«Introduction Solomon Islands was primarily governed by customary law or custom before the protectorate era, which commenced in 1893. People still ...»
15. The Belief in Sorcery in
Philip Kanairara and Derek Futaiasi
Solomon Islands was primarily governed by customary law or custom before the
protectorate era, which commenced in 1893. People still embrace their customs
and cultures today even with the introduction of many changes affecting how
people think and how things are done. Preferring customary ways to settle
disputes, practising customary dances, tattooing, and weaving of mats and
baskets are some examples of how people still embrace their customs.
People also have strong beliefs in custom rituals and magic. These rituals and magic are believed to have good and bad causes. Belief in the magic of sorcery is an example of a belief that is still strong and alive in Solomon Islands society.
Sorcery today is an offence under both state and customary laws in Solomon Islands.
State law (the Penal Code [Cap 26] Section 190) refers to sorcery as:
i) the performance of any magical ritual where there is a general belief among a class of persons that may result in harm to any person; or ii) the possession of articles (without lawful excuse) commonly associated by any class of persons with harmful magic.
Under custom, sorcery in Solomon Islands can refer to an act or action that causes serious sickness or illness that could result in misfortune, insanity or death if no customary means of cure is given to the victim.
Sorcery can be for a good1 or bad cause. As to the latter, two common examples in Solomon Islands of the belief in sorcery are arua in Malaita Province and vele in Guadalcanal Province.
1 Antisocial behaviours are low for fear of sorcery; or sorcery provides the community the reason for death, sickness, insanity and misfortune.
281 Talking it Through Arua is a term given to a sorcery practice in which a male or female takes food scraps or a piece of clothing of another person and feeds it to a snake or frog or rat. This is mainly practised in some parts of Malaita.
Vele means ‘“to pinch”, from the tingling or pinched feeling in the arms that warns protected persons of the proximity of the vele magician’ (Wright 1940:203).
According to Wright (1940:204), ‘The usual method employed by the vele man is to hide by the side of a road and, as the victim approaches, to make a sharp noise, thus attracting attention. The man turns and sees the vasa2 suspended from a finger. He collapses, usually in an unconscious condition.’ This method is practised in Guadalcanal.
In 1932 in Ontong Java, Malaita Province, Ian Hogbin reported that:
When a sorcerer decided to kill a man, there were several ways in which it might be done. One was to get hold of something closely connected with him, — his hair, nail-parings, or saliva, the last being the favourite.
The sorcerer watched where his victim spat, and subsequently took the wet earth and worked his spells over it. Very soon the man would sicken and, if not treated, would die. Another method was to make spells over some such object as a stone, a human bone, or a few grains of sand.
During the night the sorcerer took this and either threw it into the house of the victim or buried it near the door. This was equally fatal.
The third way was to make an effigy out of pandanus leaf and stick skewers through it. As each one was put in, the man is said to have felt a sharp stab of pain. (Hogbin 1932:442) He went on to say ‘[t]he spells, like all others at Ongtong Java, were direct appeals to the spirits of the ancestors’ (Hogbin 1932:442–43).
Accusations of sorcery arise today because of several factors that include:
• jealousy due to social and economic advancement
• customary land disputes between different clans and tribes
• criminal activities within villages
• friendship breakdown.
Sickness, death, insanity or misfortune are widely believed to be possible results of bad sorcery.3 This chapter has five parts. Part 1 focuses on some common perceptions4 about sorcery in Solomon Islands. Part 2 briefly highlights some negative social consequences of the belief in sorcery. Part 3 deals with customary governance of sorcery. Part 4 deals with state governance of sorcery, and the final part suggests some ways forward and options for law reform.
Part 1: People’s views on the belief in sorcery The Solomon Islands Law Reform Commission (SILRC) conducted consultations in Solomon Islands in 2009 and 2010 on the review of the Penal Code. Sorcery was an issue highlighted by many people as being of serious concern in society and needing to be addressed by the government. The problem of sorcery was raised by many respondents, even though it was not a subject they were directly asked to comment upon. Below are some examples of views on sorcery expressed to the SILRC from people from Choiseul, Temotu, Isabel, Western, Malaita and
• Sorcery causes harm to human life. Sorcerers should be categorised as murderers. Sorcery can result in mental illness, bad luck and death. Capital punishment (death) should be the punishment for sorcerers. Sorcery is caused by power, self-defence and jealousy.5
• Sorcery is a main concern and is happening on a massive scale today. It is very common that when a person died, the death is often linked to an alleged sorcerer. In the past in custom, death was the penalty for practising sorcery.
Sorcery should be seriously considered and its penalty should be equivalent to that of a murderer.6 3 See also Bennett (1987:18), who said: ‘Solomon Islanders attributed major troubles to the actions of sorcerers. In the Melanesian’s view nothing happened by chance; people attempted to channel spiritual forces to their own ends. Consequently whatever happened — be it illness, a famine, death of a pig, the falling of a branch onto a child, the achievement of leadership, or victory in a battle — all occurred because someone had access to power from the spirits. One major way of gaining access was through sorcery, with the sorcerer using magical ritual to invoke a deity, an ancestral spirit, or less commonly, a demon spirit. Sorcery was universal and, in its negative aspects, greatly feared. A form of social control, it usually restrained the more ruthless and exploitive members of the community and ensured conformity to socially accepted moral values.’ 4 No detailed consultation was conducted by the Solomon Islands Law Reform Commission on sorcery.
The views in this paper are the ones people expressed during the general consultation on the review of the Penal Code.
5 Frank Waetara, Toroa village, Makira Province, verbal submission over mobile phone to the SILRC, 2010.
6 Tom Firilanga, Malu’u, North Malaita, Malaita Province, verbal submission to SILRC, 2010.
283 Talking it Through
• Sorcery disturbs the community. Those who practise sorcery should be punished accordingly. The sorcery offence should include threat to commit sorcery.7
• Sorcery in Solomon Islands is an act of murder.8
• Law should recognise customary law that deals with sorcery. The chiefs should deal with sorcery disputes. Use of witchcraft like black magic for house breaking is common.9
• Evidence of sorcery could be a report from the chief. Most deaths are believed to be caused by sorcery. Law needs to recognise death by sorcery. At the moment church leaders and chiefs conducted reconciliation and counselling to parties. Penalty for sorcery should be one of deterrence purpose.10
• Black magic or sorcery is widespread. There are more deaths caused by sorcery than other means. Law should recognise sorcerers as equal to murderers. People report sorcery incidents to the church. One alleged sorcerer was beaten to death because of sorcery. The church has gone on missions to collect evidence used in black magic.11 The central message from the above perceptions is that sorcery is a serious concern in society. The variety of views suggested the state, church and community leaders should be responsible for dealing with the sorcery offence.
The SILRC is actively working on the review of the sorcery offence as part of the review of the Penal Code and Criminal Procedure Code Reference, and is currently conducting consultations on this review. The end product of the review will be a report containing recommendations for law reform which will be sent to the government through the minister responsible for justice.
Part 2: Effects of the belief in sorcery Today in Solomon Islands, belief in sorcery is leading to criminal activities.
Some of these negative social effects are criminal offences such as assault, arson and murder.
In 2012, according to the Isabel provincial police commander, unlawful activities related to sorcery had increased in the highlands of Isabel Province (Kakai 2012).
In 2010, relatives of a dead man burnt down two homes in separate villages in Central Kwara’ae, Malaita Province, because they suspected their relative had
died due to a type of sorcery commonly known in the area as kelema (Kakai 2010). In this case, the police did not act because nobody reported the matter to them. In 2009 in East Kwaio, Malaita Province, a pagan priest who was suspected of practising sorcery was stabbed to death (Radio Australia 2009). These were some instances that suspected sorcerers were harmed and banished from living in communities.12 Furthermore, so-called customary healers or customary doctors sometimes take advantage of the strong beliefs in sorcery to commit sexual offences like rape and indecent assault in the name of curing or healing female victims from sorcery-belief sickness. An example is the case of R v. Tebounapa.13 In this case the customary doctor who was the accused was convicted for raping the complainant. He had sexual intercourse with the complainant during a massage session that was aimed at removing a devil from the complainant. First, the accused told the complainant that if she thought about her children, she must let him have sexual intercourse with her. He told the complainant that without sexual intercourse with her, the sickness would not be cured. The accused told the complainant that the purpose of sexual intercourse was to remove the dirty water from her body caused by poison (sorcery). If this was not done, she would die the following month. Also in this case, the same accused was convicted of indecent assault because the accused during the course of curing another complainant played with the clitoris of the complainant. The accused told the complainant that he had been given power and anointed by the chiefs to do such work. He told the complainant not to be afraid of him despite the occurrence of such sexual acts.
Rape was also committed in the case of Regina v. Sisiolo.14 In this case, the accused claimed to be a customary doctor. He also claimed to be someone who could predict the future. Because of his alleged background, he was allowed to cure a young girl who was believed to be a victim of sorcery. In the course of trying to cure the girl Sisiolo had sexual intercourse with her. Sisiolo claimed that a remedy to cure the alleged sorcery caused to the female complainant was sexual intercourse with her.
Part 3: Customary governance of sorcery In the past, sorcerers were killed if they were deemed responsible for the death of other persons (Ofasia 2003).15 Such payback killing could be executed by the relatives of the deceased.
In other instances, sorcerers were banished from the village or community. In one part of Malaita, the sorcerer would be represented by a coconut placed in the bae16 as an affirmation that they would not return. Sometimes they were asked to pay compensation before they left.
At present, chiefs or traditional leaders sometimes deal with sorcery because it is a customary wrong. An example was in 2010 in Malaita Province where chiefs were asked to deal with a sorcery case. A house of chiefs inquired into the matter and ordered the alleged sorcerer to pay 10 red shell valuables as compensation to the relatives of the deceased. The alleged sorcerer paid the compensation.17 Proving sorcery according to custom is different to the requirements of the state courts. Chiefs and other traditional elders have the knowledge and ability to prove sorcery according to customary acceptable standards. This is because although the practices or rituals of sorcery are done in secret, a person who practises sorcery is noticeable in the community. A sorcerer is suspected in the community by his or her strange behaviour. This includes strange things that are observed to happen at the sorcerer’s home. For example, snakes or frogs are regularly found in the home of the alleged sorcerer or lying in cooking pots or on plates.
In North Malaita (Toabaita and Lau) custom there are two common methods of proving sorcery. These methods both involve tracing. However, people’s acceptance of these methods is an issue.
The first method of tracing is to trace any contact that the victim had with the sorcerer. For example, the sorcerer might have given some food to the victim or might have taken a piece of the victim’s clothes. Any illness caused to the victim after his or her contact with the sorcerer is always suspected to be due to sorcery.
Further, if the sorcerer’s home was frequented by snakes or frogs, or if these 15 See also SILRC interview with Chief John Konai, Matakwalao House of Chiefs, North Malaita, Malaita Province, 2013; SILRC interview with Rinaldo Talo, president, Malaita Local Court, Malaita Province, 2013.
16 Place where people are buried.
17 SILRC interview with Chief John Konai, Matakwalao House of Chiefs, North Malaita, Malaita Province,
2013. The authors were unable to get information from the interviewee as to how the chiefs came to the conclusion that the alleged sorcerer was responsible for the death.