Whispers In The Dark

These people are out of their minds. I’ve spent the whole day on the road with the C.C.C (Crazy Christian Clan a.k.a the headmistress’ family) driving to Madang, on the coast of PNG. The drive itself was spectacular. The culmination of different textures and colours in the foliage here is extraordinary. We eventually descended from the highlands into thick rainforest. Imagine bouncing along at 80 k along a dirt track through the jungle whilst trying to eat a watermelon out of the window. Hilarious. Anyway, Mrs Nomino had told me that we would be staying in a Lutheran guest house in Madang. It transpires that this was just what she hoped to do. The guest houses were all full due to the approaching Christmas holidays and the hotels and lodges were obscenely expensive (around 500 Kina a night – around £250). The C.C.C was moving at an incredibly glacial pace considering the situation, for example spending an hour chatting to an old friend on the phone… I plucked up the courage to rudely ask if we could stay with Mrs Nomino’s sister who lives in Madang (honestly I’d been wondering why it hadn’t been suggested three hours earlier). They eventually came to the conclusion that this would be OK.

Seriously. It was like the meeting of the Ents in Lord of the Rings.

So, we got back into the car when Mr Nomino proceeded to tell me that this was a very dangerous place and that we needed to wind up the windows in case some of the strangers from other provinces try to shoot at us with guns, which is happening very frequently at the moment.

That really calmed me down.

I was then scanning the road whilst trying to shove down some food and getting indigestion whenever I saw a man or group of men at the side of the road. To exacerbate things the C.C.C where then explaining that this is the most common place for road accidents as the roads and bridges are very bad, probably due to angry spirits. The cherry on top of this escalating state of terror was Mr Nomino telling me that Margaret had asked the headmistress for money and that “there is something possessing that woman and the whole community knows it.” Oh MY GOD!! I’m now sat on the floor of Mrs Nomino’s sister’s house (if you can call it that) in the middle of the PNG WW2 cemetery. I’m sweating so much that I could be mistaken for a water feature – it’s ridiculously hot here and the entire clan are sleeping on the floor around me…

Sunny Afternoon / Madness


It was my last day at Mando today. The kids put on a spectacular show! Groups of them had dressed up in various local traditional costumes: Mud men – covered in mud, giving them a ‘white’ appearance and then fairly creepy masks with real teeth; Moko Moko men – orange and white mud striped, with a dance consisting of smacking their backsides whilst singing “moko moko; sinahime men – covered completely in pitch black mud and singing a chant whilst they walk around in a line and lastly the traditional bilas which they dressed me up in the Saturday before last. It was breathtaking! The teachers had actually made the effort to come in today. Even the board members were there to see me off. They each gave long speeches and then asked me to give one. Unfortunately there was a black out mid way through my improvised speech cutting off the (pretty crap) microphone and leaving me in the embarrassing position of having to just shout through the rest. The children then came up to me one by one and piled presents on me: various shell and bead necklaces, bilums, spears, mud men masks, mud jewellery!, traditional clothing etc. I was really overwhelmed by the whole thing! We then waited around for three hours (this is still PNG, after all) and then had a feast with the staff where they gave me yet more presents and then I finally made my way home with my hoard! Yet another incredible day.

For The Widows In Paradise

The deeply rooted belief in the supernatural in Papua New Guinea is astounding. Sanguma (witchcraft) and sorcery are very much ingrained into society. Many people think that they are the same but they’re not. Sorcery is predominantly practiced in the coastal areas and is defined as the “ritual employment of substances, objects and spells for malevolent purposes.” It is a technique which can be learnt. ‘Sorcerers’ can also be seen as healers. Sanguma on the other hand is defined as an internal force that resides within the human psyche and inflicts harm or death on others. Sanguma witches are believed to possess an ‘animal like’ spirit: they roam around at night sometimes in human form, sometimes in animal form, searching for human flesh, corpses and faeces to eat. Lovely. Sanguma is seen as one of the major causes of sickness and death in the highlands: the people don’t ask what caused the death but instead who. Every morning on the drive to school I pass a stall selling coffins with their own individual windows. Verena tells me this is so that the family can watch the facial expression of the corpse. If the expression changes when a particular person approaches then that person is pin-pointed as the cause of the death. The reason for burying loved ones in your gardens is so that the spirits can guard you from the sanguma!

Some characteristics by which witches are identified:

–          Old or untidy people

–          The weak and defenceless

–          Widows

–          Those who have a great appetite for meat

–          Those who show insufficient grief at funerals

–          Those who are found in unusual places at unusual times

–          Those who isolate themselves

–          Those who have personal conflicts or grudges against others

–          Women or people with valuable properties with no grown up sons to protect them

–          Children of previously suspected witches

Accusations are taken very seriously. Supposed witches can be tied up and thrown over cliffs or into rivers; locked in their houses and burnt alive; severely wounded and buried alive in pit toilets; brutally tortured and hung on trees with fire below; tied and dragged behind moving vehicles; gradual torture over the course of several day;, burnt with hot iron rods or – the relatively pleasant alternative: killed instantly with axes or bush knives.  Houses of the accused are burnt down and livestock are eaten.

Some of the related murders are never reported to the authorities because of fear of retaliation. Even if a case is reported, the police do very little as they either believe in Sanguma themselves or lack the manpower and equipment! It’s like stepping back into the middle ages!

Fight For Your Mind

“True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing.”

This is incredibly frustrating: The other teachers at the school apparently didn’t feel like working today. I was the only teacher there. Again. The school has around 300 students. The grade four classes (around age 12) present even more of a challenge than my previous groups. The majority are almost illiterate so we did some basic work on reading, writing and spelling! With all of my classes I’ve been prioritising work on hygiene, sanitation and various diseases such as Typhoid and Malaria. I’ve also been sneaking in a bit of emphasis on responsibilities concerning pets; Most of the cats and dogs here are walking, breathing skeletons. My efforts seem completely futile as I know there is ultimately very little I can do; this is their culture. If the country was thoroughly well educated it would be a completely different place. My experiences have demonstrated how charities that simply throw money at a problem do not actually improve the living standards of the people. Teachers should be paid according to the number of days they are actually present; Very few make the effort to come into school. The teachers are now spending the majority most of the school’s yearly budget on ‘prizes’, decorations and food for their speech day. There is absolutely no concept of saving money (or anything for that matter) here.

Observation of the day: During break I’ve noticed that lots of the little children go around catching cicadas with cups on long sticks. The local children from the area tend to hang about in the school during the day – mostly peering in the windows of my classes as if they were at a zoo; I tend to have a fairly large audience . They then grab the cicada, rip off it’s wings and legs and carry them round as a ‘rattle’ for a while before eventually eating them. Charming.


Walking Barefoot

“A well-spent day brings happy sleep.”

Leonardo da Vinci

The last couple of days have been spectacular. We trekked out to a series of waterfalls. I had to take my boots off after the first hour as the mud was coming up to my knees. The disadvantage of this is that my feet are now fairly massacred (I had to drown them in savlon for the night!): we were walking through the wild jungle and sliding down practically vertical edges down to the river and so on. It was taking ‘off the beaten track’ to a whole new level. To cross rivers one of the men would cut down a tree, for example! There were the most amazing wild orchids dotted around the place! I was also lucky enough to spot a rare PNG eagle! The water was so fresh that we drank it directly from the falls…really incredible.

To make a fire one of the men rubbed some bush rope (made of bark) against some firewood. He then picked up the fire in some more sticks and carried it to the middle of the group! Snacks consisted of pandanas nuts that the men cut down from the top of the palm trees –  I have to admit, they’re pretty disgusting – all of the locals were peeling them and happily forcing them on me!

That night we stopped at a small village and the ‘big man’ offered us the use of his round hut. A fire in the middle of the dirt floor keeps the bugs out of the grass roof of the hut! We all gathered round to cook ‘Kau Kau’ (sweet potato) and tell stories. They served Phillip and I the most ridiculously enormous portions of food – easily enough for six people – no exaggeration! I tried to sneak some to the emaciated dogs (the poor things were so hungry that they were trying to eat the fire!). Unfortunately for me the people only spoke pidgin, but I’m getting the hang of it gradually! We slept on a bamboo mat on the floor soon after the sun set (no lights there, of course – you sleep with the sun!).

The next morning the local girls took me down to the river for a ‘was was’. It was a completely pointless exercise as after washing we had to climb back up the mountain in the thick mud – inevitably we arrived back much dirtier than when we left! The villagers then took us on a ‘short walk’ to their church (two hours!). I embarrassingly fell asleep – Mr Bean style – repeatedly nodding off and suddenly jerking awake with a flourish. We eventually found our way back to the road and Verena came to pick us up! What a weekend!