which they go.
"Voodoo is a very complex religious system," says Warner-Lewis. "There are particular religious rites, deities and calendar events."
Obeah as practised in Jamaica involves the use of oils and herbs for the cure of all ills.
Quaco says his clients range from wives who want to get rid of "the other woman" in their husbands lives, to those who want to ensure that their businesses are successful. There is usually a different type of oil for each problem. The oil when applied as instructed eventually gets rid of the "evil spirit" - the source of the problem.
And according to psychologist, Dr. Leachim Semaj, a rastafarian, because many Jamaicans do not understand the origins of the practice, it continues to be feared.
"We (need) to get back to basics, to try to understand the traditional healers. Some call them obeahman, some call them voodoo man, some call them griot," he says.
[c] 1999, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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