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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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in all three Local Level Government (LLG) areas of the District. The communities are listed below:

Digine LLG - Kelmakeli and Gaima (two tribal enemies): Kelmakeli is situated up the mountain and is about two hours walk from the main Gumine road. Kelmakeli has experienced election-related violence in 2007 with its neighboring tribe Gaima. Gaima is near the main Gumine highway. Gaima experienced tribal violence with Kelmakeli during the 2007 national elections.

Kumai-Bomai LLG (three communities with no CDA presence): Dia community is about 30km from Kundiawa town. It is located at a high altitude and is very cold almost throughout the day. Dia had no CDA community facilitator at the time if the study, however the community was motivated and well organized.

The community also experiences tribal conflict during election periods and other issues, mostly related to 7 women, may cause tribal violence from time to time. Interviews were also conducted in two neighboring communities: Diayuri and Gomgale.

Gumine LLG – (three non-tribal conflict communities): The Gumine highway passes through Kewaldien, Bokoloma and Bokil villages. Tribal violence is rare and the communities are relatively peaceful, although other types of violence were identified. In Kewaledian the last tribal fight was in 2001 which only lasted two months. Bokolma is about ten minutes walk from Kewaledian. It is also near the Gumine highway and experiences tribal conflict every 15-20 years. Bokil is about 15 minutes walk up the hill from Bokolma.

Tribal violence occurs once in a while, the last tribal fight was experienced in 2001. PRA exercises were conducted in Bokil whilst interviews were conducted in Kawaladien and Bokolma.

Ethical Considerations Ethical consideration is very important when conducting research on insecurity and requires an extreme sensitivity to the context and to the needs of the participants. Many participants have been traumatized by many years of conflict and internal displacement. Others have suffered long term violence in marriage or within the family. Consent was thus sought prior to interviews being carried out and confidentiality was maintained and emphasized to participants throughout the interview.

Ethical considerations also demand that the findings should be presented back to the community.

Presentation of initial findings was duly made to each community, encouraging young people and women to do the presentation. These events represented an opportunity for discussion and debate on main issues that were identified through the research. Participants at all study sites confirmed that the data presented was a true impression of their community.


Beliefs about sorcery in Simbu Every society has its own explanations of the world and is interested about how and why things happen the way they do. Simbu people like those in other parts of PNG and in the rest of Melanesia have a deep commitment to family relations, strong connections with the land and beliefs in the spiritual world. These beliefs and customs are passed through oral history: ancestral stories and myths promote this idea of a non-empirical world that has an influence on the physical realm. The study showed that feelings of insecurity were closely linked to this belief system. In the community mapping exercise, places of insecurity were identified by participants. People fear both the spirits of the dead and locations associated with them, including cemeteries and places where deaths had occurred such as battle-fields, rivers where people had drowned or sites of intentional killings. Mountains, thick bush or forest and rivers or creeks that have a particular significance or story attached to them are also places that people fear and avoid.

The main fear was of ancestral spirits often referred to as ‘masalais’, which may take human form and which live in the mountains or bush away from human settlement. Belief in these spirits has implications other than simple avoidance of certain sites: at one site that was visited, most men have two wives. If the first wife tries to run away men may threaten to throw her clothes into the masalai stone, suggesting that she will eventually die wherever she is. Men take advantage of this and have more than one wife. The 8 Health Services study mentions the belief that misfortunes caused by disturbing areas occupied by spirits or masalais can either bring good fortune or bad (Health Services and IMR 2004:17-18).

Sorcery (usually referred to as sanguma) was one of the issues most commonly mentioned at all study sites. Respondents expressed fear of the practice of sorcery and of perceived sorcerers who they believe can directly harm themselves and their families, or bring about misfortune. The use of sorcery powers were also linked to disasters occurring during warfare. For example, if a woman asks questions about how guns are used, their provenance or purpose; and a man is subsequently killed in a fight, then his death will be blamed on the woman. Women therefore, refrain from asking about the ownership and use of guns. They keep well away from the affairs of men when it comes to tribal fights or guns, as it is seen to be men’s affair and questions will draw suspicion upon them.

According to Zocca (2009), in Simbu the most common form of destructive magic is known as kumo. This term refers to an animal form which takes possession of a person and forces him/her to do evil things.

Despite this idea that the person practicing sorcery is possessed, they are still considered responsible for the evil actions. Kumo is often used interchangeably with the pidgin word sanguma, which has a broader

meaning, and thus today kumo signifies both the intruding creatures and Sorcery in general (Zocca 2009:

20). ‘Sangumas’ are accused of causing illness, killing people, causing other misfortunes, feeding on the flesh of dead people, feeding on human flesh, internal organs and waste, and taking the form of animals. It is believed that the use of these powers is most likely to affect the immediate family. Those perceived to possess those powers are despised and avoided.

The phenomenon of sorcery and witchcraft is an explanation used to understand unusual events, especially those of a harmful nature (Health Services and IMR 2004: 15). ‘Today hardly any death or sickness is regarded as natural or accidental by the Simbus’ (Zocca 2009:32). ‘Abnormal’ symptoms of illness or sudden death, sickness and misfortune lead to suspicions of sorcery.

“We live close to each other and when one falls ill or a leader gets sick, they immediately accuse people who they believe they practice sorcery. They burn their houses and attack them” (young woman, Bokolma).

People reflect on anything that the victim of the sorcery attack could have done that would have brought on the misfortune. When there is an unexplained death in the village people start to ponder who might have wanted the deceased dead, they remember their movements over the past few days and with whom they may have come into contact. An example would be a person falling sick after taking food given by someone else. In Gumine, young men said they only take food from their mothers because of this insecurity. The accusation would be made against the person that cooked the food and gave it, usually a female. A possible candidate is suggested and this then becomes hear-say; rumors gain momentum and, with increased support from the community, they may lead to an attack. “Someone dies and then people will start talking and then someone will start whispering and saying well you know, it might be this person” (Father Phil Gibbs in McLeod 2004). Even when medical explanations are given relating to the cause of death, there was always the question of, ‘then what caused the illness or medical condition of the deceased?’ “A readiness to be deceived relieves people of the need to enquire further” (Health Services and IMR 2004: 27).

9 When several people from the same family or community fall sick or die it is believed to be the work of sorcerers. Such deaths may require more than one sorcerer and an agreement reached about the persons to be killed. When people argue over land, they are attentive to the words used during the dispute. If later one of the men dies, then those involved in the dispute may be accused of Sorcery. Any behaviour out of the ordinary near the time of death can make a person a potential suspect of the death (Zocca 2009: 27).

The main motives behind supposed acts of sorcery include an outstanding debt not yet settled; feelings of jealousy, envy or resentment of that person and anything that may have angered the sorcerer. Even when an abnormally large number of livestock or domestic animals die it may be blamed on acts of sorcery. The accused assert that accusations are made when people want to take over their land or possessions and when there are existing disagreements between the parties.

“..for instance, if you have credit with other people and have not repaid it, there is a possibility that you will be attacked. It is a big problem here and has resulted in fights between families, clan” (young woman, Kewaledian).

Innocent people can be accused of sorcery and killed out of jealousy or for revenge. Participants in Gumine acknowledged that indeed, innocent people have been blamed and killed over the death of others. Those that are accused of sorcery hold grudges against the people that have accused them, causing on-going tensions and long term rifts within communities.

“Innocent people are being killed because of being suspected of sanguma, while others have long lasting conflicts” (young man, Kelawadian).

Identity of sorcerers People harbor stereotypes about who practices sorcery and is thus in the possession of an evil power. Although Sorcery accusations can be directed at both men and women particularly elderly women are usually the first to be blamed and first to be targeted when there is an unexplained death or misfortune that is experienced. In Gumine one women’s group stated that “when men die they put pressure on us the women and we are the first accused”.

Respondents at all sites visited for this study said women were the first targets of sorcery accusations when there was a death in the village. In Gumine adult women live with a constant fear of being accused of sorcery. Some women mentioned that it is in fact men who practice sorcery, but manage to avoid accusation by blaming women.

5 Other studies on Simbu found that sorcerers are often identified by their appearance and behavior. They look dirty and have sores on their body, they are seen at odd hours at night, they behave strangely during funerals, look for human waste, and they are always hungry for meat and stare at people when they are eating. The sorcerer would have been seen around the place or area where the incident occurred. Weak and unimportant people are more likely to be accused (Zocca 2009: 27).

–  –  –

“The accusation of practicing witchcraft always leads to problems and troubles in the community.

Women especially the elderly are the common suspects of practicing sanguma” (adult woman, Kewaledian).

Acts of sorcery are usually believed to occur within families: participants shared stories of being accused and beaten by their own family members. One woman said that after her husband’s death, she was blamed for his death and suffered beatings at the hands of her own sons. Another woman stated that her mother had been tortured and burnt by young men in their family after the death of her father. This pattern is confirmed in the literature, which also suggests that accusations most often occur between close relatives, creating disharmony, and family break-ups. The conflict and tension between the family and parties involved is long-lasting and often people do not see face after accusations are made and even after peace is brokered and some form of compensation paid for the shame.

Impact of Sorcery accusationsTorture, exile and murder

During the research respondents stated that sorcery related violence or killing occurs only occasionally and not every time that a death occurs; it commonly follows deaths of young men because it is said that they have a long life ahead of them and it has been cut short. Victims are tortured and interrogated sometimes at gun-point to admit to the offence and to call the names of other sorcerers6. Accused persons said the only way they could put an end to the torture was by admitting to the deed.

“When people are reluctant to say they are involved in Sanguma activities they are forced with gun to confess that they are one of them” (young woman, Bokil).

This may involve testing whether the sorcerer does in fact the powers they profess to have by public display. For example, telling the accused to empty the contents of a can of fish without it being opened. If need be a witch-doctor or diviner called a ‘glasman’ is brought in to identify the sorcerer who caused the death. Calling on glasman as a way to confirm suspicions demonstrates that ‘proper procedures’ have been followed (Health Services and IMR 2004: 7). A witch-doctor may be brought in from another place: for example, the relatives of one deceased person in Gumine sought an explanation by talking to a witchdoctor in Madang, who then revealed the ‘cause’ of the death.

A number of respondents reported that, following confession or ‘confirmation’ of the suspect’s guilt, they are often beaten and banished from the community rather than killed and that, whilst sorcery-related killings in the past were very high, these have been reduced now to casting out the accused7. Often the 6 Also recorded by Zocca (2009), who mentions that in Simbu, accusations of Sorcery may be confirmed (or refuted) by responses during questioning: if the accused fails to answer appropriately according to the judgment of the questioners, then they conclude that she is a Sorcery practitioner and they torture her or even kill her. Some confessions are also exacted under torture.

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