Scott Waide: Why sorcery superstition thrives in PNG where services are poor

Villagers discuss an alleged sorcery case on the banks of the Bumbu River with EMTV News journalist Scott Waide in Morobe Province, Papua New Guinea. Video EMTV

ANALYSIS: By Scott Waide in Lae, Papua New Guinea

In the early hours of October 23, 2017, a woman in her late 40s was dragged out of her home by a mob who accused her of practising sorcery.

Until then, she had lived much like them – in a tiny rented shack in a settlement in Lae City at the edge of the Bumbu River.

The men carried what the landlord later described as a bamboo, used for witch hunting. According to them, the bamboo tells them where a sorcerer is.

READ MORE: Police rescue woman accused of sorcery

An edited image from the Bumbu River “sorcery” accusations incident … “failure of education”. Image: Pacific Media Watch

Police were alerted and came just in time to rescue the woman we later came to know as “Elizabeth” from the Eastern Highlands. They fired shots, dispersed the crowd and took the woman to hospital.

Her neighbour, someone who shared meals with her, was initially confused when they dragged her into her yard.

“They were going to burn her in front of my house,” she said. She continued her tale as I listened. She told them that she could be innocent. Her closest neighbor became her enemy after a few unfounded accusations.

She went on to justify why the accusations were correct.

Neighbour turned enemy
“She took my baby the other time. I think she ate her heart. I don’t know,” she said.

Her closest neighbour was now her enemy.

As I stood on the banks of the Bumbu river listening to the men and women talk about the sanguma meri I was going to interject, to try to make them see reason. But I held back.

This was not something you explain and reason to people who have grown up in a belief system that has never been challenged since childhood.

How do you do it?

From the outside, we see the obvious: Brutal violence against women. We see the mob mentality and the abuse. What do they see? A sorcerer who is a threat to society and life itself.

We are on two separate wavelengths. We are not connecting. Police can arrest 100 people, or a whole village. But the idea remains. You have to kill the idea with another.

‘Gruesome’ Madang case
In Madang in 2014, seven people including two children were killed in a raid on their village. The attackers were searching for sorcerers “responsible for a number of deaths” in the neighbouring village.

Gruesome pictures of hacked bodies were obtained by police. Later, 100 men and boys as young as 10 were arrested and taken to the Madang police station for questioning.

Each person had a sense that justice had been served, that they all did the right thing.

On the banks of the Bumbu River, what struck me was that most of the accusers were people younger than me – in their 20s and 30s. These are people you assume would be forward thinking and educated enough to not connect three unrelated deaths to a random woman in their community.

Maybe those who died perished after drinking water from the contaminated river. Maybe they died from multidrug resistant TB. But how would they know?

Their world is not one where bacteria and viruses live. They live in a world where people just do not die suddenly from heart attacks or suffer from depression or mental illness. There has to be a reason for the death and usually someone is to blame.

I was personally angered and disgusted that we have allowed our country to come to this state.

Failed education system
We are partly reaping the results of a failed education system imposed on our communities in 1995. An education system that took grade eight and ten dropouts and made them elementary school teachers in a few weeks.

In the Sandaun province, the Catholic Education Service struggled to implement government policy which demanded that the person with the highest education level in the village (which consultants assumed was grade 12), be trained as an elementary school teacher.

In Oksapmin, where I spent weeks with a research team talking to teachers and members of the community, that government directive was hard to implement if the “most educated” had completed grade eight a few years ago.

Over 20 years PNG sacrificed quality for quantity to meet UN goals of universal primary education. It looked good politically when we reported on the number of kids now able to attend school. But it was a double-edged sword.

We created generations of Papua New Guineans over two decades who could not even read after third grade. We chucked out critical thinking and opted to have our kids parrot whatever the teacher said and did according to the syllabus provided by the education department.

The evidence of the results are all around us — in the primary schools, in the high schools and in the universities.

Then our very own in the government system stole money meant to go to the health and education of our kids. Over the years, we saw education funding stolen through incomplete projects and medicine from area medical stores sold to private clinics while public medical facilities suffered.

The Public Accounts Committee hearings exposed so much of the rot. But few of the corrupt got the the pain they deserved.

Education ‘a burden’
A friend of mine, an academic, told of how students just want to get university life over and done with so they could “get jobs and work for money.” She said education has become a burden for those poorly educated in primary school and high school. University is no longer a fun learning experience.

The accusers of the woman are from a generation that came from the broken education system.

Their families are unable to access medical care because the health system is so heavily burdened and still too expensive for them. Every death is blamed on sorcery. Every illness can be blamed on some random old woman living near them.

In Pindiu, Morobe Province where I travelled with a provincial government team, the superstition is so deeply rooted. How can they trust modern medicine when they do not have access to it?

A village birth attendant assists nearly every woman who gives birth. If a child is born with a deformity, it is because of sorcery.

Superstition thrives where service delivery is poor.

Scott Waide is EMTV’s Lae bureau chief and runs the blog My Land, My Country. This article was republished with permission by Pacific Media Watch.

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