WHEN FRANCIS NII recently published an article in PNG Attitude querying whether the concept of sanguma (sorcery) might have some credence, our readers were quick to respond.
These people wrote from positions of considerable authority about a matter to which they had clearly given much thought, and had experience, over a number of years.
It's a dilemma: if something is real to an individual, that is, if it is believed or witnessed to the point where it exercises a profound effect, is it in fact real?
We’re pleased to offer this edited collection of the considerations of a group of expert readers prepared to wrestle with a thorny question….
What hangs in limbo is the question of whether sorcery is real or just a myth. If it is real, and the accused practitioner proven guilty by scientific means, for example DNA tests, can that person be held accountable?
Sorcery and sorcery killings are common throughout Papua New Guinea. People believe in sorcery. It has long been part of PNG’s culture and inheritance since prehistory. Sanguma (witchcraft) is the most predominant form of sorcery. It is believed to be responsible for most of the sorcery-related deaths that have been reported.
Sanguma is believed to operate through a person who presents in the form of an animal or insect of supernatural power. The spirit, through its supernatural power, enables the host to perform incredible acts mostly malevolent and harmful to humans.
The host, enabled by the supernatural power of the medium, can kill another human being by removing an organ or a vital body part. Alternatively, the sanguma can remotely control a person by causing fatal accidents and other acts.
The scientist: Dr Paulus Ripa (medical academic)
Sanguma does not exist except in the minds of people. As long as reasonable and educated people lend credence to the idea it will continue to be propagated. It seems an impossible task, but we need to make a stand.
The same ideas were present all over the world, including in the current western world where only a few hundred years ago witchcraft was rife with the burning of people at the stake.
At the medical school at UPNG we tell incoming medical students that if they believe in sanguma this is not the place for them. On the other hand, they must bear in mind that their patients will believe in sorcery and that, whilst we doctors must be empathetic, we must be careful not to lend legitimacy to sanguma.
Amidst a world of science and reason, sceptics abound. They assert that the realm of sorcery prospers amidst a clientele of superstitious and, perhaps, unsound mental processing. Yet, the outcomes are real enough: people die or are otherwise tormented by the sorcerer’s art.
One of my classmates in college, a Prince of a tribal group in Nigeria, told me of a witchdoctor being teleported to a remote location denying the event to be staged or achieved by modern transport.
Stories are numberless concerning the proliferation of the sorcerers’ art. The sorcerer is often a nondescript identity amidst tribal peers. There is little other than associated regalia to indicate a possession of power. Ultimately, like electrical activity invisible to the eye, the power asserts its whim upon targeted victims by being sought or conjured by the sorcerer.
At whose whim: sorcerer or holder of power within? Like most elements of the spiritual world, the "powers" attendant are the product of a possessed relationship with unseen forces.
Would the ‘good’ that arises from this relationship be a prosecutable offence, can a rationally applied rule of law pronounce a verdict based upon science? I doubt it. Like the death of a sanguma victim, the visible outcome is real but how to prosecute the devil, that is the detail.
The expat: Chris Overland (ex kiap)
Sorcery is not real in the sense that it has no scientifically verifiable basis in fact. However, it is very real in that it can be used to kill people. The method used is to rely upon the victim to induce a psychosomatic illness that has a fatal outcome.
I have seen a case where a perfectly healthy man starved himself to death because he believed that black magic (puripuri) had been used against him. There was nothing that anyone could do to help this man because he had become gripped with the idea that he would die and so made this a self -fulfilling prophecy.
I asked local villagers why I, as a kiap, was not vulnerable to puripuri. The answer was simple: you cannot harm those who do not believe that you can. I think that PNG has a pretty interesting legal challenge before it in dealing with this very nebulous but nonetheless real problem.
I witnessed an event I have not forgotten to this day. As an educated man I have tried and tried to scientifically made sense of it but have failed. It happened at my mother's village - Genabona, Gumine District, Simbu Province.
I was having a chat with my uncles in front of the house. Not far off was the family's herd of goats feeding on grass. Suddenly one of the goats, a huge female, collapsed with a loud thud. We went over to check and the goat was dead - I mean really dead.
My uncles starting cursing and shouting profanities at the top of their voices - ocassionaly mentioning 'kum' or 'awal kum' - sanguma or sanguma meri - and they were damn sure about that.
I heard my uncles say that a sangumas had plucked out the goat's heart. I was shaking but was eager to see for the first time the handiwork of a sanguma. After opening the goat, to my horror, the heart and the intestines - all of it - were missing. It was a bloody neat job expertly done! Only a puddle of blood remained.
Now don't get me wrong! As an educated man, I don't want to subscribe to superstitious beliefs. But as an eyewitness, this I can't forget. How else will I scientifically explain this?
My father is from Lufa, Eastern Highlands Province. Many people call us - Eastern Highlanders ol posin man, and that is not a joke. I have witnessed just too many things, that in honesty, if I publicly state that sorcery and sanguma isn't real, I will not really mean it. I want to deny sorcery and sanguma, but my experience always nudges from the corners of my memory.
That some people believe in sorcery is not in question. That a belief in sorcery can harm some people also appears to be true. But whether sorcery exists in any supernatural sense is a very different issue.
Those who lived in PNG pre independence will recall a parliamentary investigation into sorcery which found that that deaths by sorcery mostly had mundane explanations . Poison was a popular.
I have lived, dined and stayed with people who people told me do puripuri na ol pipia sanguma nambaut but none of their so-called sorcery worked on me. I have even challenged them to try their so-called magic formula on me. None of it worked!
One thing that I have settled in my life is that God alone is the giver of life and He alone has authority over it. No demonic or evil forces of the dark world have any power over God.
People live in fear and sometimes fear kills them and many a time cultural blindness heaps all sundry and blame to the perceived sorcerer or sanguma. The curse of paranoia is something every thinking and cooked-food eating Papua New Guineans need to get a grip on and graduate from.