Progress in Jamaica Toward Tolerance of African Cultures

Jamaican Information Service has taken steps to remove current laws making specific crimes punishable by flogging. The practice of Obeah, widespread in Jamaica, is included on that list along with petty theft and larceny. The Obeah Act was passed in 1898 but has remained on the books and has been spuriously enforced to this day.

The Obeah Act was created in order to suppress slaves who feared that Obeah could be used to overthrow them. In the end, it turned out they were right. Many practitioners of Obeah escaped into Maroon communities where they live to this day, practicing Obeah as they did in Africa. Ironically, Obeah was also embraced by early slave owners as well as the new politicians of a democratic, independent Jamaica. Of most note is Edward Seaga, a man who was Prime Minister of Jamaica and subsequently held a position of political power every day of his life. It is no surprise that the Jamaica Observer ran the headilne: “Seaga Weighs in on Obeah Debate“:

Former Prime Minister Edward Seaga, under whose administration Myal was elevated to national importance as an aspect of Jamaica’s African religious heritage during and after slavery, said he had no idea that the law had equated Myal with Obeah.

“If that is so, it is totally wrong, Seaga said. “Myalism was developed during slavery as a means for the slaves to express themselves spiritually, because they didn’t have a single language. It is still called Myal in St Thomas, but it eventually became Zion Revival, in other places”.

According to Seaga, Myal was created in Jamaica by African slaves, from a mixture of African religions, cultures and languages.

“Obeah is not a religion, it is a spiritual doctor and it is totally wrong to mix obeah with Myal,” he commented.

Seaga was an adherent and activist int he Myalist community when he secured power as the fifth Prime Minister of Jamaica. This was when Myalism was distinguished from Obeah; Myalism as the religious aspect and Obeah ass the practical, or doctoral, aspect. Seaga’s involvement and sentimentality for Myalism  – which has largely been suppressed like Obeah – shew through.

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