Religion and sorcery are happy bedfellows
Holmes in NG: The adventure of the black pearl 5

Searching for a strategy to temper superstition


I SAID MASS at St Paul's church in Mt Hagen on Sunday realising that a number in the congregation would have been witnesses to when Kepari Leniata was burned to death last week.

I spoke with some people who said they actually tried to stop it but were unable. If, as an expat, you tell people they are longlong to believe such superstition, many will just close down.

I found it quite difficult to discern just what to say to the congregation. I spoke in my sermon about how many people have a sense of confusion with one leg in the Christian faith camp and the other in the tumbuna one, and many nodded in recognition. 

I spoke too about how just one person is powerless in such situations and how we need to support one another to counter this sort of thinking and inhuman behaviour as a group, and many, particularly the women showed signs that they agreed.

At a forthcoming conference on sorcery in Canberra, I hope to take a constructive approach developing what Bishop Anton Bal has been doing in Simbu.

Basically there are 5 points to it:

(1) Helping people broaden their understanding of the causes of illness and death

(2) Early intervention before or during a funeral,

(3) Promoting law and order in communities,

(4) Fostering faith to influence attitudes and emotions

(5) Immediate family members taking ownership of the death of a family member

I want to look at the effectiveness of this as a strategy and examine how it might be revised and promoted elsewhere.

It is good that we change or develop laws but that is not enough. We need an approach that will affect peoples attitudes and feelings and in fact their worldview - and this is not easy.

One thing that concerns me is that the Simbu form of witchcraft and sorcery seems to be spreading to other places like Enga and the Southern Highlands.

People used to look at it differently there - and would kill pigs not people, since the cause of death and misfortune was attributed to spirits of the dead. 

The change and spread of a more violent form is a great concern for me. It worries me also that some of the more fundamental, evangelical churches seem to reinforce traditional demonic beliefs. 

I would not argue for total secularism, but we need to promote more of a scientific viewpoint especially when it comes to misfortune and death.

Responses from Papua New Guineans will be much more convincing to the broader populace than that coming from outsiders.

It was good that Bishop Douglas Young along with the two national bishops, Arnold Orowae and Anton Bal from Enga and Simbu respectively, spoke on EMTV last week. Many people saw that. 

Maybe we need more forums on national TV with prominent and thoughtful Papua New Guineans.

Fr Gibbs was born in Lower Hutt, New Zealand in 1947. In 1966 hewent to Holy Name Seminary, Christchurch, and studied for a BA in Sociology at Canterbury University. In 1971 he went to Australia to join the Divine Word Missionaries and, after the novitiate year, studied post-graduate Anthropology at Sydney University. After a year and a half in Papua New Guinea he spent four years studying Theology at Catholic Theological Union, Chicago returning to New Zealand for ordination as a priest in 1978. Since then he has served in various capacities in PNG (parish priest, directing a pastoral centre, seminary lecturer, researcher) with time away to study for a Licentiate and then a Doctorate in Theology at the Gregorian University, Rome


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Ross Wilkinson

In the late 70’s I was ADC Saidor, or more correctly, District Officer in Charge. When conducting the annual census patrols and questioning villagers on their forebears, very few could go back more than three generations by names. After that, they would became some animal, bird or marine creature depending on each area’s location and magico-religious beliefs. No doubt Phil will have more information on this.

There were two principle sects at Saidor in those days – the Roman Catholics and the Seventh Day Adventists. On the Friday evening all the Seven Days would come in from the surrounding villages for Saturday religious observances (and free feeds) and then go home that night. Similarly, on the Saturday evening all the Catholics would gather at the Catholic Church ready for Sunday worship (and free feeds) and go home on the Sunday night.

It was obvious that many of them were the same people who had learnt to adapt their religious beliefs in order to supplement their subsistence existence with a weekend of food at both churches expense. I am sure that both churches knew this but didn’t let it affect monthly reporting on numbers to their respective superiors.

It was in this environment that the local member of parliament’s brother died in Madang Hospital from a brain aneurysm, a fact that was reported to me in order to prevent any trouble when the news was conveyed back to the village. Unfortunately, this report didn’t stop the dead man’s clan from immediately accusing an opposing faction from practicing sorcery on him and a riot broke out.

The station police detachment was able to quell the trouble and I brought the various leaders to my office to make peace and show them the medical report. This entailed a lesson on the circulatory system by way of a blackboard and my basic knowledge of the body. An uneasy truce remained for the rest of my time at Saidor but it showed how easy it was for relatively educated Christian people to revert to their former beliefs to explain apparently unexplainable events.

Wherever I went in rural PNG, village gardens somewhere had a phallic totem installed to ensure fertility for that plot. This again showed that the magico-religious beliefs were never far below the surface of their otherwise-christian lives and I imagine, from the reports on this site, that this remains to this day.

Ioni Poka

KJ - re kontribusens bai kam lon Lapun Masta Col Huff - laik blo yu, bara. Nidim some smol kontroversi pastem na lapun man ya em bai kirap gen lon toromei wisdam blo em. But mas em pani kontroves -inoken sirias wan.

Tenkiyu bada herea, emu intinet revareva be aonega bona manada henia loaloa hanaihanai,

Bamauri, banamo, turagu.

Ating yu sav pinis lon ol kontrovisi. Olsem husat pulim misis blon kiap taim ispak long Pindiu Tins Klab. Na wonem didman bagarapim ka blon tisa taim ispak na go lon tredstoa. Col Huff sav pinis planti bigpela sirias sitori olsem displa - KJ

Mrs Barbara Short

It was good to read what Father Gibbs wrote about the efforts of the Catholic priests to work out the best strategy to combat the present problems with witchcraft in parts of PNG.

I have been reading the book, "Gods, Ghosts and Men in Melanesia" (edited by P Lawrence and M J Meggitt, Oxford University Press - 1965), in which Dr R M Glasse records witchcraft amongst the Huli of the Southern Highlands, R F Salisbury records witchcraft amongst the Siane of the Eastern Highlands, R N H Bulmer records witchcraft amongst the Kyaka of the Western Highlands, and K O L Burridge records witchcraft amongst the Tangu of the Northern Madang District.

It was interesting to read about what they had learned. "Witches" may be men.

I hope that the forthcoming conference on sorcery will lead to the development of good constructive ways for the church members to help in bringing about an end to the babaric burning of women as "witches" in parts of PNG.

Maybe the men who are causing the problems are the "witches" and not these poor women!

John Fowke

HEEEYYY!!! Lay off mai smolbrada Colin, Ed.. He's provided much gold over the years....and after being away from PNG for several decades after seven years residence, I think he's focussing remarkably well. Remember the Pindiu Tennis Court Affair?? and the rejoinders from Col Huff?? Those were the glory-days. Now all the fiction we get is Peter torturing poor old Conan Doyle,. Even upper-class Pom writers should be allowed to RIP.

When all the rains r over Im going to go up to Bundy and seek out old Col, who I hear is till plugging along even tho Bundy Rum is now owned by the bloody colonial-for-ever Poms- they're not short of a quid after all....and if you can get yr hands on a bottle, even the hard-to-find Beenleigh product is owned by th' flamin' Dutch!! Hoc verdomme, as old Col would say harking back to his days when he had a liklik masta kopra named Kees van Kokke....imagine the troops great delight......they already called poor old Col "Masta K....." because he was fond of a certain rude expletive; and took such delight in telling each other that " Kokke em go lon haus blon K...." - innocent fun-loving young fellows they were in those days.

Eniwei, let it rip Colin the Pride of the Chalkies and I'll match yr. best yarn of the old days with one from Col when I get back from his remote, bush retreat.

Attitude's bin getting a bit boring lately.All metafisiks 'n konsevesin. Pointy-head stuff , ay??

Aah, I yearn with a wistful nostalgia (like neuralgia but the pain is all psychic) for those glory days when Colonel Huff reigned supreme and could put everything to rights with a single well-turned phrase. Shall we see his like again? - KJ

Colin Huggins

Thanks for the input, Father Gibbs, at least you have a down to earth and on the ground view of the situation.

It is a problem, this sorcery business, but I don't think there is any quick fix, now or ever
The so-called critics and know-alls from the safety of "hallowed" Australia would be better advised to go up to PNG and use their "undoubted" intelligence to some use. However, I think hell will freeze over before any of us see this happen.

Seems to me, that all PNG, so called advancement laws, are made in the bars of the Crowne Plaza, Port Moresby or either real estate properties owned by the ruling clique in Shanghai, Singapore or Cairns. Bertha Somare, where are you?

Maybe the comic strip that we now see, Holmes and Watson, can sort all this out? Time will tell.

Cheers and good luck, we can but hope that PNG will one day prosper.

Colin, my old friend, it would please me greatly if you could drop the habit in almost every comment you make of slagging off at fellow readers (as in "so-called critics and know-alls from the safety of 'hallowed' Australia"). Most of the people you refer to continue to have a lot to do with PNG, and of course many are PNGns themselves - KJ

Michael Dom

Thank you Fr Gibbs. I agree very much with your statement, "It is good that we change or develop laws but that is not enough. We need an approach that will affect peoples attitudes and feelings and in fact their worldview - and this is not easy."

It is at the community level that we must act - together.

Changing laws does not change mindsets.

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