“Medicine is not only a science; it is also an art. It does not consist of compounding pills and plasters; it deals with the very processes of life, which must be understood before they may be guided. “
I thought I’d take a moment to recount some of the experiences and stories that Anna and Hannah have stumbled upon during their two months in South East Papua New Guinea. They have been working in a hospital for their medical elective – firstly in coastal Alotau and latterly on Goodenough Island, one of the D’Entrecasteaux Islands in the Milne Bay Province. It’s interesting to hear about the PNG culture from a totally different perspective. The highlanders are still viewed by many of the coastal folk as complete savages! An Australian called David who’s been working with the palm oil plantations for the past 18 months described his first encounter: He had just arrived in PNG and was staying at a hotel in Port Moresby. The first time he ventured out of the house he saw a ‘rascal’ (generic name for thieves or troublemakers) attempt to pick-pocket a highland man in full traditional dress. The highlander grabbed the rascal’s hand, cut off his arm with a bush knife, threw it on the floor and carried on his way. Nobody else on the street batted an eyelid. David retreated immediately to his hotel where he remained for the rest of his stay!
Anna and Hannah were staying in similar accommodation to me, partly with a Pastor and his family in their little family-run church and partly in the hospital’s accommodation on the island with four other Slovenian students. They made up the only six doctors on the island. The doctor-patient confidentiality in PNG is not quite as rigid as the system at home; whilst they were doing the procedure for contraceptive implants they had a stream of spectators wandering in to watch or take photos. As an example of the sort of cases they dealt with a young boy was brought it who had fallen six metres out of a coconut tree. They were trying to pacify him, worried that he’d ruptured his spleen, but he didn’t seem to grasp the concept of staying still and kept trying to get up to go to the market!
They also spent some time in a rural aid post in a stilted wooden hut. Every morning a man would blow a conch to summon the families from across the local area and mountains to bring their children down for inspection. They would weigh the kids in a big sack hanging from the roof with the equivalent of supermarket scales!
They also similarly had interactions concerning witchcraft: A young lady called Sandii told them about her Uncle who ‘flew around the islands to eat people’. She was uneducated as apparently her Uncle had put a spell on her giving her a permanent headache and therefore preventing her from going to school as her dad owed him money. She’s now a yam farmer.
There’s a little flavour of their side of the PNG story.
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!
I’m getting increasingly concerned that the allegation made casually by Mr Nomino that Margaret was a ‘witch’ may actually develop into something pretty sinister. The nationals here have strong beliefs in sorcery and witchcraft which they take very seriously. Verena was recounting to me numerous incidents in which women, accused of being witches, have been brutally tortured, burnt, maimed, debased and often killed. This is apparently very common here. Circumstances which cause such rumours to emerge are events like the death of the woman’s loved ones (the people believe she must have done something wrong to deserve such punishment), living alone, high intelligence etc Accusations can also arise over simple matters of holding grudges, jealousy or wanting to obtain another woman’s land. Very worrying to say the least, particularly as many of these ‘signs of witchcraft’ apply to Margaret – twice widowed and living alone. Verena suggested I should perhaps try to figure out whether this is becoming a widespread rumour or whether it is just the opinion of Mr Nomino as if it is becoming an established belief Margaret will need to be taken out of there immediately.