26 Aug 2022

Sorcery, violence and the struggle for development in the Pacific

12:16 pm on 26 August 2022

Opinion - Independent film-maker and academic Paul Wolffram* analyses the concept of sorcery in Papua New Guinea and its complexities alongside the emergence of Sanguma.

In the islands above the mainland of Papua New Guinea, a region called the Bismarck Archipelago, lives a rich creative culture woven with a belief in ancestral spirits.

Papua New Guinea's Mount Ulawun issues steam in November 2017. It is the highest mountain in the Bismarck Archipelago at 2334m, and one of the most active volcanoes in the country.

Photo: AFP / Christoph Gerigk / Biosphoto

In many parts of Melanesia the 'supernatural' is so much a part of everyday life that it's perceived as 'natural'. That the dead play a part in the lives of the living, is an understanding that scarcely bares mentioning. Those who act as conduits between the realms of the living and the dead in those islands, are perceived as valued community members.

This was the world of Island Melanesia that I entered in 2001. I lived among village communities for more than two years and learnt about the local cultural practices, language, and their spiritualities. Twenty years on, I've seen these old traditions fade as new concepts have emerged.

Back in 2001 the Tok Pisin term 'divelopmen' - literally, 'development', wasn't a word that I heard much. People longed for roads that didn't wash away every rainy season, they wanted the aid posts supplied with medicine, and to live well with their neighbours. In more recent times 'divelopmen' has become a buzz word, the problem is, few know how to attain it. They seek it like some illusive creature they may one day hope to capture.

After many years of working with communities in the Bismarck Archipelago, in 2017 I found myself in the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea. Much of my language skills and cultural competencies survived the 700km journey east across that vast scattering of islands and mountains that divide the islands from the Highlands. The Highlander's belief in the 'supernatural' and the presence and power of ancestral spirits in their lives was familiar.

What I found completely unfamiliar, was the density of the population in the Highland valleys. In the islands I could walk or canoe for hours between villages without encountering another soul. In contrast, the Eastern Highlands were teeming with people.

Wandering the open-air produce markets in Goroka, I bent down to purchase carrots and stood up to find myself surrounded by a village. Outsiders are still relatively rare in the Highland towns of PNG, and a white man in the market caused a crowd of curious locals to form in seconds. When members of the crowd discovered I could converse fluently, several discussions began at once. "Where are you from? What is your work? What church do you belong to? Before too long, the conversation inevitably turned to 'divelopmen'.

Goroka's dusty streets - Eastern Highlands, PNG

Goroka's dusty streets - Eastern Highlands, PNG Photo: Paul Wolffram

As a member of a 'developed,' country I was thrust into the role of development expert. Conversations about development in Papua New Guinea are at times difficult and confusing. The underlying question at the heart of these discussions is, "How can we get this thing, divelopmen?"

My attempts to answer, suggesting that, "development arises from education, employment and cooperation between government and business," were completely unsatisfactory to my audience. I knew that my friends in the market were convinced that I knew the 'secret' to 'divelopmen' but like others of my countrymen, I was unwilling to share it with them.

Over the next two weeks in Goroka I had many conversations in the markets. Beside 'divelopmen,' the topic of 'sanguma' - sorcery violence, arose frequently. The first conversation I had about sorcery was with a young man who told me, matter-of-factly, how he and his fellow villagers had recently had to kill a witch in his community.

I began to ask around about 'sanguma' - sorcery violence. After five days I'd learnt enough to know that the belief that witches frequently kill people through magical means is not a bizarre concept held by a few, it is rather, a belief that is ubiquitous in the Eastern Highlands. What's more, many ordinary people believe that it is their duty as members of a community, and as good Christians, to root out, attack, and even kill those suspected of sorcery.

These are not practices that have existed for centuries among remote rainforest communities. These ideas have arisen in the last 20 - 25 years. The ideas around 'sanguma' - sorcery violence, have arisen alongside and in the context of 'divelopmen.'

While a belief in sorcery has long been part of many Melanesian communities worldview, the idea that sorcerers should be identified, tortured, and killed, arrived recently along with the term 'sanguma.'

Dr Gerard Seliu, an indigenous medical researcher in the field of paediatrics at the Institute of Medical Research, describes the rise of sorcery violence. He explains that the word 'sanguma' arose alongside the idea that the misfortune and deaths caused by magic could be countered by killing accused witches. While belief in magical killings is ancient in many parts of Melanesia, the idea that sorcerers should be physically punished is a new idea. Gerard and his wife have been using their church networks and professional esteem to do all they can to rescue women, men, and increasingly children, from torture and death, as accused witches.

Dr Gerard Seliu - Human Rights Defender

Dr Gerard Seliu - Human Rights Defender Photo: Paul Wolffram

"The term 'sanguma' is foreign, it's not Melanesian, and certainly it's not Papua New Guinean," explained Dr Seliu as we drank tea outside his colonial era house on the wide Queenslander style veranda. He described a pre-existing belief in ancestral spirits, combining with shifting world views, introduced technologies, rapidly changing regional economics, and the influence of Christian missionaries, as creating the conditions that sparked this dangerous idea, and the spread of 'sanguma' - sorcery violence.

The concept of 'sparking' or igniting things is an idea that Associate Professor Miranda Forsyth of the Australian National University has also come up with. Forsyth, along with her colleagues who have been working on the issues of Sorcery Accusation Related Violence (SARV) since before 2015. The comparison to 'wildfire' is particularly apt. When the conditions are right, a normally peaceful community is suddenly engulfed by horrific scenes of violence.

Forsyth has described how, like wildfire events, it is often at the fringes of the fire line where things burn the hottest. In recent years some of the most shocking events of sorcery violence have occurred in communities where the ideas around 'sanguma'- sorcery violence, had only recently arrived. Forsyth describes how communities on the fringes don't have the resources or social practices to effectively calm the flames.

I returned to Goroka in 2018 and 2019 to conduct further research into this disturbing and growing phenomenon. Why do communities who have long standing beliefs in the relationships between the living and the ancestors, who have hosted shaman and sorcery practitioners with ease, suddenly invent a new term 'sanguma?' What has changed that generations of Melanesians who lived comfortably with sorcery practices develop the desire to physically attack and kill accused sorcerers?

Indigenous human rights defender, Evelyn Kunda describes how traditionally, in parts of the Highlands, no one was believed to have died from old age. Rather people eventually fell victim to the malicious sorcery of neighbouring waring tribal groups. "These days when someone dies in the village, especially someone who is young or in a high position, the relatives of the deceased immediately begin to seek out the perpetrator," Evelyn explains.

Evelyn Kunda - Human Rights Defender in her safe house among the slums of Goroka

Evelyn Kunda - Human Rights Defender in her safe house among the slums of Goroka Photo: Paul Wolffram

In today's context, rather than blaming it on the malicious sorcery of rival clans and seeking retribution through the use of magic, the community and family look within to their own family group. Once the supposed sorcerer or witch is identified the family physically attack and sometime murder their own.

The implementation of Western legal systems has seen intertribal warfare reduced to rare events. Any events are usually brief and local systems of 'payback' have been institutionalised. As a consequence, people no longer accuse other groups of magical killings, instead they seek the alleged perpetrators within their own clans.

In late 2018 two young men invited me out to their village in the Asaro region, forty minutes outside of Goroka. There, they showed me several unmarked graves and described in graphic detail how families "weed their own gardens." That is, they kill their own family members to remove the witches from within. These killings are never reported to the police and the family simply hides the victims.

Evelyn Kunda has been looking after those few women who somehow escape this grisly fate and find themselves living on the streets of Goroka. Evelyn, along with Dr Seliu and other members of the Catholic church in Goroka, help to house and feed these survivors.

"A typical example of what I see," Evelyn explains, "is when a man in his thirties or early forties suddenly dies. He may have been HIV positive and too ashamed to seek treatment. Then he catches a cold and dies suddenly. His wife, who in most cases will come from a different linguistic group, is suddenly alone with her deceased husband's family. She is already seen as an outsider and it becomes all too easy to 'point the finger' and say, 'she is responsible, she used sorcery to kill our brother.'

Highlands women attend a funeral for a victim of a sorcery accusation-related attack

Highlands women attend a funeral for a victim of a sorcery accusation-related attack Photo: Supplied

In 2019 Evelyn and I travelled back to her home village high in the mountainous northern valleys of the Simbu district, the place that many describe as the origin place of 'sanguma' - sorcery violence. The villages in the region are stunningly beautiful with rich fertile ridges, warm days, and cool nights. After several days in the village some of the elders in the community learned that I could speak Tok Pisin. They called me to come and talk with them.

The first question that I was asked was, "Paul, the planes that land at the airstrips, they are machines made by men, right?" I confirmed that this was the case, that planes were made in large factories. The elderly men nodded and made sounds of agreement. Then one of them said, "We thought this was the case, we just wanted to check with a white man who made sense." It's easy to forget that many places in the Highlands didn't have contact with outsiders until the 1930's and that many concepts that we take as self-evident, are still somewhat novel, even magical, to people living in remote regions of PNG's highlands.

I was offered tea and naturally, the conversation turned to 'divelopmen.' I offered up my usual, unsatisfactory answers about how they might hunt down their own 'divelopmen,' skin it, gut it, and bring it back to their own village to enjoy as a community. I tried to explain that there are no 'secrets' that outsiders are intentionally hiding, that the answers rather, lay in education for their children, hard work, and employment. These were the only roads that I knew of that would deliver development.

The following day as Evelyn and I walked out of her pristine home valley back towards the relative civilisation of Goroka, we took in vistas of the rich fertile gardens of her fellow clansmen. Evelyn pondered how just a generation ago, when her father was young, a man could aspire to be someone important in his community by having a large garden, many pigs, and by conducting himself well in intertribal conflicts. Now however, Evelyn mused, one needs money, a four-wheel drive car, and a large house in town to be considered a man of consequence, a Big Man, as they are known in Melanesia.

PNG Highlands Highway

Photo: RNZ Pacific/ Koroi Hawkins

When the world no longer makes sense, when one's agency is taken away, when identity becomes uncertain and the relationships between humans and spirits, the links with the past, break down, things like 'sanguma' - sorcery violence begin to appear.

While Evelyn continues to try to educate her fellow community members, rescue women, men, and children from domestic and sorcery accusation related violence, Papua New Guinea continues to stumble towards 'divelopmen.'

I don't pretend to know the answer to why 'sanguma'- sorcery violence has arisen and spread through regions of the Highlands like wildfire. What I do know, is that 'divelopmen' will remain elusive to Papua New Guinean's as long as 'sanguma' remains.

Just as colonial practices have helped to bring about the systems and conditions that have created 'sanguma'. Aspirant post-colonial nations like New Zealand, Australia, and others, must be part of creating the conditions that bring sorcery violence to an end. We can and must be part of enabling the 9 million people who live in PNG to find their own indigenous solutions.

Evelyn Kunda and the works she does as an indigenous human rights defender is risky and unfunded. She works in a context of almost ubiquitous belief, her assistance to the victims of sorcery violence makes her aligned with the witches in the eyes of many people. However, her work and compassion reveal a little of the road by which all of Papua New Guinea will eventually achieve 'divelopmen.'

*Paul Wolffram is a film-maker and Associate Professor in the Film Programme at Te Herenga Waka. Paul has been working with communities in PNG for over 20 years. His new short film Wildfire and its accompanying feature project will help efforts to stop Sanguma or sorcery related killings and violence in Papua New Guinea.

PNG Highlands Highway

Photo: RNZ Pacific/ Koroi Hawkins