In early April, an elderly woman named Helen Rumbali was accused of being a witch and killing a member of her village by using dark magic. She was taken from her home by an angry mob, tortured for over 12 hours, and eventually beheaded in public. In the West, words like magic and sorcery usually conjure up images of fictional bespectacled boys and bearded men going on epic quests to do good. For most people living in the remote highlands of Papua New Guinea however, magic is a dark and real thing.
Unfortunately, the case of Helen Rumbali is not an isolated incident. Over the last months, more and more reports of violent crimes related to sorcery are coming from Papua New Guinea. Official statistics of these hunts on sanguma are hard to come by, although the Constitutional and Law Reform Commission of Papua New Guinea reported that in the province Simbu alone 150 sorcery related attacks occurred every year. This has led to increasing international pressure on Papua New Guinea to take action. Last week, the New Guinean parliament voted to drop the 1961 Sorcery Act, which outlawed the use of wizardry and allowed the accusation of sorcery as a defense in murder cases. But what good will this do, in a country where the law has virtually no authority in the small villages and towns spread across the vast jungles and highlands?
Superstition concerning black magic and sorcery has been engrained in Papuan society for centuries, but over the last decades matters seem to be getting worse. The increase in number and gravity of these witch-hunts has been attributed to the rapid social and cultural changes Papua New Guinea underwent since the beginning of the 20th century. The highlands of the pacific island came in contact with Western explorers only after the 1930s, and the transition from wooden spears and isolated communities to industrialization, growing economic inequality and drugs and alcohol, took place within one generation. The social unrest is reflected in the witch-hunts: those that feel left behind often seek scape-goats among the weak and vulnerable. Instead of looking for whatcauses bad things to happen, many Papuans often focus on who did it.
Not just the remote tribesmen living in the mysterious jungles of the highlands believe in witches. Tim Elliott, a journalist for the Sydney Morning Herald, travelled to Papua New Guinea. He spoke to an educated English and history teacher for whom the existence of witches seemed only natural, and who explained why torturing them was inevitable: ”cut them, burn them, otherwise they will never admit to being witches.” The police in Papua New Guinea is undermanned, suffers from corruption, and more importantly, often believe in sanguma themselves.
Fortunately, there are grassroots initiatives of Papuan citizens who try to prevent witch-hunts from happening and look after victims and their families. But the people working for these organizations often risk being accused of witchcraft themselves. The modern witch-hunts in Papua New Guinea show how superstition and radicalization of old belief systems can lead to social disasters. Phenomena like these are no exceptions in developing countries like Papua New Guinea that have difficulties keeping up in an ever changing world.
Picture: Janet Kemo was accused of killing her husband when he died of tuberculosis. Her husband’s family tied her up, tortured her, and left her for dead.