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
– 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!