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.
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