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Raffique Shah


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Seers, shamans and shysters

By Raffique Shah
November 29, 2018

I suppose it was inevitable—the proliferation of self-proclaimed astrologers, mystic healers, seers, obeah-men, call them what you will, although the word "conmen" might best capture their lucrative "hustle". In harsh economic times and an unstable social environment, many people turn to quacks who claim to have supernatural powers for relief from their woes.

These crooks boldly advertise on prime-time television, which is expensive, as well as in other mainstream media. And, I imagine, they litter the so-called social media, the booming electronic platforms where there is minimal control of content.

What prodded me to write about their expanding reach is the "guarantee" by some of these shysters, always a Pundit-So-and-So, that they can solve any "court matter" one might have. That, and the Sunday Express lead story "Banking on God", which tells the seedy story of hundreds of churches that use the legal cover of non-profit organisations and the gullibility of large numbers among the populace to rake in huge sums of tax-free dollars, convinced me it was time to speak (or write) out.

The self-styled astrologers, who may know nothing about stars and planetary alignment, boldly proclaim their powers to "solve all your problems", from love tangles to financial woes, health issues and dealing with one’s enemies, and even court matters. Almost all of them offer three-day guarantees (not mere warranties), presumably after their clients will have paid up front for their services.

Surely, offering to influence the outcome of court matters must be tantamount to tampering with justice, which is a serious criminal offence. Not that I believe these shysters have any such powers, but they should be charged for pretending to have them, and for offering them for sale.

Older folks might argue that this scam is not new: from as far back as the era of Obeah-Grandmaster Papa Neezer, defendants or litigants paid to have witnesses silenced by having their names scribbled on pieces of paper stuffed into dead frogs’ mouths, which were wired-shut and deposited outside the courthouse, was not uncommon!

And the younger generations will wonder why all this rigmarole to silence witnesses: the fee for gunning them down is no more than $500-15 bullets assured, silence guaranteed. In fact, a few people-in-the-know told me that the Saudi royal family totally botched the elimination of that pesky journalist by flying teams of hit-men to Turkey, sourcing acid to dissolve the corpse, and still leaving large footprints on the crime scene.

A semi-professional from Sea Lots would have done a clean job for US $1,000, an economy-class airline ticket and one-star hotel accommodation in Istanbul.

But I digress. Look, we can’t tell people that obeah, clothed in whatever garb or packaged in modern technology, is wasting their money. From the beginning of time, conmen and women in many guises have exploited the gullible, people’s craving to seek out supernatural powers to satiate their subhuman desires—greed, vengeance, etc. What the authorities ought to do, at the very least, is to clamp down on the quacks for any breach of law, and ensure that they pay taxes on their ill-gotten gains.

Insofar as the super-profitable God-business goes, that too is not new. From as far back as Pagan times, and certainly since the formation of religion and churches of all faiths, wealth and God have been interconnected. The richest institutions in the world, certainly in relation to property holdings, precious metals and priceless works of art and artifacts, are the churches, temples, mosques and other such institutions.

The relatively recent emergence of new-age churches that thrive on the vulgar display of grandeur in their places of worship and opulence by millionaire pastors who worship wealth garnered from the gullible among their flocks, warrant a re-examination of the tax and other concessions that the State allows religious organisations.

People have the right to belong to any religion or church they wish to associate with, and to pray—and pay—as they see fit. But in a secular State such as ours, where there are, or ought to be, clear lines of demarcation between the State and religions, the latter must not enjoy unfair advantages, especially if these are to the disadvantage of the poorer people.

Mark you, the said disadvantaged poor might belong to churches that reek of opulence, and may in fact be contributors to the pastors’ lavish lifestyles, willingly parting with their pittances in favour of their church. And they will likely oppose any curtailment of benefits.

After all, religion is the opiate of the masses, and charismatic preachers who have the gift of the gab deliver the dope with panache. Hell, in Guyana in 1978, the flamboyant Reverend Jim Jones persuaded some 900 members of his church to drink cyanide-laced Kool-Aid in order to get express tickets to heaven...or wherever.

In this country, there are probably more places of worship, of varying faiths, per capita, than anywhere elsewhere in the world. In a radius of 500 metres from where I live (in Claxton Bay), there are two mosques, one mandir, one Baptist church, one Roman Catholic church and another Christian church.

They all serve the community well and interact with each other in a civil manner.

But I don’t know they have impacted crime proportionately, or, for that matter, mitigated poverty. And my community is a microcosm of wider Trinidad & Tobago, except we do not have one of the wealthy places of worship. I suppose it is not seen as having the potential to support a modern pastor’s lavish lifestyle.

Give praise for that, I say. And thanks, too, that we are not saddled with unscrupulous seers, shamans or shysters. Amen.

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