The Art of Obeah

Maxcia Selway

There is a magic so strong it is known to knock a man down dead. It is used to heal, to hypnotise, to kill and to curse. It is the art of Obeah. The craft was known among certain men and women who brought it across the seas from their African homeland, to the tropical climate of Jamaica. And there it was used by both bond and free, a remedy to heal the most violent of sicknesses, or to curse the most hated of enemies. But it took great talent for it to be effective. An Obeah man or woman was revered amongst their people. Both feared and revered. And Queen Nanny was one who knew the art. She kept the strongest close by her side. Working for her and not against her. She knew of their gifts, their skill, whether of deception or courage. There would always be jealousy and rivalry, even in a commune such as Nanny Town. With a woman at the helm, some men wanted to challenge her for the leadership. But those who knew her knew that she would lay down her very life for her people. Others, though, were not so wise. They believed a woman weak, defenceless even, and they learnt the truth at their own peril.

“Me tell you me manage fifty field slaves and me can manage plenty of free niggers.” A voice shouted in consternation.

“There are no niggers in Nanny Town!” Nanny breathed softly. “We are all free here and me naw let you talk bout me people in that way.”

Weary, she wished the man gone. The day dragged long, arduous even, and she wished now to rest. Instead this man, Tuffy, had been brought before her. A runaway living in the commune no longer then one moon, and already there had been three complaints brought before her.

“Me tell you this town need order,” he barked. “Listen up. Me can’t tell you how much slackness me observe. See them women sit on them stoop every time me pass? Tell me them tending pickney. Me say, hold you pickney in one arm, swing machete with the other. Them should be down in them fields. Strap the baby to them back. Them do so down on plantation, why them naw can do it up here, me say? You hear say, ‘who no put no get?’ Well them naw put – so them naw should get!”

“Because, up here, them naw slave.” Nanny replied tersely. “Up here, them have a man whom work to provide for them. So them can stay and tend them house and them pickney. Just because you naw see them in them field, naw mean to say them naw work.” Nanny’s voice rose in pitch.

“Trust a woman to say like that. Listen . . .”

But before he could continue Nanny was on him like a fly on dung.

“Wha you say? You think me favour the women? We are done here. Me show you how weak we women are. Let me show you. Before the morrow is through, you will know the weakness of women.”

Stepping lightly from foot to foot, she skipped several times, switching the edge of her skirts at him, before speaking in a voice so low, neither Tuffy nor her attendants could hear or understand her words. Tuffy stood there, a look on his face as if to say, the woman mad, snorted at the craziness he was seeing, and left.


Deep into the night, the first pain began. A dull ache in his back, then a cramping in his abdomen. Waking, he lay for a while, tense, thinking about the food he had eaten, whether it had been cooked through. All had tasted fine. Besides, the other two men who shared the hut with him ate from the same pot and they were sleeping like babes. The pain became more intense, and he writhed about on his mat. The night air was cool and blew pleasantly through the glassless windows, but he felt damp beneath him. Slipping his stubby fingers behind him, they touched upon a wet patch in the seat of his trousers. Strange. He dug his hand down into the insides and felt below his tailbone. There was a wet, sticky substance there. He withdrew his hand and held it up to the light of the moon that filtered through the window. It was hard to see, but the liquid was dark. Concerned and uncomfortable from the pains in his lower back and abdomen, he slipped carefully from the room and walked out to the wash hut. He rinsed his hand and saw in the clearer light, the blood encased on his fingers. Panicking, he reached down into the back of his trousers once more and withdrew another blood smeared hand.

“Wha!” he cried, scared now. Unbuttoning, he let his trousers drop to the ground while he craned his neck round, wiping the tips of his fingers across his backside. The more he wiped the more bloodied his fingers became.

“Me bleed. Me batty bleed. What thing this be?” he whispered, throwing glances out along the dirt track that ran past the wash hut, expecting an answer to come forth from the shadows.

Now he felt it. A gentle trickling of blood dripping out of his backside and the cramping in his abdomen became stronger. He reached out, gripping the bamboo wall before him. Scared, he flashed his eyes about him once more. He needed a healer, but who could he tell this thing to? Perhaps he was dying, he thought. The pain came again in a swathe like a wave rippling through from front to back. He gripped the cane tighter, and slowly bending, drew his trousers back up, buttoned them slowly and hobbled back to his hut. Miserably he lay curled in foetal position till the early morning threw its rays into the dusky room.

“You coming?” called one of the other men.

It was unlike Tuffy to sleep late. The other men were up and washed. Dressed, and already eaten, and still Tuffy was curled up in a ball, letting out the occasional moan.

“Naw. Me naw feel so good. Sleep a while.”

“If that wha you want.”

The door of the hut swung closed behind them and he was left alone. For most of the morning, he lay curled on his mat nursing the pains in his stomach, his trousers sodden with blood that hardened and blackened in the heat. By midday he slept fitfully, while flies as fat as blackberries congregated around the sticky mass on the seat of his trousers. Finally, he awoke and hearing little noise about, ventured slowly to the wash hut, stripped off his clothes and washed his soiled body, replacing them with clean ones. The gripping pains lessened, and he felt well enough to return to work. Once he ate he made his way out to the fields. Tutting and sighing over the idleness he saw, he shook his head, muttering to himself.

His machete swung and hit the stalks, splintering them at their base. He lifted the blade again and as he did his belly stuck out big. Crashing through the vegetation, the blade sliced easily through its target. Bending low to retrieve the fallen maize, his stomach protruded so far that he could only bend as far as his knees. Straightening quickly, he looked down at the largeness of it.

“What a thing is this?” he muttered.

Slinging his hands on his hips he leaned back and swung his belly round from side to side. Confused he walked up and down a few steps marvelling at the bump that stood out like an overripe watermelon, and then shaking his head, he reached his thick hands down and ran them across the protrusion.

“Me belly blow out!” he said to himself. Calling the man nearby to come see, he bade him look.

“Silas. Look at this. Wha you think?”

The man looked at Tuffy, his short stocky frame and his huge extended belly and scratched his head.

“You eat something bad?”

“Me naw think so.”

“Look like a woman bout to drop a pickney.”

Tuffy scowled. “Me naw woman. Come now. Me have some sickness the night past, but now me feel good. Then me see me belly done got big and blow out. Wha you think it is?”

“Me naw know. You drink too much rum, eh?”

Tuffy screwed up his face at the ignorance of this man. “You ever see rum blow up a belly like this? It foolishness you talking. Me naw know why me even ask you. Go back to work.”

Silas tutted and returned to his labour, glancing every so often at the strangeness of the newcomer’s belly.

Straightening his aching back, Tuffy placed one hand on the small of it and arched forward. His belly had swelled so big he could no longer see his feet. Just then, a huge wave of pain radiated through the base of it. Doubling up, he dropped to his knees, and gripping the swollen mass in both hands he breathed deeply until the wave of pain passed. Snatching a glance towards Silas, he saw the man watching him, and then catching his eye, flick his gaze away. Embarrassed for showing weakness, Tuffy rose to his feet, lifted his machete, and began to cut once more. One, two, three thwacks from the machete and then once more, a huge gripping pain as though some invisible monster were clawing the skin of his belly from his insides and drawing them up to his chin. He stood still, clutching his abdomen as the pain rocked through his body. He clenched his teeth and let out a deep guttural scream. Silas came running.

“Wha up man? Wha tis?”

Panting for air. Focusing all his strength on the pain, Tuffy held one hand up for silence, while the other continued to clasp his belly. Finally, the pain subsided, and he breathed out.

“Me naw know. Me feel some almighty pain is all. Got me so me want to fall on me knees and lay down and die.”

“Where the pain? Where you feel it?”

“Here. It right here.” He said as he pointed to the base of his enormous stomach. “All across here,” he groaned, rubbing his hands back and forth across his abdomen and then round to his back.

Silas flicked his eyes up and down the man. Throwing his head back he let out a loud guffaw. “You got labour pain! Why you tell us you a man. You not a he, you a she!”

Tuffy threw one hateful glance at the stupid man, then threw out an arm to cuff him but missed. Just as he was opening his mouth to cuss him down, another huge wave of pain stopped him.

Silas, who had already fathered five healthy children, took one strong hand, and began to rub the base of Tuffy’s back. Large strong strokes with the flat of his hand and as he did, he instinctively shushed the sufferer. As soon as the pain subsided and Tuffy was able to move again, he turned and slapped Silas’ hand away.

“Keep you dirty hand from me, you hear. Me naw you woman to caress and feel up.”

Silas took one step back, sensing the affront. “Me naw feel you up! Me try and help ease you pain. But if you gwan be touchy with me, then me rather leave you be.”

Silas returned to thrashing, muttering under his breath.

In no time at all the pains were coming so often, and so violently, that Tuffy found himself on the floor, moaning, panting, screaming, and writhing in pain.


It was about this time that the women, lunch over and done with, went back to dig and hoe the fields. It was the old woman Phoebe that heard it first. The low, painful moaning, the panting and gentle cursing. She stopped on the dirt path that led up to the fields and held onto her young friend Lucy’s arm. “Lucy, you hear that?”

Lucy stopped, listened, and then nodded. “Wha you think it be?”

“Sound like labour pain.”

“Me fun fetch Reah. Me see her down by the mill. You go tend the woman. Keep her company till me come.”

Lucy stepped her way through the rows of crops towards the noise. Glancing back, she saw Phoebe disappear out of sight. Hurry, she thought. Reah was a midwife, a baby catcher, she would know what to do. Lucy had heard the low deep moaning of women in labour, but there was something not quite right about this. No woman had a voice that deep. She heard another low, long grunt of pain and then a heavy thrashing. She stepped timidly around the thicket of corn and spied a short, thick set man, his face dark and contorted. Bathed in sweat, his eyes bulged, gripping at the thick green stalks before him, bent low, almost to the floor.

“Hello?” she called.

The man spun his face toward her, his eyes wild like a bull about to charge.

“Nnngggrr!” he screamed, focusing his eyes so intently on her during his outburst that she thought they would burn holes through her soul.

Afraid to move any closer, she stood still, a good few feet away.

“Me can help. Wha you need?” she stammered.

The wave of pain passing, Tuffy relaxed upright, and breathing heavily he panted.

“Need medicine. Need a healer. You know one?”

“Me friend. She run to the mill to fetch Reah. She a baby catcher.”

“Me not a woman!” he screamed.

Lucy stepped back from the ferocity of the man’s response. Glancing behind her, hoping for help to come, she nervously wrung her hands together.

“Me know you naw woman. But, we heard you scream and pant. We thought . . .”

“Wha you think? That a man give birth? Arrgghh!” he cried as another wave of pain hit.

Lucy instinctively moved forward, dropping to her knees beside the man and put her arm about him.

“It all right,” she whispered. “Reah know strong medicine. She find something to heal you.” Then glancing around, she willed Phoebe to return soon.

Tuffy reached up, grabbing Lucy’s headscarf. It slipped easily from her head and before she could move away, he deftly caught hold of her long hair that fell free of its wrap and pulled her head down to rest against his large belly.

“You think this some baby belly. You think me some woman ready to drop me pickney?”


Scared, she writhed to free herself, her arms floundering wildly about her, but he held her fast, pushing her face down into his lap and as the swathe of pain subsided he growled.

“Me show you how much of a man me be.”

One hand held her fast to his protruding belly, the other began to unbutton his trousers. Lucy saw red. In a shot of panic and fury, she grabbed at the man’s crotch, taking his manliness in her strong hands, strengthened from the duty of washing the daily linen and crushed and pulled as if crushing sour sop. Tuffy screamed in fresh agony, releasing her hair as both hands tended his wounded area. He bent low over his big belly but Lucy was already on her feet, no longer caring for his pain, running back through the crops, her hair flying behind her, fleeing her tormentor.


It was not until the following morning, when the cock crowed early, that Tuffy, exhausted and spent, crawled his way back to the village. His labour had lasted for over fifteen hours, pain racking his body, the sweat drenching through his clothes. Such torment had he endured that he ripped the shirt from his back, stuffed it into his mouth, and bit upon the cloth like a dog gnawing at a bone. The earth beneath him became furrowed as he clawed and dug his nails into its richness, wishing for all the world that he could crawl inside a shallow grave and die. But he remained alive, delirious, but conscious. Feeling every wave and stab of pain till finally, in the early hours of the morning, he felt one monstrous gush of blood emit from his backside and the pain subside. So too did his belly. The bloated, heavy mass deflated to a flabby ring of skin, and eventually he found the strength to return to his hut.

Awaking sometime in the late afternoon, his eyes fluttered open to see the shapely legs of a woman. Leaning upon his elbow, he sat upright, remembering the handsome woman he had caught hold of the day before. Was it real, or was it a dream? He recalled pushing her face down into his manliness. A furor of excitement flooded through him, and then fresh pain. It all seemed like a blur. He found it hard to distinguish between reality and desire. He flicked his eyes upwards to the woman’s face, and dropped his gaze quickly, feeling chastened.

“How it feel to be a woman?”

“Me . . .” he faltered. What could he say? As dawn drew close and the pains subsided, he lay as if dead. It was then that his weary mind recalled Nanny’s words.

Before the morrow is through you will know the weakness of women.

Exhausted, he felt overcome with defeat. He remembered the switching of her skirt, the words that he did not recognize, uttered in that low threatening voice. She placed a curse on him. And he, fool that he was had thought her the fool. One time fool no fool, but two time fool a damn fool.

Maxcia Selway has written two unpublished novels as well as poetry and prose.