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When Keely left her Bahamian home, with its pink sand beaches and silk cotton trees billowing clouds of white blossoms, to attend college in Miami, her father agonized. His modest fishing business provided no excess income to send her. How would she survive all alone in a big city full of criminals and ruthless social climbers? "He didn't know that Grandma taught me how to get help from beyond," smiles Keely, a 25-year-old who works as a flight attendant to pay for her FIU courses in Spanish, French, and international trade.
She saved the empty miniatures from airline liquor carts and hung them with colored string from a tree outside her Miami Beach apartment. In Bahamian magic, known as obeah, spirits travel in the form of smoke and love to rest inside clear glass bottles. Keely wanted to attract a specific spirit to help her with her future. After consulting a slew of obituaries, she attended the funeral of a wealthy stranger to, as she phrases it, "steal power from the dead."
Keely was interviewing for a job that week with a company headquartered in Paris. "The dead man was a CEO who lived a long, exciting life," she says. "Getting me work in my dream city would be an easy task for his spirit. And the bottle tree was ready for him to bring my luck to me." Dressed in her best Donna Karan, she looked like the sort of bright student the deceased might have mentored. She briefly reached into the casket lined with white satin to touch the dead man's hand. No one noticed when she hid a French postage stamp stuck to a tiny scrap of the Wall Street Journal under his fingers. "To get a spirit to do your favor," Keely explains, "you have to give its corpse a token symbolizing what you want."
Next month she jets off to Paris for her final round of interviews.
"Maybe it proves that the dead are more trustworthy than most of the living in Miami," laughs Keely, who, like other young Bahamians interviewed for this article, wants only her childhood nickname used. "America is about giving everyone an equal chance. This is a way to make the next world give the people struggling in this one a fairer shot. But I know it sounds so strange. If my co-workers knew, no one would sit near me in the cafeteria!"
It's not likely, however, that her colleagues would ever guess her secret -- unless they grew up among the islands scattered between Miami and Hispaniola. Unlike in Santeria and Haitian Vodou, there are no saints, priests, or priestesses in obeah (pronounced o-bay-uh). "Anyone can try their hand with the spirits if they have obeah's magical way of looking at life," says Timothy McCartney, a clinical psychologist who worked for the Bahamian Ministry of Health until he retired to Fort Lauderdale. For his book Ten, Ten, the Bible Ten: Obeah in the Bahamas, McCartney researched the rite of stealing power from the dead.
Some cultures believe that spirits of the dead hover about loved ones indefinitely, constantly ready to dispense affection and guidance, McCartney notes, but not in obeah. Spirits have just twelve months after their funeral -- the traditional Bahamian period of mourning -- in which to aid the living, unless they're invoked later through complex rituals. And because the spirits have only a limited amount of power to bestow, a blood relative who feels he should be first in line might be annoyed if a stranger cuts in.
"It's something we're aware of and keep an eye out for so that it doesn't happen," chuckles Athalie Range, Miami's first black city commissioner and since 1962 director of the well-known funeral home bearing her name. "Some visitors ask to place a token or written request in the casket. We say no."
At its third-anniversary party three weeks ago, the Bahamian-American Culture Club spoofed the practice in a skit. Club president Elliott Scavella, a 60-year-old retired school principal, played a man who changes his luck when he slips a bag of losing lottery tickets into a gambler's coffin. Scavella comes from Cat Island, a locale renowned equally for its devout Anglican churchgoers and its colorful obeah legends. "There's no comprehensive written overview of Bahamian folklore, so the fact that young people practice the custom shows how strong word of mouth can be in keeping a tradition alive," Scavella says.
For Bahamians his age and older, Scavella observes, drawing power from the dead is a phenomenon restricted to black funerals. But the younger generation, especially those living in Miami, has expanded that to include funerals of all people of influence, regardless of their race. And in Miami that means Cubans. Attempting to capture power from the dead isn't a wicked act, according to young practitioners; it's a challenge and a lark. (They've also inherited a strict Bahamian moral code: Never infiltrate the funerals of those who died too soon or unhappily.) "If Cubans won't share power with us while they're alive, maybe we can steal a bit from their spirits," says Franky, a 30-year-old social worker who came to Miami two years ago.