Paradox of political survival: real service v tongue service
Last month: A Bit na Ta reminds us of forgotten links to PNG

'Bloodlust hysteria': sorcery accusations a brutal death sentence

Helen Davidson

HELEN DAVIDSON | The Guardian | Edited extracts

Read Helen Davidson’s full article here

PORT MORESBY - In 2008 a man died of malaria in Togoba, in Papua New Guinea’s highlands region. Doctors had treated him for malaria and the report on his death specified malaria as the cause. Neighbours who went to the hospital were told it was malaria that killed him.

But the residents of Togoba didn’t believe in malaria. He was killed by sorcerers, they said, specifically a woman called Thresia Hari and her mother-in-law, who must have killed him with their “powers”. Thresia was from Chimbu province, a region known for its sorcery, or sanguma.

"When they interrogated them it was really brutal,” he says through a translator. “Both of them said they didn’t do anything. Then [the villagers] started getting knives, bashed them up, started to cut their arms and legs.

“They got the hot rods from the fire and put them on their skin. It was a hell of a thing they went through. It was really a terrible event.”

Puri says the two women lost consciousness.

“Both of them were locked inside the house – a traditional hut house – and they closed the door and burned the house.”

Puri tried to help his wife and mother when he heard what his neighbours were doing, but he was stopped from rescuing them.

“I couldn’t do anything, I was helpless. Because the majority of the community people were on the side of the person who died and they were thinking these two were behind the man’s death.”


PNG is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for women and girls, but a recent study by Oxfam and the Queensland University of Technology suggested sorcery violence also targeted many men.

The report looked at 232 incidents over three years, and found about 56% of victims were women. More than a third said they had some kind of disability. The study found 89% of perpetrators were men.

There are many theories about why the phenomenon is growing – PNG’s dysfunctional education system, the spread of beliefs through intermarriage between people from different regions or the fact that perpetrators know they will have broad public support.


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Philip Fitzpatrick

Others may like to comment about the issue of lack of backup for the kiap policies (insomuch as such policies existed - it was more of a make it up as you go along approach) but one thing we did have was a loyal and efficient police force behind us. They were useful when there was opposition to our methods.

The police were, in fact, major road builders working under the direction of their kiap officers. They also carried out other infrastructure roles.

I recall that in the early 1970s the heavies in the RPNGC in Moresby set about breaking the power of the kiaps by insisting that the police not be used for such work.

They also insisted that kiaps stay out of the towns and developed areas and leave it to them to do the police work.

These changes, funnily enough, occurred roughly about the same time that law and order began to break down in the highlands. Part of the problem was that the higher ranks of the police force were scared to go into the bush.

In essence you are right, however. We were very vulnerable out on the patrol posts and had to be good at the blarney to get by - which was a good thing.

Garry Roche

Helen Davidson, I am no expert on the breakdown of customary leadership, and such leadership may well be still strong in some areas. However following are some of my thoughts. Former Kiaps , e.g. Phil Fitzpatrick may have an opinion on the following analysis.
If the Kiap system was successful, and it was in so many ways, part of that success may have been due to the fact that they did not have a lot of back-up available to enforce their policies, but had to work intelligently at persuading the local leadership and populace of the benefit of their policies. For example the road building and maintenance work that created so many rural road systems in the highlands was created largely by voluntary labour.

(I remember as a Parish Priest at Togoba in the early seventies one Sunday I informed the parishoners that there would be voluntary cleaning of the mission grounds on Tuesday. Nobody turned up for work. When I questioned some parishoners why nobody came they told me that I had not asked the two Local Government Councillors, Kerua from Jiga Rogamp and Kuri from Truga. The next time I made sure to first get the cooperation of Kerua and Kuri.)

My understanding is that the Kiap system in general did not undermine local leadership but used it in an intelligent and beneficial manner. Local Government Councils were well established and working. The later introduction of Provincial Government removed some authority from the Local Government bodies and the Local Gov Councillors themselves lost some of their prestige and authority.

In more recent times provincial governance has become more politicized, there is less cooperation among the various departments. The sitting national member may be wary of an active and upcoming local leader, and competing leaders may try and frustrate each other’s efforts. In the two years before the recent election the governance of Hagen City suffered greatly because of competing authorities. This friction flowed over into parliament itself.

Basically if local leadership becomes too politicized there will be problems. The Westminister system of distinction of powers, Legal, Executive, and Judicial, is not an easy system to introduce or uphold.

All that having been said, in the past decade in PNG I still came across very, very, many dedicated public servants. And I have hope that matters may improve.

Paul Oates

Hi Helen, The issue you raise is not peculiar to PNG. It wasn't so long ago that these things were done to people under different names and ideologies in Europe in the 20th Century let alone Asia and Africa.

The issue is one of human nature. Human beings are susceptible to ideologies and mass hysteria and there is evidence they have been so since before recorded history.

The thin veneer of so called civilization can quickly disintegrate when people feel victimized or disadvantaged. The subsequent reactions can indicate the degree of feeling, education and intelligence felt by the perpetrator/s or the intent of those who are supposed to be maintaining control.

Control in traditional PNG societies was exercised by consent but was moderated while ever the 'Pax Australiana' was enforced by Australian Kiaps.

The reason there has been a breakdown in society is that the fragile nexus between PNG legislation and the operation of law enforcement have diverged to the point that overall control at the village level has slipped away.

The situation could quickly be restored if there were some clear leadership exercised by the government and fairly enforced by government representatives. This will not happen while ever the present government leaders are too concerned with enriching themselves at the expense of their people.

Hence the lapse back to unwritten tribal law based on raw emotions and personal impulses and the old dictum of 'might is right'.

Why do these happen? Because they are allowed to.

Bernard Corden

Dear Phil,
The work of Ferdinand Tonnies from 1925 and discerning between community (Gemeinschaft) and society (Gesellschaft) is worth a read.

Gemeinschaft is characteristic of small scale localised communities where social bonds are personal and direct with strong shared values and beliefs, much like the wantok system. Gesellschaft refers to complex impersonal societies.

The work of Martin Buber (I-Thou) is particularly interesting, especially concerning leadership and ethics and challenging the leadership hero myth, which disregards the contribution of followers and often ignores the intricate leader-follower relationship.

The Chicago School of Economics with its long march of unfettered neoliberalism and individualism merely extirpates much of the post war social reform from true leaders such as Aneurin Bevan, Bessie Bradddock et al.

Keith Jackson

Helen's question is pertinent to solving the problem of out-of-control sorcery.

I am certain that a major part of the problem is the breakdown of the traditional ethos - the beliefs, structures, values, authority, practices and relationships that made communities strong and viable.

There has been a huge shift from communalism to individualism. And there has been a shift in power from those who built it on wisdom, leadership and reciprocity to those who have cleverly taken advantage of its new forms - elected office, understanding land as a commodity and exploiting the various forms of capitalism.

The new found power has been locked in place by superior recourse to the law, the mechanisms of government including the disciplined services, foreign aid and business deals.

If all this had been accompanied by a sense of responsibility to the Big Tribe - the tribe of the nation - things may have turned out much better. The people put first ahead of self.

But that didn't happen, and the increasing poverty - spiritual and material - of the bulk of the people has led to many social dysfunctions. These include the rise of a dangerous form of sorcery, widespread violence against women and girls, endemic drug abuse and a removal of meaning from the lives of many people.

In all this, men seem to have been most adversely affected and it has increasingly been left up to women to hold communities together.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I think it is the attributes of leaders that has changed Helen.

Leaders' concern for the well-being of their community and people has changed to concern for personal well-being.

Traditional leaders, especially in the highlands, measured their status and position by how many pigs and wives they had and their ability to distribute that wealth to incur debt and power.

Nowadays it is all about accumulating personal wealth and bugger the people. That's what so-called 'modernisation' does to traditional communities. I've seen it happen in PNG as well as in indigenous communities in Australia.

Modern capitalism endows certain benefits but it destroys tradition, including the good things in that tradition.

Garry might have a different take on this of course.

Helen Davidson

Garry Roche, yes I think revenge and land disputes are also big factors and I should have included them.

I am interested to know more about the breakdown in customary leadership if you don't mind elaborating...

What is different now? What has caused that breakdown?

Other readers/contributors with knowledge of this issue may also like to respond - KJ

Philip Kai Morre

More research needs to be done on sorcery as this is a human rights problem and criminal in nature. We cannot allow these primitive actions to continue to the next generation. A quick intervention needs to be done by law enforcing bodies.

Pastors must stop talking about evil spirits in the form of sanguma, sorcery or witchcraft. Pastors are the main ones who reinforce sanguma or sorcery in their belief system.

They should be punished for spreading false teaching. Christ has already conquered evil and sorcery does not exist at all.

Garry Roche

I looked at the original article in the Guardian and an additional photograph there of the gardens with the ‘hapwara’ cliffs in the background looks like a genuine Togoba scene.

We do not like to hear about these sanguma killings but they do happen. There were little or no sanguma killings in earlier years in WHP or Enga or Jiwaka.

I do believe that the breakdown in customary leadership at local level is partially to blame for the rise of the ‘mob-instinct’.

I know of incidents where respected traditional leaders prevented mob killings. These incidents were not sanguma related, but I believe those earlier traditional leaders who prevented mob killings would also have been present to prevent sanguma killings.

Komp Dei of Mokei Agiliga once lay on top of a captured enemy clan member to prevent his own clan from killing or injuring him.

Kombra Kelya also of Mokei put his own life at risk to prevent the killing of an Engan man near Kindeng. These “big-men” were living locally and were quick to hear of any trouble and intervene.

There is a need for “on-the-ground” local leadership to minimise the risk of mob killings.

Michael Geketa

Helen, there are so many theories as you mentioned as to why the phenomenon of sorcery related injuries and death is growing.

I just want to add on one more to this - revenge.

Perpetrators often use sorcery accusations as another means of getting even with their neighbours over land issues and other matters.

It is a cowardly approach that leads to loss of life and property. Unfortunately sorcery is common in PNG society and also in other Melanesian countries.

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