A record explained, or rationalised?
The biggest threat: leaders there for themselves

Into the backblocks with the sorcerers

| New English Review | Edited extract

Link here to read more of Bill Corden’s writing

VANCOUVER – It’s 1993. My older brother, Ron, had ended up in a remote village in the highlands of Papua New Guinea.

He was the manager of a town called Goroka. How he got there is a story that would take too long to tell, but suffice to say he's completely immersed in the culture.

Ron married a local PNG girl from one of the bamboo-hut villages dotted amongst the mountains surrounding the town. He had paid the village two pigs as a dowry and they now had two kids, a boy and a girl.

He spent his time between the American-style house in town during the week and the jungle village, communally owned by his wife's kith and kin, at weekends.

Ron told me the village considered the kids to be their property (not the father's) and every member was responsible for their care.

Goroka itself was a collection of tin shacks, a bowling club, some missionary outposts, a supermarket and an American hotel called The Bird of Paradise. The town centre was a sort of drifting post for local villagers who came in to sell their produce, weavings and carvings.

When people died in town there was no funeral director. It was up to their people in the village to pick them up in a truck and get them back to the village for burial.

The villagers covered their faces in some sort of yellow ochre or white ash to let people know they were in mourning.

It was in the villages that the religious belief system really played out. A mixture of animism, ancestor worship and the dead living amongst the living was as firm as Christianity is in the West.

Only certain sorcerers (witch doctors) had the ability to read signs or get in touch with the other world.

The villagers had no doubts at all that there were many gods, both good and evil, and they steadfastly believed that a human form could change its shape into a bird or a beast by catching a ray from the sun.

In this environment my brother had learned it was unwise to scoff at these beliefs. The villagers got very, very angry if you did.

To pass the time in the evenings, the people played games similar to the Ouija board games back home in Canada (the village had no TV, radio or electricity). The sessions on the board led to a little bit of a conversion in my brother’s thinking.

In a letter, he told me the board was able to spell out addresses where he had lived in Australia. It spelled out names of relatives and it was able to spell out birth dates for other family members far away. The board knew that my Dad had died and where he was now.

It was very disconcerting, except that the board told him Dad was very happy where he was. My brother is a natural cynic, but by the end of these sessions he was starting to believe.

Then came a defining moment for Ron. The villagers were preparing celebrations for his daughter's birthday and had found a crocheted hat in the corner of one of the huts which they thought would be perfect for the day.

The morning came and someone put the hat on the baby. She immediately began to convulse, sweat and scream.

Nobody knew what was happening until one of the elders arrived and said right away that the sorcerer had to be called.

Here in a village of bamboo huts in the middle of the wild there were no accepted medicines and death was a part of everyday life. My brother was in a panic thinking his daughter was dying. Then arrived the sorcerer in full regalia.

He had a conversation with Ron’s frantic wife in the local dialect, which is a quiet mumbling sound, and went ahead with his magic.

He took a bamboo cane and tapped it gently from head to toe along the little girl's body while chanting what my brother described as a very pleading and mournful sound.

The child continued to froth and spasm. The sorcerer then took the bamboo outside the hut, broke it into pieces and tossed it into the jungle.

In that instant the girl stopped crying, stopped convulsing and started burbling contentedly. Everybody gasped with relief. My brother's wife explained what had happened.

She'd told the sorcerer about the birthday celebrations and about the hat. As soon as he heard about the hat, he knew what was wrong.

The hat had belonged to a young girl who had died in the village a few years earlier. When the hat was worn for the birthday celebrations, the spirit of the dead girl got upset because they did not ask her permission and the spirit took it out on the baby.

The reason why the chanting sounded so plaintive and sad was because the sorcerer was begging the dead girl’s spirit for forgiveness and explaining that the father didn't understand the rituals that were supposed to be observed because he came from a different land.

That baby girlis now a lawyer's assistant in Port Moresby. The son (William Togu) is an electrical engineer with a mining company. My older brother, Ron, has since passed away.

But before he died, I had an opportunity to visit him in Goroka. I got the chance to visit and live the village for a few months. While there, my remaining skepticism of the occult was swept away.

I flew from Sydney to Cairns, swam in the Great Barrier Reef sea with a kaleidoscope of fish, had lunch on a yacht and enjoyed the pleasures of modern day life without thinking it could be different elsewhere in this part of the world. How mistaken can one be?

In taking a plane from Cairns to Port Moresby, I flew backwards at the rate of 500 years an hour. In Port Moresby travelling to Goroka, I boarded a plane with a sign, ‘Please don't spit on the carpets’.

People chew betel nut with slaked lime powder and it turns red before eventually being spat out.

There was a huge reception at Goroka airport, with hundreds of people waving. I felt important but the prime minister happened to be on the same plane.

The first thing my brother Ron said to me was, "Don't make light of the belief systems here, they're very real!"

When you went for a hike in the jungle you had to first ask permission of the gods and take some gift to be left for their pleasure. The people said a can of Coke would be well received.

On one hike, I forgot to take a gift and the next day I came down with something my brother thought might be malaria.

After some discussion, the people said it was just a mild punishment for a mild misdemeanor. A sorcerer wasn't needed, all I had to do was beg forgiveness and I would be spared. I did and I was.

The jungle itself was a sticky, humid greenhouse, everything I touched or brushed up against had a hook or a burr that easily attached itself to passing invaders.

There were no dangerous predators in this place but plenty of insects and biters that could make you very sick. They drove me wild with their constant harassment.

Life in the village took a bit of getting used to. There was no running water. If I wanted to get a complete bath, I had to walk to the river about 20 minutes away. Because the area was in the highlands, the water was ice cold.

Food was plentiful in the way of vegetables and fruit, but meat was reserved for special occasions (like a visiting uncle) and was usually chicken or pork. Pigs and chickens shared the same living space and a measure of wealth was how many pigs you owned.

The people had an ingenious way of splitting bamboo. They threw it into the middle of the road and waited for trucks to drive over it. The bamboos miraculously split right down the middle.

Each hut in the village was occupied by a separate family and they had padlocks on the wooden doors. Inside was a camping type set up. There were no cabinets and the shelves were makeshift. Some had single gas burners but most of the cooking was done over a firepit in the middle of the hut.

Cooking was exotic with meals prepared by stuffing a bamboo tube with vegetables, ginger and any meat available, then throwing it on the fire. When the leaf cap popped off the tube, it was done and served on a banana leaf and eaten with our hands.

Then the evening's entertainment - storytelling from travelling poets and actors from other villages. Most of the stories I heard on one particular night were about tribal wars and practices.

At the end of the day, the village chief went to the edge of the nearby mountain and called out the news of the day to neighbouring settlements. Everybody for hundreds of miles around knew that Ron's brother was visiting.

I slept uneasily for a few nights, the pot boiling in the middle of the hut. With no chimney there was a cloud of smoke about three feet off the floor. I sat there coughing and spluttering through the meal.

The villagers begged my brother to tell them a story, which he did in the language they could all understand, Pidgin. Ron told the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

Well, I've never in my life seen such sobbing and heartbreak as the villagers displayed at the end when all the children disappeared. They were inconsolable, men and women both.

So then he told the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as an encore and they discovered they could go on living. Even the few teenagers there were enthralled by the stories.

Travelling over any distance by vehicle was dangerous and you required a local diplomat to get through. He knew of the tribal wars that were going on and who to speak to if there was trouble afoot. And he knew how to cope in a jam.

On one trip we travelled from Goroka to Madang, passing through an area where there had been lots of tribal fights in the past few weeks. All along the route there were people carrying their bilums. We sped through the dangerous areas missing people at the roadside by mere inches.

I started to get scared and said to my driver (a guy in my brother's employ), "Slow down, you could hit these people and kill them. What happens if we do that?" He just looked at me straight in the eye and said "You die too!"

Anyway, we made the journey without incident. Madang wasn't really worth the stress and, to top it all, I had my passport and wallet stolen there.

Goroka wasn't a place you'd want to stay for any extended time and I decided I would cut my trip short. But it was not that simple.

I went to the airport to book the flight but the girl behind the counter just said, "No you can't go, you must speak to Margaret.” Margaret was my brother's wife.

Rebuffed at the ticket desk, I went back to the hut and found the villagers were having a leaving party for me planned for the day I was originally scheduled to leave - which now ended up being a week away. It was a party, but one of the sincerest acts of sorrow I have experienced.

They gave me gifts of carvings and bows and arrows they had made. They cried that I had to leave and said it was as if I was dying as I would never come back again.

I've never seen crying like it and I felt ashamed for wanting to sneak out early.

I have the arrows displayed on my living room wall and am looking at the ebony bow as I type. Somewhere in one of the closets is the bilum they made for me, but I'm scared to use it for fear that I will unwittingly disturb one of their ancestors.

Whenever I see documentaries on Papua New Guinea, I have a feeling of kinship with the people.

I have even deeper feelings when I realise I have a nephew and a niece living there, and I have a very strong sense that I have left something of my own spirit back in that valley of ghosts.


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Baka Bina

Thank you Mr Bill Corden, enjoyed your dark story.

I hope you will download my novels and anthologies. I espouse on a lot of the backblocks that you had the experience of in your brief sojourn to our country.

Yes, I come from Goroka where bamboos grow around the village and where, in those bamboos, lurk spirits, both good and bad, that find a niche in our stories.

But each village is unique and each village will have its own peculiar experience like no other. Like for instance, my village is built on land that has two streams on either side.

One is used for washing only. Drinking water is collected from springs that ooze out of clay and build up the other stream.

Me, and over ten thousands others through time immemorial, grew up, lived and died drinking this ground water and, okay, we may not have had a good life, but we expired some air for a time and disappeared.

Our children will continue to do so. And yes, our ancestors had stories about these water sources and we paid homage to the persons named in the stories so that we could look after the water and the mud and ..... and the plants in the surroundings.

Ron stayed in other villages in the Goroka valley and the experience there would be different from Mando, his wife's place.

Our tin shacks of Goroka are just physical structures. The beauty of Goroka are the people and the climate and you missed it big time thinking you'd find an American outpost.

There is no American hotel in the town, just another tin shack that is called the Bird of Paradise which we locals don't frequent.

We are barred entry and more often chased out because of the mud on our feet and any where we prefer our bamboo huts where every thing in there has some spiritual and animistic story to it.

And oh... by the way, did you take back with you the pillow case that you slept on. Your saliva may have dribbled onto the pillow and these sheets are prime items that the shamans look for when they try their bamboo smashing thing.

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