The background behind some Jamaicans opting for obeah over medicine

Some Jamaicans have over the years, opted to consult with their so-called ‘obeah men’ in search of guidance and treatment for a variety of issues, including medical illnesses, instead of visiting medical practitioners.

The issue returned to the public spotlight last week when a former taxi operator who was admitted to the Cornwall Regional Hospital (CRH) for a medical condition, was released from the facility at the insistence of reportedly aggressive family members.

The relatives reportedly acted boisterously towards medical staff when the latter initially resisted attempts to have the taxi operator released from the hospital. The actions by the relatives sent off wild rumours that armed thugs had invaded the Montego Bay, St James-based hospital to remove a don who had been admitted for treatment.

In providing details on what transpired, Assistant Commissioner of Police (ACP) Clifford Chambers confirmed that there was a patient admitted with a “medical condition” at Cornwall Regional Hospital, but that the individual was not a don.

“He (the patient) was restrained based on his behaviour to the medical team… However, his relatives might have been of the view that the issue he was suffering from was not medical, but was spiritual,” said Chambers.

The senior lawman explained that family members of the patient became boisterous with medical staff, and indicated that they wanted their relative released from the hospital.

As a result, medical personnel decided to discharge the patient into the custody of his mother, who subsequently signed a release form and the family left with the individual.

Chambers said the police on Tuesday responded to a “complaint”, and later arrived at the facility and was briefed about the incident.

“There was no confrontation between the police and any gunman at that location, and there was no confrontation between the police and family members,” the ACP indicated.

He further shared that the patient in question was a former taxi operator and “was never part of any gang, and has never been involved in any confrontation with the police”.

Notwithstanding those statements, Chambers said police investigators will be seeking to ascertain how they can “intervene” in the situation, as “the medical team is of the view that he has a medical condition and not a spiritual condition.”

Other media reports suggested that family members and the patient, himself, were of the view that he was a victim of obeah.

Persons who are often purported victims of obeah often seek remedies from other obeah men or women to counter what is termed as ‘blows’ or evil that had been cast on them.

Over hundreds of years, Jamaicans have been prevented by law from practicing obeah, a belief system with similarities to Haiti’s voodoo.

Campaigners and practitioners have been trying to overturn the law, but have had no such luck, despite the practice being done, especially in some deep rural areas of Jamaica.

A person practising obeah is “any person who, to effect any fraudulent or unlawful purpose, or for gain, or for the purpose of frightening any person, uses, or pretends to use any occult means, or pretends to possess any supernatural power or knowledge.”

Obeah’s history is similar to that of voodoo in a neighbouring Caribbean country, and santeria in Latin America. Enslaved Africans brought spiritual practices to the Caribbean that included folk healing and a belief in magic for good and for evil.

It was said to be practised by the slaves who attempted to conjure up the spirits of their ancestors to free them from the evil of the slave masters’ whips and bandage.

The practice of Obeah, which was outlawed in approximately 1760, was punishable by flogging or imprisonment, among other penalties. Such colonial-era punishments, however, have since been abolished, prompting calls for a decriminalisation of obeah to follow.

But obeah remains on the books as being illegal, though Justice Minister Delroy Chuck hinted in 2019, that that the nation’s legislators are mulling over the calls for repealing of the Obeah Act.

Presently, many associated with the criminal underworld, especially those associated with lotto scamming, have been consulting obeah men to protect them as they carry out their nefarious activities. Many of the hoodlums also source and receive guard rings, supposedly to offer protection against their foes and the justice system.

Even if the law should finally apprehend these criminals, their family members are known to run to obeah men to have them freed, forking out large sums of cash in the process.

Additionally, the practice of obeah has morphed into one where policemen, politicians and other prominent members of society from all economic classes tend to visit the practitioners for protection from evil spirits, and to keep them free from harm in their daily activities.

Aside from that, persons have been seeking the services of obeah men to acquire treatment for ailments they believed were derived from persons casting spells on them through the evil side of obeah.

Notably, there are some persons who believe obeah can be used for good, as well as for evil.

Writing some years ago in a newspaper article entitled ‘Obeah, duppy and your health’, consultant psychiatrist, Dr Wendel Abel, shared that, “As a young doctor working at the Bustamante Hospital for Children, I was surprised at the number of parents who believed that their children’s illnesses were due to someone casting a spell on the child.

“A spell is often referred to as a ‘blow ‘ or a ‘set hand’. They particularly believed this if the child had a condition that affected the brain.

“Common explanations were that the baby father’s other girlfriend or wife was the culprit and, sometimes, it was the baby father’s mother who ‘set a hand’ or cast a spell for the baby mother and this spell turned on the baby,” wrote the medical practitioner.

He pointed out that it is widely held in Jamaican culture, especially in rural areas, that “whenever someone wants to hurt another person, they give them a ‘big foot’.

“In our local dialect, foot refers to the legs and feet,” he wrote.

But Abel pointed out that “certain conditions such as heart disease, kidney disease and liver problems may result in swelling of the feet,” and many people with these conditions sometimes blame a neighbour or a family member for causing the ‘big foot’.

Oftentimes, many persons associate ‘sore foot’, referred to as ulcers in medicine, as a form of obeah.

According to Abel, “Ulcers can occur in individuals who have circulation problem, diabetes, high blood pressure or sickle-cell disease.”

He also highlighted, “To have a ‘sore foot’ in the culture is a source of shame and scorn.”

Additionally, many people refuse to come in contact or eat from people who have leg ulcers, as these medical conditions are difficult to treat due to the affected area on the leg has poor circulation.

“In such situations, people often turn to the local healer or obeah man for help. People will also use their own remedies. People have been known to mix dirt with nutmeg and pack it in an ulcer. Of course, such an action will breed germs and make the ulcer worse,” wrote Abel.

The psychiatrist explained further that in Jamaica’s health system, once a diagnosis is not easily ascribed to a medical condition, “either the patient or family members will request early discharge from the hospital so that they can go to get a second opinion from a local healer or the obeah man.”

The same action will be taken by family members if the doctor’s prescription for illnesses such as diabetes or cancer, fails to provide adequate treatment.

“I remember, many years ago, doing my ward round early one morning at the Victoria Jubilee Hospital.

Dr Wendel Abel

“A patient was absent and when I enquired, the other ladies laughed. I sensed something was suspicious. Later in the day, a patient told me that the lady left the ward early in the morning to go see an obeah man. She returned later that day.

“Health workers often get upset and angry at the oils that people use on relatives in hospitals. These may be specially prepared oils that are available at drug stores and are recommended by local healers (obeah men),” opined Abel.

He said then that as healthcare providers, they should be “sensitive to people’s belief and cultural practices”.

On the other hand, he said medical practitioners have a responsibility to “educate people about their illnesses”.

Mental health issues is another medical condition that some persons refuse to get treatment for and, oftentimes, loved ones are quicker to consult rural area obeah men to seek advice and medication.

Many persons still do believe that mental illness is a form of demon possession, and can be brought on, as well, by persons sending ‘blows’ to other.

According to Psychology Today, a media organisation with a focus on psychology and human behaviour, many cultures around the world normally use demon possession as a way to explain away unusual behaviour that may be related to symptoms of mental-health problems.

A 2012 study done in Uganda to investigate alleged spirit possession of child soldiers found that reports of spirit possession were related to trauma exposure such as sexual assault and being forced to kill, to psychological distress, and to higher rates of suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The study compared youths who had been abducted and forced to fight as child soldiers in the so-called Lord’s Resistance Army – a group that has waged a long and brutal campaign to overthrow the government of Uganda – with youths who had never been abducted.

As Abel and other psychiatrists have long argued, mental illness can affect someone to the extent that it could appear as demon possession.

The cause of these mental problems such as persons talking to their themselves, hallucinating or hearing voices, is a chemical reaction in the brain.

Hallucinations, for example, may occur in persons who suffer from schizophrenia and dementia.

In 2015, for example, some family members in Jamaica claimed that their 17-year-old relative had stabbed a policeman because he was demon possessed.

News reports later indicated that the teenager was being treated for anger problems and displayed signs of mental illness.

It led the late prominent Jamaican psychiatrist, Dr Frederick Hickling, to comment that, “anger/rage is a common feature of many types of mental illness because of paranoid ideas and painful traumatic experiences in childhood and adolescence.”

Hickling argued at the time that not enough was being done to address the issue of mental illness among young people.

“Jamaicans associate mental illness with demon possession not only because of inability to understand, but because of a religious mind-set that presupposes the existence of demons,” he said in a media interview.

With treatment, most medical practitioners say people suffering from mental illnesses can either recover or are able to control their symptoms.

However, some persons venture to obeah men or women or healers, to seek advice for such conditions, rather than seek medical help, which often worsens the mental challenges, as  well as other medical conditions which they may suffer from.