Sorcery, science, modernity & decent human behaviour
6-year old girl brutally tortured after being accused of sorcery

Sanguma: A real evil that destroys peace & communities


MADANG - Some people in Papua New Guinea are questioning whether sanguma is real. I would argue that the sanguma creature in itself may be as real as Santa Klaus or Harry Potter, but that the evil of sanguma is as real as torture and death are real.

I have witnessed or been closely associated with many cases of accusations of sanguma in the PNG Highlands.  Let me give examples of just three of the many and the reader can decide whether they are studies of good or evil and how real they are.

Mendaiwan was accused along with another woman when after a feast a man got ill and died. Men accused and tortured them with heated bush knives and steel rods, demanding to know where the women had put the dead man’s heart.

One woman died from the assault, but Mendaiwan managed to escape during the night.

The next morning, she was able to alert a relative who took her to a mission hospital in another province. She was eight months pregnant and the baby was born dead the next day – having died from burns suffered while in the mother’s uterus.

Mendaiwan was discharged from hospital several months afterwards, still professing her innocence.

ArmLapowan was accused of sanguma after a young man fell unconscious.  She was stripped naked and tied to a piece of machinery and tortured with hot irons to every part of her body. 

Despite the torture and demands that she confess that she is a sanguma, she maintained her innocence.  She managed to escape and to get to a mission hospital where the sisters treated her for over a month.

The young man, whose heart she was supposed to have taken and eaten, recovered, and her assailants claim that the torture must have forced her to put the heart back.  She continues to profess her innocence, but wherever she goes people point to her and hide their children lest she “eat” them. She lives in fear of being accused again.

Tepowan is six years old.  She is the daughter of Angeline Kepari Leniata who was accused of sanguma and tortured and burned alive before a crowd in Mt Hagen in 2013.  Just last week, one of Tepowan’s young playmates got sick and someone blamed it on young Tepowan accusing her of sanguma inherited from her mother.

Men heated bush knives in the fire and applied them to the child’s body trying to get her to confess that she is a sanguma. Fortunately, she was rescued and is now recovering in a mission hospital.

Was she really a sanguma? I don’t think so. The men regarded the child as possessed by evil, but surely the reality of evil in that case lies in the beliefs and actions of her male accusers.

I could give many other examples, but I trust this is sufficient to raise serious questions about the “reality” of sanguma in terms of a creature or evil spirit possessing women who then kill and eat people.

Yes, from a magical worldview people can fly, and twenty toea coins can come from someone’s knee. I personally have seen magicians supposedly removing stones from the belly of a sick person.

I am happy to hear if someone can be healed through such magic but the reality of sanguma in the Highlands is not healing, but quite the contrary – fear, pain and death.

I believe in God and I believe in the spirit of evil too. But my experience leads me to understand that the spirit of evil is not in the innocent women who are being accused by some glassman.

I am aware that some accused do confess under the pain of torture, but I question the truth of such confessions under torture and I maintain that the reality of the evil of sanguma is in the pain of torture and death and betrayal as a result of false accusation.  

In parts of the Highlands this is a reality facing our mothers sisters and daughters when the hysteria of sanguma breaks out in a community, all good sense is lost, and innocent people get accused.

All of us, men and women must work together to do everything possible to eliminate that very real evil that is destroying the peace and security of our communities.

Fr Philip Gibbs has been an SVD priest in Papua New Guinea for 45 years, mostly in the Highlands


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Michael Geketa

Very interesting scenarios you all spelled out. However, I would also contribute my sentiment as per this issue of sorcery or sanguma. Coming from a police environment I learnt these facts:[a] Sorcery related cases are not admissible in court because spiritual happenings cannot be proven due to no real evidence. [b] Therefore today, any sorcery-related death is out-rightly treated as murder or willful murder. If society and the state does not find a lasting solution, then sorcery and sanguma related injuries, accusations and deaths will worsen.A deterrent of a solid sort must be implemented such as the long awaited death-penalty and life-year in prison must be executed ASAP before it is too late.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I'm not sure the python story qualifies as sorcery Ross but if it does it shows how sorcery might have a useful, non-malignant, purpose.

I'd be inclined to put the story in the same category as the 'bogey man' that our parents used to keep us away from unsafe areas.

Not that a large python is ipso facto a dangerous thing - it would be completely harmless. I hope the good priest didn't kill it.

Lindsay F Bond

What is the basis for Sir Peter Ipatas asserting: "belief in an imported...belief"?

Ross Howard

Many years ago, I read a book by a French priest who had worked in the Yule Island diocese. I think his name was Fr Duperyrat, but I’m not sure and I can’t recall the name of the book. Some readers may know.

He related a number of spirit stories from, I think, the Goilala area.

One story I do recall concerned an area from where he wanted to cut some timber, but the locals would not venture there because of some “devil” dwelling therein. He was determined to prove their beliefs wrong.

The end result was that he captured an enormous python that lived there. So in fact their beliefs were not based on a mere fantasy.

But I recall other spirit stories which confounded him, and for which he could offer no rational explanation.

Chips Mackellar

Yes. But sometimes there is a real reason to explain an event attributable to sorcery.

When I was a Magistrate in Port Moresby a man was charged with sorcery. It was clearly sorcery the complainants said, and they explained that on a canoe trip from a Motu village to Kerema, somewhere in the Gulf of Papua, there was a discussion about a recent death in the village which was attributed to sorcery.

Possible suspects were discussed, and this led to an accusation that one of the passengers on the canoe was the sorcerer. The accusations became so heated that the crew attacked the supposed sorcerer and in fear of his life, he jumped off the canoe into the sea.

The night was dark, the sea was rough, the canoe was miles offshore and the probability of the suspect surviving in the sea alone was thought to be nil. So the canoe sailed on leaving the suspect adrift in the Gulf of Papua.

Some weeks later the canoe returned to the village to find the suspect alive and well. That proved the suspect was the sorcerer, the accusers said, otherwise how did he survive?

So I asked the accused how he did survive. He said he had been rescued by a dolphin which towed him ashore. You see? his accusers said. That is impossible. He is obviously a sorcerer.

Except that his story could have been true. Because ten years previously when I was a Patrol Officer stationed at Bogia, a Manam Island canoe with a family aboard broke up in heavy seas between the island and the New Guinea mainland.

The island people reported the canoe missing and the family lost at sea. But several days later the family walked into Bogia, asking for a ride home to Manam Island in our workboat.

When asked how they had survived, they said that while floundering in the water they had been approached by a pod of dolphins which by a series of whistles and squeaks communicated to the family to hold on, and with each member holding a different dolphin, they were towed ashore to the beach near Potsdam Plantation, and from there they walked in to Bogia.

So, armed with my memory of this event I was able to convince the accusers in court that rescue at sea by dolphins does happen. Accusers and accused then left the court in a friendly manner convinced that there had been no sorcery that night in the Gulf of Papua.

You see, sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction, and much more definite than sorcery.

Garry Roche

During my time in Western Highlands during any local crisis I always almost heard some of the elders proclaim, “yumi lukluk gut pastaim”, i.e., “let us look carefully at this before we take any action”.

Among proven leaders there was an awareness that hasty action could be disastrous, hence the strong advice, “look carefully before we do anything.”

One would hope that this traditional policy would prevail in dealing with any sanguma accusation.

As Philip Gibbs has related, too many people, mainly women , have suffered because of a “rush to judgement”. The real evil is that innocent people have been tortured and killed.

One problem is that at times there may really have been a murder and the accusation of sanguma is raised simply to confuse the issue or hide the real culprit.

Perhaps those who first make the accusation of sorcery should be the first to be investigated when there is sudden death!

I remember back in the seventies hearing a talk by a doctor from Yagaum hospital that in one autopsy they discovered that very small pieces of wire had been inserted into a man’s blood stream while he was asleep or unconscious with the intention that these would gradually travel towards his heart and kill him.

They speculated that in earlier times slivers of bamboo might have been used, and this might not have been detected by a scan. His death would then have been attributed to sorcery.

Some accusations of sorcery may follow on a sudden or unexpected death, and a proper autopsy may help to uncover the real cause of death.

In the past decade I know of two cases where when a PNG priest died relatively young, his close relatives were asked to nominate people to attend the autopsy. This helped to allay fears of poison or sorcery.

Back in the seventies I remember an Australian, Dr Fingleton, in Mt Hagen who told me that, if he was doing a serious operation on a local person in Hagen hospital, he would invite the locals to nominate someone who could be gowned up to watch the operation.

He told me that he could see that the nominated observers had familiarity with the internal organs of the human body and sometimes were pointing to the problem organ even before he explained.

He told me he never had any complaints about his work, even if the operation was not successful.

I realise that an immediate autopsy is simply not possible in most remote areas. However, I still hope that local leaders would still act on the advice of traditional elders: “Yumi lukluk gut pastaim”.

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