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«Sorcery beliefs and practices in Gumine: a source of conflict and insecurity 15 October 2010 1 Contents INTRODUCTION BACKGROUND Sorcery in Papua New ...»

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Sorcery beliefs and practices in Gumine:

a source of conflict and insecurity

15 October 2010





Sorcery in Papua New Guinea

Profile of sorcery in Simbu Province and Gumine district



Study Sites

Ethical Consideration


Beliefs about sorcery in Simbu

Identity of sorcerers

Impact of Sorcery accusations

Local solutions suggested by participants

The role of the police and judiciary

The role of the church




–  –  –

Oxfam International Papua New Guinea (PNG) through its peacebuilding and conflict reduction programme in the Highlands of PNG conducts research that informs programme and policy developments. This paper is an overview of research findings that were conducted as a part of the Security and Community Initiative Research (SACIR) project in Gumine District of the Simbu Province, working with affected people to explore their own situation, develop their own criteria of risk and determine local solutions to these problems. The aim of the study was to explore how individuals and communities perceived insecurity, and how this related to incidences of violence; looking at the nature of violence and conflict, common triggers and impacts. At all sites that were visited, sorcery was often mentioned as a trigger and source of violence and conflict in the community. This report will discuss those findings related to the practice of witchcraft and sorcery and how this relates to insecurities faced in many families and the wider community in Gumine District. The results are presented here in the context of recent literature on sorcery, in particular important studies by the Health Services with IMR (Institute of Medical Research) and the Melanesian Institute. It is hoped that this material will help to increase the understanding amongst Oxfam staff of the nature and consequences of belief in sorcery and the role of the church and judiciary. The paper concludes by suggesting ways in which Oxfam can work with its local partners to mitigate or reduce some of the harmful consequences of sorcery beliefs.


Sorcery in Papua New Guinea According to the Encyclopedia Britannica (1977), sorcery and witchcraft is defined as “ritual performance that is thought to lead to the influencing of human or natural events by an external and impersonal mystical force beyond the ordinary human sphere” (cited in Zocca and Urame 2008: 10). The majority of Papua New Guineans do not accept natural causes as an explanation for misfortunes such as sickness, accidents or death - instead these are attributed to supernatural causes which we have grouped under the collective term of ”Sorcery”1. Those accused of Sorcery are considered to have deliberately caused misfortune through use of supernatural powers; they are usually punished by death, injury, destruction of property or exile. Police reports show that victims have been buried alive, beheaded, choked to death, thrown over cliffs or into rivers or caves, starved, axed, electrocuted, suffocated with smoke, forced to drink petrol, stoned or shot (Amnesty International 2009).

1 In Papua New Guinea terms such as the pidgin sanguma, poison and witchcraft (together with a multitude of terms in local languages) may be understood in different ways including: the possession of people by evil beings which take animal form and which confer supernatural powers on their hosts (usually referred to as sanguma or kumo in Simbu);

forcing of a harmful object or substance into the victim so that they become sick or die, control of external powers intrinsic to the person of the sorcerer which enable that person to inflict sickness or death by willpower alone; and the ability to become invisible or to fly. Sorcery may involve contagious magic (malevolent actions on the ‘leavings’ of a person), or involve causing direct physical harm to the victim. In this paper, as in Gibbs and Wailoni (2009), we have decided to use the capitalized word Sorcery to cover all these, meaning the use of magical power to influence events.

3 There is a perception that sorcery related attacks are increasing in the Highlands, although this may be partly due to a recent surge in media interest in the phenomenon2; a lack of data on the past make true comparisons difficult. The study by the Health Services and Institute of Medical Research (IMR) suggests an increase in the number of sorcery-related attacks (Health Services and IMR 2004: 14). The Health Services conducted an inquiry into the growing number of people suspected of being sorcerers presenting to health services for treatment. They also note an increase in patients who believed their sickness was a direct result of the practice of sorcery as well as relatives of those deceased seeking a post-mortem to determine the cause of death. These phenomena were mostly recorded in EHP and Simbu province or amongst those originating from Simbu.

Some argue that the apparent growing number of accusations of sorcery is a convenient disguise for premeditated murder based more on a person's dislike for another, rivalry or revenge, rather than a deeprooted traditional belief of sorcery. There is also a concern that many murders may be linked to the prevalence of HIV, the disease being seen as the result of the practice of witchcraft and sorcery magic (Varolli 2010). The Health Services study attributes the increase in sorcery accusations in recent years to high expectations that have turned into frustration and anxiety as many have found themselves excluded from the benefits of development. The increase in sorcery cases may be a sign of this social stress (Health Services and IMR 2004: 23). Historical studies looking at European witchcraft also link this phenomenon to social change (Health Services and IMR 2004: 15).

The Health Services/IMR study looks at the changes that have taken place that may have contributed to a change in sorcery accusations from an ‘endemic’ to an ‘epidemic’ state. Older people described changes in killings of suspected sorcerers in recent years; they said that in the past, killings had the following


1. Occurred occasionally and only after careful consideration by elders that it was necessary for the well-being of the community, now hearsay and rumor play a much larger role in accusations;

2. Never took place in public;

3. The body was never displaced for fear of the spirit entering another person;

4. No children or young people allowed to witness the killings;

5. Killing done with arrows or spears with weapons discarded with the body after the killing.

These characteristics no longer hold today, and the changes were said to have taken place after the 1980s.

It has also been suggested that in the past spirits and ancestors were more often blamed for misfortune, but as these beliefs were suppressed by the church, accusations came to be focused instead on living people (Lederman in Zocca 2009).

Another reason why sorcery must be of concern to organizations such as Oxfam is that the accused are often the most vulnerable in society – for example in Simbu the majority of accused in the last few years are women related to the deceased and aged between 40-60 years (Zocca 2009: 27)3. A report by Amnesty International (2009:22) suggests that women are six times more likely to be accused of sorcery than men).

As we will see in this paper widows and the elderly are often targeted in Gumine.

2 The media reported the deaths of 50 women in 2009 through sorcery related attacks; according to the CEDAW 2010 PNG status report such cases have doubled in recent times (Varolli 2010).

4 The Minster of Community Development, Dame Carol Kidu in a statement to a UN committee on PNG’s progress to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) said data collection on the number of attacks and deaths is lacking (Varolli 2010). A call for more research on the issue was also made in a conference held in Madang in 2009 on ‘Law on sorcery and sorcery-related killings’ (Gumar 2009). In Simbu, one of the earliest studies was in the 1950s when anthropologist Paula Brown described sorcery in her book The Simbu: A Study of Change in the New Guinea Highlands (1972) as a powerful weapon of revenge (Brown 1972 in Zocca 2009: 18). There have been several other books and dissertations on sorcery in Simbu, particularly in the 1980s, but the most recent is the publication ‘Sanguma in Paradise’ (2009) by the Melanesian Institute in Goroka that looks at sorcery in both Simbu Province many other parts of the country.

Profile of sorcery in Simbu Province and Gumine district Simbu Province is made up of six districts; this study was conducted in the Gumine District situated in the central part of the province. The reason for the choice of this district was the presence of Oxfam’s partner, Community Development Agency (see below). Mountainous and difficult terrain, high population density, and a lack of economic opportunities have led to high levels of out-migration.

The part of the Melanesian Institute study which focuses on Simbu (Zocca 2009) looked at records kept in hospitals, police stations and churches which then formed the basis for interviews to be carried out. Simbu Province police records showed 67 Incidents relating to Sorcery from April 2000 to June 2005 in which 92 people were accused of Sorcery and were severely injured or killed (Zocca 2009: 21). According to these records Gumine had the highest number of cases with 32 persons in total injured or killed in witchcraft or sorcery related attacks (13 men and 19 women); of these, 26 died from their injuries. The majority of these victims were in the 40-65 age range for both men and women. Kundiawa Hospital records supported this with 75% of the cases presenting for treatment of sorcery-related injuries were elderly (Zocca 2009: 23).

Again, proportionally more females (31/48) than males presented (17/48). The police records suggest that Gumine is the most affected district both in terms of the number of sorcery-related incidents and the incidence of fatal attacks on the accused4. These official records show a slightly higher proportion of cases affecting women rather than men, but interviews suggest that the disparity is in fact much greater, most respondents suggesting that women bear the brunt of sorcery accusations and attacks.


Qualitative methodologies were used, including Participatory Rural Appraisal tools and techniques which allowed violence and insecurity to be expressed in different ways by participants. The following diagramic

exercises were used:

Community Map – a graphical representation mapping the impact of insecurity on mobility. The mapping exercise gave participants the opportunity to examine geographical areas of insecurity in their community 4 Gumine actually has the smallest population of any district in Simbu, so the high number of sorcery-related attacks cannot be attributed to a high population.

5 and to identify areas for improvement. It was the first exercise to be done by participants, creating a dialogue among participants and with the research team.

Venn Diagram – following the community mapping exercise the Venn diagram was used to explore types of violence, the frequency with which they occurred and their impact on the lives of men and women respectively. Circles representing each type of violence were drawn: the closer a circle to the community circle in the centre, the more frequent the type of violence represented. The size of the circles indicated the strength of the impact on the group concerned. The highlighted circles are the types of violence affecting the group undertaking the exercise (men and women separately). An example is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Venn diagram of adult women from Dia (Kumai-Bomai LLG)

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Problem Tree – is a problem analysis of the main triggers and corresponding effects of violence.

Peace Circle – was developed upon reflection and analysis of the problem tree for participants to form local solutions that were practical and useful to the community.

Focus group discussions and in-depth interviews were utilized for deeper analysis of the aspects of violence and security that emerged through the diagramming techniques. By using different techniques, we were able to draw attention to diverse perspectives, and confirm findings through triangulation. The participatory nature of the study provided a voice to groups vulnerable to violence and drew attention to a broadened notion of security and to locally appropriate intervention strategies. It allowed people 6 to develop their own criteria of risks and their own ideas about what appropriate interventions might look like. Through the exercises participants were able to identify the root causes of problems and what needed to be done to reduce the risk of violence. Participants stated that it helped to have people from outside their community facilitate and guide them through the process so that they could critically reflect on their own lives.

Participants The participants in PRA exercises formed four groups: adult men, adult women, young men and young women. The exercises were conducted separately with each group, providing an opportunity for all to voice their concerns and experiences. Each group consisted of 5-10 participants, however at times there were more depending on the level of motivation and interest of the community to participate. Each group identified a literate person who drew up the diagrams while the rest contributed ideas.

–  –  –

Study Sites Oxfam supports the work of a local organisation, Community Development Agency (CDA) which has a geographical focus on Gumine District. In those villages where the agency has a presence, it supports community facilitators responsible for community mobilization and training. The research was conducted in eight communities, including sites both with and without a CDA presence. The study covered locations

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