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The statistical nonsense coming out of PNG

The white man's ghost


HE SAID he had never seen a White man's ghost and I told him he was lucky; that a White man's ghost is very bad business. His eyes widened.

It all began earlier that morning when I emerged from the hauskiap and saw the clay figurine glaring up at me through cowrie-shell eyes from the bottom step. Someone was meddling with my karma. I bent down for a closer look and Constable Wagi, who was standing nearby, called out in alarm, "No ken holim, kiap; em samtin nogut tru!" I quickly pulled back; perhaps this voodoo doll was the real thing.

We were on road detail south of Namatanai, New Ireland, with several New Hanover prisoners who had been scraping away at the Muliama Bluff so that the Boluminski Highway could push further down the east coast. It was blood-racing work (I know because my patrol police and I often chipped in just for the youthful hell of it) and some of the prisoners were beginning to think of home and how they might get back there. Was one of them responsible for my malevolent little visitor?

Constable Wagi was anxious that we find the culprit, before nightfall at the latest, and get him to defuse the magic. Nobody in the camp would be safe otherwise. So, more for Wagi's peace of mind than mine, I sleuthed around and discovered that a prisoner (let us call him Bosmaris), disgruntled over his rations, had thought to cast a spell on me so that I would fall sick and return to Kavieng. How this was going to fill his belly, I was not sure. I don't think he was either.

"Salim i go bek long Kavieng," Wagi urged, after he had drawn me aside so that Bosmaris could not hear us discussing his fate. He spat on the ground to seal his judgement of the fellow, and I noticed he looked round first to make sure that Bosmaris wasn't watching. You cannot be too careful when a sorcerer is about! But I was reluctant to send him back to Kavieng because I knew that his mates would quickly catch on and that a whole line of voodoo dolls would be visiting me by the next morning.

So I decided to fight magic with magic and called the man over. He came, looking more surly than hungry, and I asked him to tell me again why he had left his mischievous handiwork outside the hauskiap. He told me.

"And what if your magic works so well that I get sick and die?" I asked.

He didn't answer. Perhaps he was hoping that the magic was already working and that if he said too much its power would be broken. I must be kept in the dark for as long as possible.

So I changed tack and asked him if he had ever seen the ghost of a Black man. I used the Pidgin term maselai which is a nasty kind of ghost, the kind you never want to see.

"No," he said.

"Do you know what a Black man's ghost looks like?"

His eyes widened and the surliness drained out of them. It was time for the strong medicine.

"Have you ever seen a White man's ghost?"

The eyes grew even wider and he shook his head, No.

"Are you sure?"

He said that he was.

"You are lucky. The White man's ghost is very bad business and brings more troubles than there are trees in the forest."

He didn't say anything to this, but looked away from me and stared at the jungle-covered hills. I think he was counting the trees.

I tell him I feel a bit sick, that my head hurts, that I might die in the night and then he will see his first White man's ghost.

Bosmaris swallowed and his face went as ashen as a dark skin allows, his eyes switching between terror and urgent solicitude for my continuing good health. He was very sorry to have troubled me, he said, and assured me that it had all been a big mistake and would never happen again and that I would live long enough to see many grandchildren.

I dismissed him with a wave of forgiveness and for the rest of our stay at Muliama I was his best friend. I probably still am.

And, yes, I now have grandchildren and am looking forward to many more.


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Barbara Short

I once heard an interesting story from a Wewak Catholic Mission pilot.

One day he had flown to Telefomin, in an isolated area of the upper Sepik. There was a man there who was slowly and painfully dying of sorcery.

The pilot heard from one of the priests that the way they carried out sorcery was to jump down on a man from out of a tree and knock him out cold. While he was in that state they would push very thin slivers of bamboo up through his body.

The entrance wound was not really noticeable but over time, as the man went about his work, the bamboo would tear away at his insides and give him terrible pain and he would eventually die of septicemia, i.e., blood poisoning.

But he would not know what had caused it and it would be spread around that he was dying of sorcery. Of course, it was really murder!

Well, the pilot offered to take the poor man back to Wewak and he told the story to the doctor at Wewak Hospital.

The doctor decided to have the patient x-rayed and to their amazement they could see the slivers! The sorcerers had this time decided to use a fine fencing wire instead of bamboo and, fortunately, it showed up in the x-rays!

The doctor then removed them and after a dose of antibiotics the man was cured and off back to his home village to show the miraculous powers the Wewak doctor had over sorcery!

Laurie Meintjes

Yes, Des, the sorcerers and their masalai apprentices were/are a potent force in PNG, and by reputation the Sepik area was/is one of the shamanistic hot spots.

The best servant I ever had was from Aitape and he succumbed to sorcery. He died while I was on leave, and when I last saw him, in Kavieng, he was as fit and healthy as an AFL player.

When I returned from South and was able to piece together details of his last days, it appeared he believed he had a sliver of bamboo fatally circulating in his arteries, somehow inserted there by a sorcerer in Aitape, and he flew home to die.

Obviously he did not have the good fortune to meet up with a kiap with some of that anti-masalai cure.

I wish that he had.

Laurie Meintjes

I think former kiaps, in the opinion of many older PNGeans, are still held in some awe. The kiaps were the eyes, ears, mouths and hands of the Administration, especially in the bush, and their influence went deep.

I returned to PNG as a teacher in the '80s and '90s and word quickly spread that I was an ex-kiap. I became aware of this quite early when I took a walk through the local village (Kabiufa) and heard the children, mostly boys, whispering to each other, "Em kiap, ia!"

Occasionally some issue would arise between the school and the village, and I was always able to resolve these quickly, and amicably, and I am sure that my ex-kiap status was a major factor in this.

Was Wagi impressed? I guess so. He certainly seemed a happier camper once the sorcerer had been de-fanged.

Folk won't be seeing this White man's ghost for a long time to come, Robin. I'm still counting grandchildren.

Des Martin

Laurie's mention of masalai the ghostly evil spirit that could only be sighted by someone upon whom a spell had been cast brought back memories.

Masalai were prevalent around Dreikikir around 1950 and on one occasion a local walking through the government post carrying his bow and arrow suddenly collapsed within yards of the office.

When the duty cop and I rushed to his aid he said he had seen a maselai and was about to die. I assured him that we whites had anti maselai medicine and we half carried him to the office.

As part of the medical stores I had a bottle of ether which was an old form of anaesthetic spray which more or less froze on the skin.

I sprayed the masalai victim with the freezing spray at the same time assuring him that it was the special white man's anti masalai cure. The victim fully recovered and went about his pursuits masalai free.

Robin Lillicrapp

Great story, Laurie. I'm curious, did the impact of your wise counsel extend beyond "Bosmaris?"

Was Constable Wagi suitably impressed? And are you still regarded with awe though a long time absent?

Should news of your ultimate demise ever reach those distant shores, a watch for your ghost may be kept, eh?

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