Obeah in the 21st Century

When I lived in Rio Blanco, Father Cull transformed the school into a church so he could say mass there.  But since I’m not Catholic, I’m not exactly sure how he did that.  One night—and this story is in my memoir—I saw candlelight coming from inside the school and heard two people talking.  The next morning, I discovered they’d been burning black candles on the table/my desk.  Was somebody making obeah against somebody else?  The village mayordomo didn’t know, didn’t care, and didn’t want to talk about it.

A king buzzard.  In ancient Maya mythology, they carried messages from humans to the gods.  Kriols call all vultures John Crow.  (Photo by Danny Bates)

A king buzzard. In ancient Maya mythology, they carried messages from humans to the gods. Kriols call all vultures John Crow. (Photo by Danny Bales)

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Obeah–Belizean Black Magic

The obeah men who are paid to make spells believe that obeah itself is neutral—it’s simply power.  If someone asks him to make a spell against somebody else in order to hurt him and cause him pain, the power becomes evil.  If someone asks him to make a spell so that his sick child will live, the power becomes good because it will result in good.   Among the Maya—perhaps in an overlap stemming from their own ancient, oral traditions of witchcraft and sorcery—obeah is almost always used for evil.

If bullets are used in the spell, it's a good bet that the victim will die of a mysterious gunshot wound.  (Photo by Joan Fry)

If bullets are used in the spell, it’s a good bet that the victim will die of a mysterious gunshot wound. (Photo by Joan Fry)

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That Old Black Magic

When I lived in Belize (okay, in 1963 it was British Honduras), the practice of obeah, or black magic, was considered a criminal offense.  A Creole man convicted of making obeah was sentenced to three years in prison shortly before we arrived.  While we lived among the Maya in Rio Blanco we  never saw any obeah rituals—if we did, we didn’t recognize them—but some people told us privately that they had seen them.  Obeah seldom came up in casual conversation, especially not when sac li gwink—Kekchi for “white people”—were present.

Men from near Santa Cruz clearing bush.  Many edible and medicinal plants grow in the rain forest.  But some can kill you.

Men from near Santa Cruz clearing bush. Many edible and medicinal plants grow in the rain forest. But some can kill you.  (Photo by Joan Fry)

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Can the Kekchi Cook without Chiles?

Of course they can.  Fried plantains (which all Belizeans pronounce PLAN-tins) are never cooked with chile.  The best I ever ate were in a Mexican restaurant near Pasadena, California.  The cook used butter, not lard or cooking oil, and before serving the plantains, he finished the dish with a splash of balsamic vinegar.  I had to restrain myself from licking my plate off.

Ripe (red) and unripe (green) bird peppers.  They’re tiny but hot—especially if you leave the seeds in.

Ripe (red) and unripe (green) bird peppers. They’re tiny but hot—especially if you leave the seeds in.

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Cutting Corn Ears

That was supposed to be a pun (“cutting corners”), but if you didn’t get it, don’t worry.  My husband doesn’t get most of my puns either.

The Maya only make one dish out of “green” corn, and they do cut the kernels off a freshly-picked ripe ear of corn with the dull side of a knife or machete (more people in Belize die from machete wounds than bullets) to make their green corn tamales.  None of their tamales contain cheese.  Because so many Maya villages, especially in Toledo District, lack dairy products—during dry season, there’s not enough pasture to support cattle—and electricity, Maya cooks don’t use cheese in their cooking at all.  No enchiladas, no burritos, nothing involving lettuce—the Maya don’t grow that, either—and no chiles rellenos.

Cutting Corn Ears

New in Rio Blanco since I lived there: clothesline, cats—much more efficient than a mousetrap—and flowers around the houses. One was surrounded by flame-red ginger flowers. The roots of some flowering gingers are edible—and an indispensable ingredient in curry.

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