SANGUMA IS a Tok Pisin word meaning magic, or more properly traditional psychic power, often exercised through plants, herbs and incantations.
The source language is unclear, maybe from Tolai (
I do not wish to demean traditional beliefs – we all have them, some disguised in modern traditions such as Christmas and Easter or superstitions like Friday the 13th, or not saying the word ‘Macbeth’.
But I had an experience with a sanguma man (magic man) which is worthy of Fortean consideration. (I will not use the term ‘witch doctor’, which is derogatory).
I lived and worked in PNG for five years. I made many friends from all provinces and greatly enjoyed the rich local traditions and marvellous cultures of this truly great country. Go there and you will be amazed.
I found the love of my life and we became engaged. Some acquaintances became jealous of my partner – unfortunately common in PNG – and sought to do us harm.
One man in particular (a former boyfriend) did his best to take her away from me. He found out my phone number and sent increasingly threatening messages.
I was determined not to give in to this intimidation, and employed
some friendly raskols to be my
protectors and warn me of any approaches. (
Well, things came to a head when this man sent me death threats - via SMS, a novel use of new technology.
I asked my partner's relatives for advice. They suggested employing the service of a sangumaman they knew. He was well-respected and regarded as effective, so my partner and I agreed.
The sangumaman came to our house and explained it would take some time, but he could place a curse on this man so he would forget about my partner.
He asked if I wanted any harm to come to him –offering a menu of options. I said no, just make him leave us alone. I paid him 100 kina, and the proceedings were underway.
First he needed special leaves from a powerful sanguma plant, available in one market in Moresby (they come from Morobe province). When he had these leaves and some buai (betel nut), lime and mustard (kumbung and daka) and some cigarettes, we were ready to proceed with Stage 1.
He started by praying, then crumbling the sanguma leaves, mixing them into a paste with his spit and rubbing this on our foreheads. He then chanted in his language, chewed some buai with kumbung and daka as is customary, then sprinkled our heads with water while praying.
He placed his hands on our heads and offered more prayers and incantations. After this he smoked a cigarette while blowing the smoke out the windows, again chanting ritualistic words. This, he explained, would rid our minds of the influence of the offending man. He then prayed over us and that was the end of Stage 1.
Stage 2 involved getting a photo of the offending man. This took some doing, but we eventually conned him into to meeting one of our friends – an attractive young woman – who convinced him that my partner wanted a photo of him to remember him by, so he gave her one.
The sangumaman took the photo and again made a paste of the special leaves, rubbed this on the photo, tore it into pieces and buried it in the ground. He said that now the curse was complete and the target would no longer be able to remember my partner.
We left PNG three weeks later, but during that time there was no contact at all from the offending man, and my raskols (who had been tracking his movements) reported he made no attempt to come near our house.
The reason I did this was not so much because I thought it might work, but because I knew that the others truly believed it would, and this would make it effective. Maybe word of our ceremony got out to the target and he was scared off?
Maybe it worked. What do you think?
* ‘Peter’ is the nom de plume of a contributor known to PNG Attitude