Seeking the Spirited, Mystical Jamaica Tourists Don't See – The New York Times

The Voyages Issue
Naila Ruechel and
Photographs by Naila Ruechel
Text By Nicole Dennis-Benn

When the photographer Naila Ruechel proposed a trip documenting religious practices in Jamaica — the country where we were both born — she set out to “offer a broader understanding of the spiritual lives of Jamaican people; a Jamaica unseen by the average visitor.” Starting from Kingston, Ruechel charted a course through the rich mix of Christian and Afro-centric traditions, from Obeah to the Revival church to Rastafarianism. These images document that voyage.
It’s often claimed that Jamaica has the most churches per square mile of any country in the world. On any given Sunday, you can expect to see people going to church dressed in their best clothes: women in bright print dresses, men in somber dark suits that seem hot amid the tropical sun, children’s shoes polished to a shine. Mothers warn: “Mek sure nuh mess up oonuh self, yuh hear?” I grew up Christian. Everyone I knew was Christian. In school, we bowed our heads and prayed to the Virgin Mary. Some of my most vivid memories of childhood involve me stuffing my belly with HTB Easter bun and cheese, grateful that Jesus Christ died not for my sins but for the ability to eat the spicy-sweet bun all day without getting in trouble.
Tourists seldom realize how powerful and persistent Christianity is on our island. Centuries ago, when the British colonized the island, Christianity became the dominant religion. Believers consider it to be more respectable than the “backward beliefs” brought centuries ago by African slaves. For this reason, people discussed traditions like Obeah — a hard-to-define faith that, in its essence, can be considered “the black magic of the Caribbean” — in secrecy. But those so-called backward traditions are central to the country’s identity. Nanny, Jamaica’s national hero and the great leader of the self-emancipating Maroons, was also a known practitioner of Obeah. As legend has it, the Maroons used Obeah to defeat British soldiers. Because of this illustrious heritage, mysticism undergirds the island’s sacred life.
My great-grandmother was a healer who knew every bush and their properties. She was a country woman, the only one in our family with knowledge of our ancestral worship practices. By the time I was born, she, like many Jamaicans getting up in age, had given her life to Jesus. She moved in with us in Kingston, forgoing the familiar rural landscape for city living. But she still boiled her bush teas and grew her herbs and plants in our backyard and soaked leaves in white rum that she used to anoint our heads and bellies whenever we were sick.
Rastafarianism, which outsiders assume is Jamaica’s main religion, is largely shunned by mainstream culture. (My sightings of Rastas were mostly on the street, and the only Rasta I knew personally was my estranged cousin, Kerry, who began quoting Marcus Garvey when he became, as my mother put it, “a madman.”) At the time I did not yet know my history; my teachers were trained by the British. They were all Black like me but taught to see anything other than fair and Christian-like as deviant.
Ruechel’s arresting photographs made me think about my great-grandmother again, about all the things in my culture that I rejected because I did not understand them. Because I was taught to fear them. These photographs took me back home. They gave me the ability to rediscover my island through the rituals and beliefs bequeathed from my ancestors.

Naila Ruechel is a photographer originally from Jamaica known for her lush, elegant imagery with a heightened sense of intimacy. Nicole Dennis-Benn is the author of the novels “Here Comes the Sun” and “Patsy.” She was born and raised in Jamaica and lives in Brooklyn.
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