DURING their time in Papua New Guinea, I think most kiaps and some teachers, health professionals and certainly missionaries encountered sorcery.
To the western mind, the inexplicable and malevolent nature of sorcery was difficult to understand and explain.
It was easy to dismiss it as a silly superstition that would disappear with time when education and the Christian belief became more widely available.
Some people thought the western churches would stamp it out, although this was unlikely because a lot of what they preach requires a suspension of rationality in the same way sorcery does.
Papua New Guineans readily recognised this.
Sorcery, of course, is still alive and widespread in PNG, its existence best exemplified by the burning of witches in the highlands.
My most recent encounter with sorcery occurred about four years ago. I was doing social mapping at Amau, about 150 kilometres east of Port Moresby.
Amau was a major outpost of the Kwato Mission. Missionaries arrived in the area in 1934 so, if anywhere would be sorcery-free, you’d think Amau would be the place.
I was talking to a local councillor and elder of the church. He was blind in one eye and I asked him what had happened. He leaned close to me and whispered, “Sorcery”.
That night one of those big winds that occasionally blow up along the Papuan coast hit the village.
There were coconuts bouncing off roofs and stuff flying everywhere. At about two in the morning I abandoned the flimsy bush material house I was staying in and went to huddle with villagers on the road, well away from the trees and buildings, until the tempest blew over.
In the morning I sat listening to the people discussing the identities of those who had called up the wind. They finally decided it was an old man who lived at the edge of the village.
He was apparently getting revenge for some sort of snub he had received several months before. No one was game to confront him, it was generally believed his supernatural powers were too dangerous.
It is very tempting to feel superior in this sort of situation. Sorcery in our own western societies was discredited a long time ago.
Or was it? Exorcism is still on the books of many churches.
I spent my early years in a rural area in southern England and there were some strange beliefs around. None of them was particularly malevolent but they still defied logic: spilt salt thrown over the left shoulder; horseshoes nailed to doors; certain plants reputed to keep Satan at bay; that sort of thing.
In 1965 Jerzy Kosinski published a novel called The Painted Bird about a young, abandoned boy wandering through Eastern Europe during World War II. Kosinski was a Polish Jew who had lost most of family in the Holocaust. He came to America in 1957. Many people thought the novel was autobiographical.
The book is unrelentingly brutal and most of the violence is related to the superstitions and sorcery practised by the peasants the boy encounters in his desperate fight to survive.
The novel brought Kosinski a lot of ferocious criticism from people in Eastern Europe, where the book was banned, but he remained unmoved and unrepentant until he committed suicide in 1991.
More recently Australian author Hannah Kent published a novel called The Good People. It is based on a court case in Ireland in 1826 when an old woman was accused of the infanticide of a disabled boy she had been attempting to cure by trying to ‘put the fairy out of him’.
The novel goes into great detail about the superstitions and sorcery prevalent among peasants in Ireland at the time. The old lady was acquitted.
I’m a great believer in truth in fiction. In fact, I think there is often more truth there than we realise. Fiction gives us the opportunity to explore ideas in a way we might not be able to do elsewhere. That’s one of the reasons it is important.
That aside, both of these books do two things. The first is to put paid to the idea that we westerners have any claim to superiority when it comes to things like sorcery. The second is to provide a more familiar basis for understanding sorcery.
It seems that sorcery is on the rise in Papua New Guinea. I’d suggest there is a correlation between that, the failing education system and a waning economy that is failing to meet people’s aspirations for a good life.
As the churches have discovered, you can’t fight superstition with other superstitions. And sanctions have proved not to work. A strong economy is a driver and education is the key.
The rise of sorcery is another unintended consequence of falling educational standards and availability.
I don’t think the Papua New Guinean government realises this.