SATURDAY’S CHILD: Melda and the obeah man
When Calypso King of the World, the Mighty Sparrow, introduced Caribbean people to the female character, Melda, in his 1966 song, Obeah Wedding, she was no stranger at all. In fact, wherever in the region we lived, we knew many “Meldas” and, some of us, also knew many “Obeah Men”.
We all knew that “Obeah” was illegal and that “police could lock you up for that” but were pragmatic enough to realise that when they sought promotion, the policemen either went themselves or sent their wives and girlfriends to the obeah men (and women) to seek divine intervention. People who wanted someone helped or hurt, families who had court or “neighbour” issues, courted the intercession of God or gods in whatever forms, formats, formulas, apparitions, representations, rituals, “simi-dimi”, bush baths, herbs, silk cotton trees and related paraphernalia, including slaughtering white fowl cocks, they were advised to spend their money on.
Even the Catholic Church in Trinidad got involved. The Benedictine Monks, high in the foothills of the Northern Range in a monastery at Mount St Benedict, gave the impression that they could “light a candle” on the heads of their supplicants’ enemies – for a price. Up to today, you can hear people threatening to go to the abbey to get the help of the monks in dealing with their opponents and adversaries.
Obeah (like humanity) originated in Africa. Its roots, like all other religions or religious practices, are embedded in our fear of the unknown and the need for help from some power greater than ourselves and more powerful than the forces that oppress us or the fears that beset us. One explanation of the term is that an “Obi” or “Obeah” is a monster in West African folklore and is supposed to be a huge animal that witches and witch doctors send into villages to kidnap young girls and wear their skins as coats. Now the Obeah practitioners don’t bother with your skin. What they want is their pound or more of flesh.
When the Indians came to the Caribbean as indentured immigrants to work the cane fields in place of the freed African slaves, they also brought their religious practices with them. Astrology was a central part of their religion and was hugely important to their lives and livelihoods. Palmistry too, and although it is said that more Hindu priests came off the boats than got on them, these people and the books that some of them brought (the Vedas, Ramayana, Bhagavad Gita) were their guides to both the old and new worlds and helped them to deal with the traumas, travails and survival issues they faced. However, for devout Christians, some of whom see no problems in going to the stores and buying “poison” candles and different kinds of oils and charms for different purposes, or going to the Obeah men, the Hindu Gods, some of them animals, with many hands, weapons and swastikas are “heathen” practices and the kind of obeah that is anathema.
This is what happened over the past few weeks in Antigua and Barbuda, a place that we still think of as home. Media reports state: “Police say they have arrested two Indian nationals ‘for being involved in the practice of Obeah’… Manjunath Govindappa of Prince Klaas Street and Sandeep Gangadharaiah are each accused of professing to tell fortunes by supernatural practices and for publishing pamphlets to promote the superstition of obeah.
Attorney General Steadroy ‘Cutie’ Benjamin said the two men would be sent out of the country. The police said that several pieces of evidential materials, believed to be used in the practising of obeah, were found at the property and confiscated pending further investigations into the matter. Their arrest followed a public outcry from residents who expressed fears that the presence of a self-proclaimed ‘Indian Astrologer’ and ‘Priest’ would invite ‘unwanted evil to the country’. The men were deported three days ago.
I remember when we started living in Antigua. As usual, wherever we live, we adorn the house, inside and outside, with Christmas lights and many people stopped to look at the display. Then we decided to celebrate the annual Hindu festival of lights (Divali). We saw people cross to the other side of the street and I initially figured they wanted a better view of the spectacle.
Then I realized (and confirmed later) that they believed we were “wucking Obeah” and they were staying far. As I told my wife after the two men were arrested, we were extremely lucky because a police raid would have found “evidential materials” in our statues, artifacts and a few books owned by my 85-year old mother who taught herself Hindi and is an avid reader and devout Hindu.
I think the Attorney General (a.k.a. Cutie) was extremely lucky. There is a story that is a real cutie. A man walked into a bar, ordered two beers and then brought out a perfectly formed 12-inch, adult male from his pocket. The little man drank the beer, got another, took peanuts from the bar and the curious bartender asked: “Can he talk as well.” To which the man replied: “Hey Al, tell this guy about the time when we were down in Africa on a safari and you insulted that witch doctor!”
Tony Deyal was last seen saying that the Antigua Observer advertises services from many self-proclaimed psychics. Unlike the Indian men, every medium is still at large.