Obeah is an offbeat blend of folk magic, occult, and Christianity, first brought to the Caribbean from West Africa by runaway slaves. My Colombian Co-Pilot, Natalia, and I took the MINI Roadster to search out these flamboyantly wacky Obeah practitioners who are as likely to rub olive oil on your face as they are to peer deeply into a crystal ball. As we discovered, there's a lot charlatanism and showmanship involved, but Obeah is sort of a codified way of dealing with the grimier feelings of being a human: jealousy, distrust, and insecurity.
How does Obeah work? Let's say your best friend just landed a new job, made out with a total babe, and is about to put down a deposit on a sweet apartment. You might take a trip down to the Obeah Man to get some of that luck for yourself. The Obeah Man will instruct you to buy the right kind of oils and sprays, perform some sort of ceremony, and send you on your way. It's like playing the lottery; someone's gonna get paid, so it might as well be you.
Unlike Voodoo, Obeah has a practical place in the medicine cabinet of many Jamaicans. Right next to your foot creme there might be a bottle of Evil Away Spray or love potion. It's not a surprise then that those who dabble in the Afro-Carribean religion's white magic aren't particularly forthcoming about it. In August 2011, an angry mob of Jamaicans killed an Obeah Man by stoning him to death. So practitioners may call themselves Science Men or ministers but hardly ever straight up Obeah Man, 'cause it might get them killed.
That realness became evident as Natalia and I cruised through Jamaica, slaloming the MINI Roadster around massive potholes and political rallies that were like highly amplified block parties. Jamaicans are joyously loud, but they're hush hush about Obeah, even if they know where to find it.
Our first stop was the notoriously violent Tivoli Gardens neighborhood of Kingston. We figured a visit to an Obeah man for protection would be a safe bet, like an extra lock on your door. Whether it’s the spells he casts or the money you pay, you might be spared the occasional robbery or stabbing.
There's a store in Tivoli Gardens that sells all of the material goods for Obeah's occult ceremonies: oils, sprays, candles, amulets, potions, and more. Natalia discovered a particularly hilarious candle that apparently guards against infidelity. Curiously, these products are all labeled with modern packaging: it's contemporary consumer culture meets ancient superstitions. The store's owner, Neil, showed us around while more than a few customers bought Obeah goods. Check out bonus content on MINI Facebook.
After we loaded up on Obeah supplies, we drove into the interior of the island to find Joseph, a storied Obeah sorcerer referred to us by Neil at the shop. This dude was irrepressible. He sees angels and demons in the trees. Joseph was a self-taught mystic whose philosophy was cobbled together like an encyclopedia of the occult. Tarot, Kabbalah, Reiki, Ayurveda--you name it. It was hard to get a succinct answer from the dude. But he did show us some of his less-than-stellar levitation tricks and warned us about seeing “a demon dressed in a white headscarf."
We left with more questions about Obeah, our Mission incomplete. As we drove through each town, we asked as many locals as we could where to find another Obeah man. Silence. No one would talk on camera. But eventually we were whispered directions to a house at the end of a tiny cracked road down a deep ravine that was guarded by a dismembered plastic doll. An Obeah woman emerged from a large house built into the hill. She cursed us out for calling what she practiced Obeah and aggressively sent us on our way.
Guess what color her headscarf was.