Sorcery, challenging for all
WHETHER you call it sorcery, magic, poison, sanguma or . . . it is a subject guaranteed to make all Papua New Guineans take a deep breath.
Indeed, matching the words like sorcery and sanguma can get arguments going on just the definition of what they represent.
A book published by the Melanesian Institute in Goroka, called Sanguma in Paradise: Sorcery, Witchcraft and Christianity in Papua New Guinea, is on sale and will add to the debate in villages and towns around the nation.
Some societies in PNG have been caught up with Western, introduced ways for more than a hundred years, others are in the first generation of such exposure. This writer believes that the period of exposure to alien ways, so-called sophisticated Western ways, has not wiped out the inherent beliefs in sorcery or witchcraft.
When somebody dies, many immediately cast around to isolate the person who they believe has caused that death. It doesn’t matter if a doctor performs a post-mortem examination and determines the death was caused by a form of cancer or heart attack or a stroke . . . many of the loved ones and friends of the dead person believe the death was caused by somebody performing age-old rituals to bring on the death.
The institute’s book is the second volume of a two-part “dissemination’’ from a five-year research project carried out by the institute from 2003 to 2007.
It represents studies in the following areas Mekeo and Roro in Central Province, Kuanua speakers in East New Britain, The Arapesh plains and other people of East Sepik, Induna and Bwaidoga on Goodenough, Milne Bay, the Kate speakers of Finschhafen in Morobe Province, and the Kuman-Golin-Siane groups of Chimbu Province. Italian Franco Zocca, a Divined Word missionary, edited the book and was helped by groups of Papua New Guineans who went on patrol to villages, settlements and towns in the studied provinces to try to unearth beliefs about the nature of sorcery, how it is perpetrated and how it can be dealt with. Sanguma in Paradise was edited by Maurice McCallum, Priscilla Winfrey and Clive Hawigen, with Clive doing the cover design and maps. While the study was done to cover widely different areas and cultures, it was a challenge for the Catholic Church. A recurring debate occurs in the book as to whether the church is succeeding in helping to deal with sanguma or sorcery.
Church identities do not show a unified way of tackling the subject.
In many areas, education has brought a disdain for traditional forms of authority. Young men in particular have little respect for the older, often illiterate leaders in village society.
Without the fear of village sorcery to keep them under control, the young men do what they want, often in the grip of home brewed alcohol and marijuana.
At least if the sorcerers were still feared and visible, those disrespectful youngsters would be less keen to behave badly. However in most of the surveyed areas, it was obvious that even the better educated villagers were still in awe of the legendary powers of the sorcerer to strike.
In the old days, villagers were frightened to move around at night because of beliefs that sorcerers were on the prowl in the form of snakes, crocodiles, sharks and the like.
Even in places relatively close to the big cities and with century-long exposure to missionaries and Western ways, belief in sorcery or magic is often still strong. In the Mekeo area of Central Province, a senior magistrate said magistrates considered their job was dangerous and some were thinking of resigning soon “while we are still strong’’. The impression from several areas surveyed is that the stricter, more traditional forms of magic are falling out of favour and other varieties, not requiring severe fasting or retreat into lonely seclusion, are practised more often.
In Kote speaking areas of Morobe Province, the Lutheran Church prevailed in most areas. In a rare sample, traditional culture became caught up in the modern political scene of the imminently independent nation of Papua New Guinea when Michael Somare was just the Chief Minister.
To the Kote, Pangu Rangba was a high god of the coastal tribes, the book avers. When missionary Flierl arrived, chief Zake introduced him to the people as their Pangu Rangba from the coast. Editor Zocca says the Kote people associated the name of their god with the Pangu Pati. Some who talked to the survey staff said that when Michael Somare was a student at DregerhafenHigh School in Finschhafen, he had picked up the name Pangu on Tami island. When Somare later fell out with Pangu, some Kote people felt he had abandoned the deity Pangu and blamed this for what they saw as a lack of development.
Surveying in the Sepik brought out the strong hold that traditional beliefs in “poison’’/sanguma/sorcery still have on the people. Even priests had mixed feelings. They felt the Christian faith was more powerful but agreed that sorcery was a threat, even to Christians. Many had personal experience of sorcery and some knew people who had been killed by sanguma.
In many cases, people were scared to talk much about the practice of sorcery, but in several Sepik interviews, individuals talked vividly about their experiences.
Another area noted for its practice of sorcery is the Chimbu Province. Zocca discusses ways to deal with it and ends up saying: “If the history of Europe can teach anything, its peoples only managed to put an end to witch-hunting when they accepted scientific and verifiable explanations for sickness, death and misfortunes.
“Why cannot Europe’s experience be repeated in Papua New Guinea?’’
It’s the thinking man’s approach, but can it have real effect in current-day PNG?
Even in our cities and towns where young people have mastered university studies and are designing computer software programs and advertising campaigns, doing complicated surgery and teaching science and maths at high levels, many of those same people find it hard to shake beliefs in the potency of sorcery.
When somebody dies, people point at rivals and enemies in the belief that the death was malicious and designed, no matter what a post-mortem examination in a morgue shows. Traditional ceremonies to “divine’’ or pick out the one responsible for the death are still resorted to. Sorcery will take a long time to fade away.