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Sanguma, sangoma & the derivation of words

Sangoma - traditional healers of South Africa
Sangoma - traditional healers of South Africa


TUMBY BAY - Tok Pisin is an evolving language of such dynamism that it sometimes appears to be in a constant state of flux.

While there is still a core of basic words that underpins the language many of them have undergone multiple modifications so that their original source has become obscured.

Perhaps the word that epitomises this process best is ‘bilong’. Based on the English ‘belong’ it eventually dropped the ‘i’ to become ‘blong’ and then dropped the ‘ng’ to become ‘blo’, which is the most common form used today.

In hearing the word today it would be difficult to relate it back to the original English word.

Working out the original source of Tok Pisin words can be quite interesting. In most cases the words are derived from English and German with a fair smattering of local languages.

Some words, however, have a more interesting and sometimes puzzling origin.

I was recently reading Alexander McCall Smith’s latest book in the Number One Ladies Detective Agency series, ‘How to Raise an Elephant’. These novels are based in Botswana, an African nation just north of South Africa.

One of the characters is what is known there as a ‘sangoma’. This is a Zulu word and it means ‘shaman’ or ‘healer’.

Sangoma have a range of roles including counteracting witchcraft. In a society where illness is thought to be caused by witchcraft, contact with impure objects and the actions of ancestors they are in great demand.

Many sangoma are women but they all emphasise that for a trouble free life people must show respect for their ancestors lest they create mischief or worse.

Practitioners of sangoma can also have a darker side. With their knowledge of the spiritual world and the use of potions and other devices they are sometimes called upon to inflict pain and trouble upon individuals on behalf of people with evil intent.

In Papua New Guinea there is a very similar Tok Pisin word with the same connotations that is spelt only slightly differently.

Sanguma has different meanings depending upon where in the country it is used. These include witchcraft and sorcery but also shamanism and healing.

Unfortunately, the concept of sanguma is becoming more generic and is now frequently applied to women who are accused of being witches.

It has been claimed that this sort of interpretation originated in Simbu, spread into other parts of the highlands and then into coastal and island areas.

Whether that is the case or not it is interesting to note the similarities of practice and meaning between the Tok Pisin word and the Zulu word.

A reasonable conclusion would be that the Tok Pisin word ‘sanguma’ is derived from the South African word ‘sangoma’.

That derivation seems altogether strange until one realises that many Australians took part in the Second Boer War between 1899 and 1902. It is estimated that about 16,000 Australians fought in that war.

When the war ended many of these soldiers travelled to Papua to try their luck on the goldfields in places like the Mambare River and the Yodda field which was officially proclaimed in 1901.

In all likelihood they encountered sorcery among the local people and searching for a word to describe it fell back upon their previous experience in South Africa.

Thus a Zulu word from South Africa became embedded in what would evolve into one of Papua New Guinea’s lingua franca.

Or is that really true?

Captain John Murphy, in his 1943 vocabulary of Pidgin English, says the word originated in the Madang region where it was used to describe a “species of malign sorcery and also the person gifted with the power of performing it”.

Elsewhere he says the Pidgin English word for ‘sorcery’ is ‘poison’, now rendered as ‘posin’.

That may be where the word ‘puripuri’ originated but then again maybe it came from somewhere else.

Curiously, it isn’t a word that appears in Murphy’s vocabulary and only as a secondary option in the modern vocabularies available on the internet. Perhaps a reader might be able to enlighten us.

In any event, I rather like the South African explanation because it has a nice historical narrative attached to it.

But I guess it’s up to everyone to make up their own mind.


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Baka Bina

I used the word sangoma to contrast with our own sanguma beliefs as the African soldiers would come with a preconceived notion about sanguma based on their knowledge of sangoma.

That was all there was to it in my novel 'Operesin Kisim Bek Lombo'.

Where the word sanguma came from, I have no idea, except that it is entrenched now in the vocabulary and psyche of everyone, with various gradations and methodology over its usage.

Read - Sil Bolkin's article, 'The scourge of Sanguma'

AG Satori's article, 'The weird story of Sanguma'

Wardley Barry's article, 'Sorcery cannot be solved using western instruments'

These provide some Papua New Guinean perspectives on all things sanguma.

Ed Brumby

Chips raises another interesting perspective: a significant number, if not the majority of PNG coastal languages belong to the Austronesian family - whereas the highlands languages (and those of Aboriginal Australia) belong to the Non-Austronesian family. It is generally accepted that the proto/root language of the Austronesian family - which extends throughout maritime SE Asia, the Pacific Islands - and Madagascar (of all places) is a Formosan (Taiwanese) language.

Ross Wilkinson

Garry has cited the example I was going to use with the word for pineapple. The explanation for pineapple was the Russian word Ananas that was most likely brought to the North Coast by Mikloucho-Maclay when he lived there.

Chips Mackellar

Phil, I don't know what the significance is, but in the Indonesian language ''sanggama" means "sexual intercourse".

Bahasa Indonesia and the Motu language of Papua are both Austronesian languages and they share some words and some grammar in common.

Do you suppose there is some connection with the Pidgin word "sanguma"?

Philip Fitzpatrick

It is fascinating Garry.

In Western Desert languages in Australia the word for vegetable food is 'mai'. The same word occurs in languages in far north Queensland. In PNG it becomes 'kai'.

Speaking of North Queensland the common word for 'goodbye' and 'hello' is 'yawo' or 'aiwo'. That word can be heard all the way up the Fly River into Awin languages just south of Ok Tedi.

And then in Motu we have words like 'hahine' for 'woman' that reflects the Polynesian 'wahine'.

Before DNA became important for tracing human distribution, language was an important factor.

You are what you are because of what you say apparently.

I think, but I'm not sure, that the word for 'sanguma' in Simbu languages is something like 'kumo'.

Bernard Corden

Matmat (grave) is also interesting and may derive from 'mate' as in checkmate (the king is dead).

I dimly recollect reading many years back that checkmate is derived from the Persian 'shahmat', so Bernard's observation seems correct - KJ

Ed Brumby

Another interesting piece, Phil.

My apo, Baka Bina, references 'sangoma' as an African word/term in his last novel 'Operesin Kisim Bek Lombo' - in which it is used by Sandline African mercenaries.

And if Baka recognises the African connection, perhaps other PNGeans do as well?

Like all languages, Tok Pisin has 'borrowed' words from a multiplicity of languages. Indeed, it is generally acknowledged that the term 'pidgin/pisin' is derived from the attempts by Cantonese speakers to say 'business' and was then used to describe the lingua franca that evolved to enable Chinese and English traders and officials to communicate with each other.

Garry Roche

Phil, there is a book entitled "From bonbon to cha-cha' - Oxford Dictionary of Foreign Words and Phrases".

That book supports you when it states that 'Sangoma' is from the Nguni languages in South Africa. Nguni apparently include Zulu, Xhosa, and Ndebele. And states that Sangoma means a traditional healer or diviner, a witch doctor.

I sometimes wondered about whether there was any connection to an old Italian word 'Sagoma' - which can mean 'shape' or 'silhouette' or 'shade'.

Another interesting word is one old Pidgin word for pineapple, 'Anannas' - which is also found in European languages, but is originally a Guarani word from Paraguay in South America.

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