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Trinidad’s Mother Cornhusk Feared

October 12, 1999

MORUGA, Trinidad (AP) _ Lethargic from the heat, a monkey clings to a cage that shelters an unconcerned parrot, swaying in the torpid shade of the house at the end of the trail, enveloped by the dense Moruga Forest.

Even for rural Trinidad, the home of the ``obeah woman″ is far from anywhere.

Mother Cornhusk’s house has no electricity. Not since St. Anthony _ patron saint of lost articles, barren women and gravediggers _ appeared in a dream and told her she must work by lantern light. Lighted candles float in water in the small upstairs room where she has been bedridden for 11 years, legs useless, fingers gnarled with arthritis.

Once she was the most feared woman in all of Trinidad because she wielded obeah _ black magic _ like none before. Only the legendary Papa Neiza came close, people say, and he’s been dead at least 10 years.

Some believe Mother Cornhusk has died, too. When she was alive, they whisper, she was mighty with obeah (oh-BEE-ah), powerful and feared.

When this is mentioned, her sprightly, surpassingly smooth 83-year-old face loses its softness. Her lips barely move as she speaks: ``I am still feared.″

Moruga is in southern Trinidad, a fishing village where boats ride at anchor in the light swells and, on clear days, Venezuela is visible across the Columbus Channel. An aging, ornate Roman Catholic church is just steps from the beach, which is littered with the detritus of lives laboriously pulled from the sea.

The shadow of Mother Cornhusk falls over the little village.

``Very evil,″ says Feddie Suryanh, who’s lived in Moruga all her 78 years. ``Very evil,″ she repeats.

``She do more harm than good,″ says another woman, very quietly. ``She help a lot of people. But just don’t make her vexed.″

Like the others, she will not discuss the exact consequences of Mother Cornhusk’s vexations.

Many people refuse to have their names associated publicly with obeah _ the dark side of the Orisha religion that slaves brought from the Yoruba tribe of Nigeria. It has evolved in the Caribbean and Latin America to encompass elements of Catholicism, Hinduism, Protestantism and the ancient Jewish mysticism of Kabbalah.

People fear being ridiculed about a practice that some might consider primitive. But there are at least 150 Orisha shrines in Trinidad and Tobago and ceremonies _ including animal blood sacrifices, spirit possessions, spells and incantations to a plethora of saints _ are held on a regular basis.

Mother Cornhusk says she moved to Trinidad from Grenada at age 7 and has been practicing obeah since St. Anthony came to her when she was a teen-ager. She has no more visions, but occasionally hears St. Benedict praying for her, she says.

She still receives visitors asking for help with finances, love affairs, revenge against enemies. They help her out by whatever means they can afford.

``When you come here on Sundays, it’s packed with people,″ she boasts.

She mixes various potions from herbs she used to collect from the forest, a task that now falls to her granddaughter. Mother Cornhusk can’t weigh more than 60 pounds _ the shape under the thin bedspread could be that of a child.

Finishing up with one visitor, she instructs the man to gather several exotic ingredients: kananga water, red and white lavender, and ``chiney wash.″ With them, she’ll prepare a concoction for him to bathe in that will wash away his problem _ a woman who doesn’t return his affection.

This is the sort of work she prefers now: helping people.

The darker side, she doesn’t like discussing.

``They call it obeah,″ Mother Cornhusk says. ``I call it healing.″

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