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The National, Papua New Guinea.
Jan. 3, 2008


Peter S. Kinjap

 “I have never thought of witchcraft/sorcery being true in the real world until recently when I witnessed the torture of a young woman in a settlement near Mount Hagen.”

As we count down the last days of 2007, and await 2008, belief in witchcraft and sorcery is prevalent and will continue to be a major stumbling block in the New Year.

The young woman was believed to have killed some people in the village through sorcery.

Her assailants claimed the remains of the heart of a dead person were found under her bed.

They said a man who died in the area was because of a missing heart –taken out by sorcery.

Everyone tended to believe this claim.

A group of men stripped her naked and forced her to walk the streets, torturing her with red hot iron bars and bush knives.

She was in great pain until she died few hours later.

No one mourned over her and there was no funeral.

She was believed to have caused many deaths through sorcery, hence, even her blood relatives did not want to be seen to be on her side.

Otherwise, they would also be blamed for sorcery practices, or making sorcery plans

I found it very hard to believe that this young woman could possibly remove a human heart through “sanguma”.

However, I couldn’t say anything at the time, and kept everything inside of me.

I have heard similar stories from many people and read in newspapers about sorcery-related killings.

Sorcery is a big concern in society that the government and development partners must address with urgency.

Many of our leaders have failed to grasp this, which is evident in their ignorance of sorcery-related issues.

Increasing cases of HIV/AIDS have revived beliefs in sorcery.

London’s Daily Telegraph newspaper reported that increasing cases of HIV/AIDS in PNG and lack of basic health services has made people lose hope in Western medicine and prompted a return to ancestral beliefs.

Nick Squires reported from Goroka that barely-educated men and women living in the villages were blaming the increasing number of AIDS deaths not on promiscuity or lack of condom use but on malign spirits.

When Raphael Kogun’s uncle died two years ago, his family blamed a middle-aged married couple, who they were convinced had become possessed by evil spirits.

“We chopped their heads off with an axe and a bush knife,” said the 27-year-old Goroka farmer.

“I felt sorry for them but they were witches, they deserved to die.

“If they were still alive, they could hurt people with their magic.

“We buried the bodies but then the police found out and started digging them up.”

Two of Kogun’s brothers were arrested under the Act of Sorcery incorporated into PNG’s criminal code, but the case collapsed because witnesses were too afraid to testify.

The number of witch killings has been estimated at 200 a year in the neighboring provinces of Simbu alone, although correct figures are rarely available.

A report by Amnesty International last September found there was “conspiracy of silence” surrounding the murders.

Beliefs in “saguma” are common throughout PNG, where more than 840 languages are spoken by 5.5 million people with almost the same cultures and indigenous practices.

Another research reveals that an increase in the illegal growing of marijuana has contributed to black magic fear.

“We’re seeing a big rise in witchcraft cases,” said Hermann Spingler, a German Lutheran pastor who heads the Melanesian Institute, a cultural study centre based in Goroka.

“We hear of witch-related killings almost every week.

“They take the law into their own hands and torture people to make them ‘confess’.

“Suspected witches –mostly women but including some men and even children –were dragged on ropes behind vehicles, burned with hot wires, hands and fingers chopped off and their bodies pierced with fine sharpened bars.

“People have been buried alive.”

Mr Spingler said he expects more witch murders as PNG’s HIV/AIDS cases increase each year.

Papua New Guinea is reported to have the highest rate of HIV/AIDS in the Pacific region, with the National AIDS Council Secretariat (NACS) estimating that around 2 per cent of the total population in the country is HIV-positive.

That is almost certainly an under-estimate.

“The problem is far worse than the official statistics show,” said Claire Campbell, an Australian HIV/AIDS fighter working for the World Health Organisation in PNG.

“In some ante-natal clinics about 30 per cent of women are HIV positive.”

A portion of the same report was also published in the Australian newspaper, The Age, stating that deaths related to sorcery were becoming weekly occurrence in some parts of PNG such as in Simbu and Goroka.

The paper reported that deaths of people aged 16 to 35 were often attributed to spiritual rather than natural causes.

In a separate local newspaper report, journalist Casper Demien tells the story of a Joan Johnson, an outsider who spent a great deal of her life in the Gumine area of Simbu province.

She said the people of Simbu have a traditional belief in reincarnation, in which the spirit a dead person is reincarnated within the body of a living person, of the same age and sex.

The dead person’s spirit entering the other living person is seen as negative and evil.

The belief that these spirits cause harm and death is very much a part of local belief.

This belief is so strong that any somewhat unknown death is always associated with spiritual causes.

Another investigation found that police in Goroka uncovered the horrific killings of four women accused by villagers of using sorcery to cause a fatal road crash.

After being tortured with hot metal rods and made to confess, they were killed and buried.

“The villagers believe they have to kill the ‘sanguma’ people, otherwise, the whole clan is at risk from black magic,” said Jack Urame, who has researched sorcery killings for the Melanesian Institute.

The most frightening thing is as HIV cases increase, sorcery-related killings double.

More lives have been lost in witch hunts than AIDS in one community.

Should separate funds be diverted for close investigation and embarking upon sorcery-related killings?…..


Beyond traditional boundaries

In Papua New Guinea today, it is normal to offer and accept betelnut without question.
Betel nut is often the first thing given to visitors to your home, friends you meet, or at large gatherings like funeral feasts or weddings ceremonies.
Betelnut was previously only sold in areas where it grows, but since it became a commodity betel nut has found its way into almost all parts of the country.
There are no formal statistics on the number of betel nut chewers in PNG but we can safely predict that among two-thirds of the population chew betelnut regularly. This includes children as young as eight to the elderly.
The betel nut trade has become a major money earner for grassroots Papua New Guineans in the informal sector.
It is no longer a coastal item. Highlanders now trade and chew betel nut. Everyday along the Highlands Highway, truckloads of betel nut make their way from the coastal buying areas of Lae and Madang into the mountains. Highlanders have been known to hire boats and planes for betel nut buying trips to Popondetta, Wewak, Vanimo, Rabaul, Kimbe and Kavieng.
The commercial value of buai is determined by a ‘ready ripe’ nuts – not too soft, not too strong.
A 10kg roots rice bag full of ready ripe nuts commonly referred to as ‘meat buai’ will cost a hundred bucks. The cost of a single nut ranges between 20-50 toea. At times when supply is low, it can go up to K1 or K1.50 per nut.
Transportation and handling costs also increases prices. In Porgera, Enga province, three betelnuts will cost K5. When supply is low – it can go up to K10.
Medical studies show that chewing betelnut causes mouth cancer.
A study done at the Sir Buri Kidu Heath Institute has shown that betel nut chewing can cause a heart attack in ‘some’ individuals.
Another similar study showed that betel nut chewing reduces the blood supply to the heart which may precipate irregular heart beats which can cause a heart attack or can cause a sudden spasm of the heart blood vessels causing an heart attack.
Betel nut chewing increases the heart rate which can complicate this process. A 70% narrowing of the lumen of the heart blood vessel is enough to cause chest pain.
Betel nut chewing can also precipitate an acute attack of asthma in asthma patients. This is due to the action of betel nut on the smooth muscle of the bronchi (windpipe) probably by the same mechanism which causes smooth muscles of the blood vessels of the heart to go into sudden spasm. Studies on this were also done in Papua New Guinea.
The active chemical in buai is called Arecoline. This chemical is similar in structure to a naturally occurring chemical in the body called Acetylcholine. Arecoline is therefore called a “natural analogue” of Acetlycholine compared to many “synthetic analogues”. This is because there are many drugs and chemicals that also have a similar structure to Acetylecholine.
Acetylcholine has many functions but more importantly one of the main areas in the body where it acts is on smooth muscles. So Arecoline from buai which is similar to Acetylcholine will naturally also have an effect on smooth muscles of blood vessels, windpipe or the bowels. The chemical reaction between betel nut, daka and lime causes an increase in pH, which occurs in the mouth of chewers. This change in pH increases the rate at which Arecoline is absorbed from the mouth straight into the blood stream thus the effects can be immediate (and sometimes fatal).
It was rumoured a few years back that lime producers were mixing fibro (asbestos) with coral to produce lime. Was this rumour actually true? We may never know because no one bothered to do some random sampling of the lime from markets and test them for the presence of asbestos.
Fibro or asbestos is now a well established carcinogen ie asbestos directly causes cancer by damaging DNA. It causes a kind of cancer of the covering of the lung known as mesothelioma.
The mouth is a place where cells are dividing continuously therefore the introduction of a chemical like asbestos will damage DNA there, no questions asked! Can this rumour and the presence of fibro explain a time when the rate of cases of mouth cancer in PNG seemed to increase at an unusually high rate? Fibro or asbestos is now an internationally banned product for housing.
To the Westerner’s eyes, betelnut chewing is a dirty habit as it involves spitting red spittle everywhere.
The notice on the wall – Reminder, betelnut chewing is strictly prohibited – isn’t really ordering you to stop chewing altogether; it is telling you chew your buai elsewhere.
In schools, teachers restrict students from chewing buai. In hospitals, doctors and nurses advise buai is not good for health. In some churches, chewing buai is sin. In some professional code of ethics such as that of PNG Defence Force, chewing buai is prohibited.
For generations the betelnut was part of our traditional way of life, but now the commercializing of it has seen it go beyond its traditional boundaries.
There is a little concern about the health risks, the filth and littering sellers and chewers create so perhaps there should be policy for betel nut in PNG.



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