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The weird story of sanguma


PORT MORESBY - Belief in the supernatural is real for a Papua New Guinean - a belief that runs in parallel with other introduced beliefs, be they Christianity or another religion, even atheism.

Most Papua New Guineans talk about all their beliefs in the same breath.

They say, yes they have a firm belief in Christianity and, yes, there are still village powers that exist they are afraid of.

It is the traditional belief in the powers of the other - the dark side - that is little written about, perhaps because in Papua New Guinea there are many different practices and different shades of dark belief.

So what is sorcery? What is sanguma? These questions can be difficult to answer. The belief in sorcery and witchcraft in whatever form is branded as a belief in sanguma. But there are differences between them.

The Motu Koitabuans and Central Province coastal central people frequently camp out at the Port Moresby General Hospital to protect their sick family member from enemies who practises sorcery or witchcraft. 

They keep watch and prevent enemies from nearing the sick person and carrying out dark practices.  The enemy would be from their own village but unrelated to their family or clan. This is a particular Papuan practice of making sorcery on neighbours. 

They forget that the hospital is where every sick person goes. But if they have a suspicion about who might have done the sorcery and they see that person at or near the hospital grounds, then bingo, there is your sorcerer.

In the Southern Highlands - and the Ialibu and Pangia area in particular - people believe in a mystic being called the stonmahn – a belief also shared by the Lufa people in the Eastern Highlands.  When these mystics come before you, they throw a stone or stick so the subject person becomes disorientated.

While they are in that state, the stonmahn commits his dastardly deeds, including pulling the intestines out from the rear end and cutting them into pieces.

The powerful kukurai from the Madang north coast area are believed to be physical manifestations of sorcerers.  It is said by people from that area that if the kukurai feels a person is troublesome it will tells that person to walk on their head – and, the victim will literally walk on their head.

If the kukurai says he wants your daughter as his next wife, there is virtually nothing you can do but to submit and let your daughter go into marriage with him, irrespective of how old he may be.  Another notable feature of the kukurai is that, like shamans, they combine sorcery with leadership in their area. 

People in the Simbu Province and the western part of the Eastern Highlands believe in kumo/ghumo who are said to have the ability to eat out or to do harm to the innards of a person so they die.

And the well-known time travellers from Milne Bay are mystics who cannot be rationally explained – and since they cannot be asked to explain themselves, they remain a ‘det wan hau?’

This is also the case with the myriad of mystics and sorcerers and magical practices that the people of Papua New Guinea’s hundreds of localities and language groups believe in – Kerema poison, Nambis poison, the walking carvings from the Sepik River and the Ghewos from the Bundi and Ramu valleys.

These sorcerers and mystics are also blamed for causing illness and death to people outside the immediate clan or group.

Another question is which practice of sorcery or sanguma is being peddled here.  Each place and province has its own version.

The importation of a practice from another part of the country and applied to people of a different ethnicity is wrong. No one version of the dark arts is the same as another.

It defies all reasoning that an Engan would believe in sorcery that applies to Simbu or the Eastern Highlands or find cause with Southern Highlands sanguma.

The people of Simbu and the Eastern Highlands believe that the Kumo-Ghumo sanguma (KGS) people have a craving for protein and possess the ability to can get into the innards of any living thing and eat them. The favourite is the heart. But any organs will do.

When they are ripped out, of course, the result is instantaneous death.

The KGS can also leave holes in the organs which can result in a quick death or death by the clock – that is, slowly.  They can also simply suck out blood, leaving the victim white and very weak.

If the KGS cannot rip an organ out, they can tie it up in knots so that one dies slowly. This can include the urethra or pispis rop so that a person cannot pass urine or, for a man, have sexual intercourse. 

They can also block the anus so a victim cannot excrete.  The end result of in both cases is slow death from a bloated bladder or stomach.  For a man, these are the most feared.  Most men would not mind dying instantly. But to suffer the indignity of a swollen stomach or bladder is humbling and embarrassing and not what one wants to experience.

It is believed that these KGS have extraordinary powers.  These powers are said to be carried out by small animals living under the armpits or amongst pubic hair.

For a person from where KGS is practised, life revolves around the grace of the sanguma.  These people wish ill to everyone.  And all people - educated and uneducated, rich and poor and all in between - believe that the sanguma are real and can cause irreparable harm.

The author of a recent book stated that he cannot explain these sangumas and how they work. All that is known is that the sorcerer has power to do great harm. 

All people can do is to exercise goodwill to secure their safety and to avoid falling out of favour.

What I write here is the highlands version of sorcery which may be different to other sanguma practises. Talking about sangumas is never coherent

The KGS phenomena in the Goroka valley – east of the Asaro River - are quite recent.

The valley people were warriors and archers. They fought wars with bows and arrows and believed those on the eastern side of our language group were ‘poison people’.

They made poison on people by taking food droppings like sugar cane refuse or kaukau peel and making a strong shaman on it so that it would affect and kill the victim. 

Or they might use special words which would act like a strong poison and cause ill effects on a victim.  Explaining this remains a challenge.

The reason why Goroka and Kainantu towns were so clean in the early days can be attributed to no-one leaving rubbish on the ground in case an enemy shaman collected it and made ‘poison’ on it. Such practices were a good way to annihilate your enemies in the early days of Goroka. Nowadays people have different beliefs and are very careless with their rubbish.

That said, belief in sanguma has now permeated all aspects and all levels of society, regardless of whether one is an uneducated villager, a savvy businessman or a highly educated lawyer.  People with tertiary education and high qualifications now fear to come to the village because so much conversation is always about who the KGS sangumas are and what are they doing. 

‘Don’t came to the village,’ they are told. ‘It is not good anymore. The village is full of KGS.’

You would think that educated people would want to be able to influence those in the village. But no, they are the ones who now seem to be strong believers in the various ills caused by the KGS.

So who is the sanguma in the Kumo-Ghumo belief, the feared KGS? In short, anybody that can be blamed.

Old widows, spinsters, bachelors, the one who does not wash, the one who lives at the fringe of the village, the one who doesn’t come to the village mumu, the one with that funny attitude - like striking a match head and inhaling its wisp of smoke, the one who sniffs kerosene, the one who prattles a lot in the village, the one who begs too much for smokes and betel nut, the one who raises pigs that break into other people’s gardens, the poor, the eccentric, and just about anyone from the other bank of the Asaro river and further west or has a blood relation with the west.

It is a very long list of what might be termed the left hand of the spectrum of life - the lowly in the village who can be easily blamed, who will not challenge a decision, the weak who cannot speak for themselves and not forgetting that person who had an argument yesterday about his pig coming into a garden. When the story of the argument gets around it’s spiced with words that the garden owner is a KGS.

But this can never apply to anybody on the right side of the spectrum - the successful person, the businessman, the healthy chubby person, the economically well off, the educated working class, the person with plenty of land. Those on the right of the spectrum can never be a KGS - unless their circumstances change.

Yeah, if you were the last person to see A before the calamity befell him - be it a stomach upset, pig dying, a vehicle running off the road - whatever part of the spectrum you come from the rumours will start that, because you were the last person seen with A, you must have had a hand in the calamity.  You are a KGS – and this may also include your children and other relatives.

And once your name is publicly mentioned as a KGS, the label sticks for life. Traditionally, known KGS were isolated in a village or area away from the main village and ostracised for most of their lives.

Sometimes some people do admit that they are KGS. But these admissions are usually made under extreme duress. They are never voluntary.

It is not clear where the KGS spirit goes when the host dies. So, even if the host is killed, it is not known if the KGS is also killed or where it might have fled to.

Each person has their own version of what the KGS actually do to bring harm to another person. The autopsy might show the heart is still in the body of the deceased. But if those watching the doctor perform the autopsy see something irregular they will say it supports their claim that the KGS worked on the victim.

The KGS that eat excreta, human or animal, are said to be the harmless ones.

There are KGS that leave bad karma - like putting a stop to your education. They get into your brain and muddle up your thinking or ride in your bus and cause the engine to stop and render the bus useless so that you cannot succeed in your business.

Or they sent the pigs into your garden - never mind that the pitpit fencing is rotting and the pigs have found a bonanza by pushing against it.  The various misdeeds theses KGS can do is seemingly endless.

A person just has to say that a KGS attacked him or his property.

If any mishap befalls a person or his property, it is the work of the KGS.  It never matters if a businessman loses his money playing poker all night or spends it on entertaining a woman who is not his wife. 

If the business has a downward turn it’s time to find who is the KGS doing these crazy things.

If a child shows fickleness at school, it is because of these dastardly people. There is no inquiry to see if the child is into smoking marijuana or skipping classes.  These days, with movies on phones, children are barely sleeping. But the blame is shifted to the KGS who have got into the child’s head and made her erratic.

If the educated person cannot get a job, nobody queries if the transcript had good grades or was so shoddily written that the recruiting officer filed it in the round file basket on the floor. Yet people still believe the KGS is responsible and they go looking for which person is the host.

The most powerful ward is a person who has a KGS ‘stick’. He is the one that the KGS fear because he has the power to stop the KGS from doing their dastardly deeds.

The man with the ‘sanguma stick’ prepares and issues ginger that can stop the work of KGS. The KGS that meddles with this person does so at their own risk as it is believed that if this person spears or stones the KGS with a mumu stone, they will die.

You will sometimes see babies with a necklace of ginger to protect them from the powers of the KGS.

The rules for good KGS-proof living include:

  1. Live generously in the village.
  2. Share protein.
  3. Live an open friendly life.
  4. Do not come from the town with plastic boxes of store foods.
  5. Do not buy excessive frozen goods to cook and make the eating of protein sporadic.
  6. Do not cook food with a good aromatic smell and tell the village you are having good food.
  7. Be generous but do not associate with a person or group of persons too much.

KGS are versatile.  They can fly through the air and can go very long distances.  They can travel from the village to Port Moresby to kill a person and return in one night.  Sometimes they use other animals like dogs and bats as their vehicles.

Nowadays the notion that KGS cannot be passed outside blood lines has been dismissed.  Anyone can be recruited. They can also pass it on through various other means so long as there is some form of affinity or relationship.  It is said that women who knit bilums can pass the KGS sanguma to another. The affinity is created in the desire to learn the intricate designs that the other woman possesses.

The KGS is a spirit that possesses people and works in them. If the spirit is travelling in the night, the remaining physical body should not be disturbed. If the body is disturbed, it will die. The spirit returns in the wee hours of the morning.

If you want someone to be a KGS, just mention that the person has KGS and for evidence find something extraordinary.  Like when Joe was at the hospital, Lsioso (a fictitious name) was at the hospital too.  So when Joe dies, it must have been Lsioso who sanguma-ed him.

Another way to identify a KGS is to pay a specialist who will reveal who the KGS are in the village.

So how do you get rid of a sanguma?

According to Facebook you can ‘kill them’ or ‘just get rid of them’.

The traditional practise was to isolate them away from people until exorcism was undertaken to get rid of the KGS spirits.

The developed world lists more than 3,300 ailments that people can die from, a number that is increasing as new diseases are discovered.

However, here in PNG we know only a few of the illness and, if we cannot name an illness that causes death, then the sickness leading to death is the work of sorcery or sanguma.

If the doctors in the hospital say there is no medical cure or no known medicine then we look elsewhere.  If doctors say they don’t know what the illness is, it must be sorcery or sanguma related.

Western medicine is the best but the rural villager believes that an injection is the cure-all.  A person will get an injection but will not take the chloroquine tablet, or will take the first dose under the watchful eye of the medico but conveniently forget to take the full course having the utmost belief in the injection.

Thus the following fatal attack of malaria will be ‘sik winim marasin’ (his illness defeated the medicine).  In the blame game to follow, somebody must have sanguma-ed the sick person.

When the main KGS, is identified, no one can come to that person’s defence. If a female, the males in her family would be walking a tight rope - especially if the person who died is a well-to-do person.

When applying torture to the suspected KGS, the interrogators will not accept no for an answer.  The suspect must admit and reveal all the other KGS in the village.

In a rational world, when someone falls ill, they might go to the hospital or see a doctor. Wrong! When a person falls ill, home remedies will be sought: ginger here, a local herb there, a chilli concoction perhaps.

If the illness persists, the local aid post is visited for the general cure-all: the penicillin shot.  If that does not work, it’s off to the hospital because the illness jas taken hold of the person.

The relatives meantime will seek the glassmahn, the kavavarmahn, the shaman, and the good sanguma who picks out all the other bad ones to tell out which particular KGS is involved in the person falling ill.

It is now a practice for some these practitioners (glassmahn, kavavarmahn, shaman and the good sanguma) to have a letter from the Provincial Police authority or the Provincial and District authority authenticating their practice. 

This usually emboldens them to do things that are sometimes questionable.

If the doctors say they cannot diagnose the sickness or if there is no medicine currently in the hospital, the villager is not fooled. It is the work of the KGS.

The old PNG Sorcery Act has now been abolished, one of its main problems being that it was unclear on how evidence could be progressed.

In the current scheme of things, in court all the evidence is all hearsay or secondary.  Just because a KGS admits to being one does not mean that is your evidence.

The direct evidence that the court will need is the actual innards that were ripped from a person. In any case, an admission obtained under duress is inadmissible in the courts.

The onset of coronavirus poses a challenge to our countrymen. After all, there is no known medical preventative or cure. We must all hope that innocent people are not harmed in any fallout from this dreadful, invisible virus.


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