When I lived in Rio Blanco, the Maya weren’t the only people of another culture I met. While the country itself was a British colony, the entire educational system was run by American Jesuits from the Missouri Province in St. Louis. Father John Paul Cull, the priest in Toledo District, was American—tall, lean, given to abrupt speech and movements, a man who seldom smiled. He was also the only Roman Catholic priest I’ve ever made friends with.
The blogger is (finally) back!
This is another story from when I lived in Belize. I didn’t include it in How to Cook a Tapir because it’s still painful to think about. Most Americans have no idea how boring life in a small, primitive (no electricity, no plumbing), isolated society like Rio Blanco can be on a day-to-day basis, especially 50 years ago. The only similar societies here that I’m aware of are the assisted living homes where my mother, then in her 90s, spent the last few years of her life.
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.
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.
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.