Play tells story of women silenced by ‘witch hunt’
By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
The infamous Melda of the Mighty Sparrow’s Obeah Wedding calypso (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jhBoQufPq4E) did not have to fear that she would suffer death by hanging at the hands of her irate lover when he accuses her of trying to lead him to the altar through obeah. However, the characters of the play, Obeah Opera, did have to fear hanging when they were accused of practicing witchcraft, as obeah is often mistakenly portrayed.
Obeah Opera which plays until March 4 (http://www.obeahopera.com/) is a collaboration of Rhoma Spencer’s Theatre Archipelago and b current Performing Arts whose artistic director is ahdri zhina mandiela.
Growing up in Guyana I had heard of obeah. Every Guyanese has heard of obeah whether or not they understand what it means. There were those who feared obeah, those who practised obeah, those who thought it was a joke or some combination. Some obeah practitioners (at least the adults thought they were obeah practitioners) regularly left food in apparently expensive china dinnerware (probably Royal Doulton as Guyana was a British colony) at the koker in Stanleytown, Berbice.
We (Berbicians) are famous in Guyana as obeah people being close to Suriname, a place many Guyanese consider the obeah epicenter. There was an elderly woman who would, in spite of dire warnings from other adults in the community, take the food and dinnerware left at the koker. She thought it was nonsensical for people to waste good food and expensive dishes to feed spirits. While others watched in fascinated horror expecting that she would be struck down by some malevolent spirit, she lived to celebrate her 90th birthday.
According to information on the website, Obeah Opera tells a story of women silenced by the most infamous ‘witch-hunt’ in history. The opera is set in the late 17th century where Tituba, Mary, Candy and Sarah, enslaved African women from the Caribbean sold to owners in the North American colony established by Puritans at Salem, are arrested and accused of practicing obeah. To find out what else happens in this groundbreaking collaboration between two artistic companies owned by African Caribbean Canadian women, you have to attend one of the performances by March 4. It is an eye-opening experience with amazing performances by a group of 15 women who seamlessly transform from Puritans to enslaved African women while singing acapella. The songs performed by this group of talented singers celebrate the range of African-inspired music, including blues, gospel, jazz and spirituals.
It was a learning experience for me as I had never connected the Salem witchcraft trials with obeah. After all, witches were part of White culture and obeah is an expression of African spirituality. I had read about witches, including the various wicked step-mothers from fairy tales and wizards including Merlin from King Arthur’s round table, but in my youthful Guyanese mind, they really had nothing to do with us in Guyana; they all lived in Europe.
I knew of Tituba, Mary Black and Candy, who were the enslaved African women accused during the hysteria of the Salem witch hunt and trials. I learned about Sarah from Obeah Opera.
I was struck by the similarity between the Puritan pastor lusting after the body of the enslaved African woman while blaming the woman and the protagonist in the calypso, Obeah Wedding, who hypocritically finds fault with Melda when she suggests marriage.
The protagonist in Sparrow’s Obeah Wedding is obviously a man with commitment issues who accuses the woman of dastardly acts when she demands a formal commitment. In an effort to discourage Melda’s real or imagined machinations, he warned/threatened that he had protection against “necromancy” in the person of his grandfather, Papa Neeza. However, according to Frances Henry, a White Canadian anthropologist who met and interviewed Ebenezer “Papa Neezer” Elliot, he was not an “obeah man”.
In her book, Beliefs, doctrines and practices of the Orisha religion in Trinidad, 1958 – 1999 published in 2002, Henry writes: Elliot was raised a London Baptist, the Church in the Fifth Company Village, and he remained a devout Baptist and a conscientious Christian all his life, in addition to practising his African Shango faith.
Elliot was a descendant of the African American group (known locally as the Merikens) that settled in Trinidad between 1815 and 1816. My sister friend, Brenda Pierre, who transitioned last year April, was also a descendant of the Merikens and shared stories about the spirituality of that community and of her ancestors, Amphy and Bashana Jackson.
The history of the Merikens is documented in The Merikens: Free Black American Settlers in Trinidad 1815-16 (published 2002) written by John McNish Weiss: The Baptist faith was brought to Trinidad by the “Merikens”, former American slaves who were recruited by the British to fight with them, as the Corps of Colonial Marines, against the Americans during the War of 1812. After the end of this war, these ex-slaves were settled in the south of the country, to the east of the Mission of Savannah Grande (now known as Princes Town) in six villages, since then called The Company Villages.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spiritual_Baptist – cite_note-0#cite_note-0
Obeah, like all other African belief systems, was demonized and actively discouraged by the White slave holders in an effort to strip the Africans of their humanity. Whether the European enslavers were the French in Haiti, the Portuguese in Brazil, the Spanish in Colombia, Cuba or Puerto Rico, they all brutalized any African who expressed their spirituality. This caused syncretism in some places, which hid African spirituality under a thin veneer of Catholicism and resulted in Candomble, Santeria, Shango and Voodoo.
The enslaved Africans continued to worship their deities but used the names of Catholic saints to avoid the brutal punishment for practicing their indigenous beliefs.
Obeah is not interchangeable with the syncretic religions because there is no worship of European saints and while Candomble, Santeria, Shango and Voodoo are derived from the Yoruba culture of Nigeria, obeah is from the Akan of Ghana and is not syncretic.
Writing of obeah in his 2010 book, Afro-Caribbean Religions, Professor Nathaniel Samuel Murrell explains: The art was common among the Efik, Akan, Edo, and Twi ethnic groups of West Africa; and scholars say it is derived from the Twi word obeye, a minor deity associated with the Obboney, the malicious spirit of the Rada and Dahomey sacred powers. The use of the word obayi or obaye is seen as evidence of the Ashanti people in Jamaica and other Caribbean states; the most well known freedom fighters in the British colonies were the Ashantis.
Ashanti and Twi speaking peoples whom slave traders labeled Koromantyns were taken from the Gold Coast to the British colonies rather than to French islands or the Spanish main. Kormantyns were freedom fighters, and British slave markets accepted them when other depots did not.
In Encyclopedia of African American History, Volume 1, Leslie M. Alexander and Walter C Rucker argue: In the British imagination, Obeah has historically been the umbrella term for any African-based spiritual practice unknown to the European tradition that purports to give the black population a sense of agency or authority.
In British Guiana, an Obeah Ordinance was enacted on January 8, 1855 making it a criminal offence to practice obeah. The practice of obeah was so feared that in November 1973 when then Guyanese Prime Minister Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham proposed repealing the ordinance it created a firestorm of media stories not only in the Caribbean but also internationally. The story even appeared in two editions of Jet Magazine – January 17 and March 14, 1974.
The performance of Obeah Opera in the 21st century is a testament to how far we have come in embracing our history and culture. It is a performance that must be seen and loudly applauded.