Peter Johnson sent me this cutting from the Post-Courier, and the question of sorcery and supposed witchcraft in PNG reminded me of something Fr John O’Toole told me about many years ago in Dreikikir. One of his parishioners from his mission station at Dagua just outside of Wewak, where he was stationed in the early 1950s, complained of intense pain in the general area of his lower stomach and liver, saying only that “sanguma man kisim mi”. Most white men at the time would have taken this with a grain of salt and put it in the same category as the Australian Aborigines talking about pointing the bone. John was sufficiently concerned to take his parishioner to Wewak to consult Dr John McInernery, the then District Medical Officer. Dr John gave the patient a physical examination and could find nothing obviously wrong, and he was inclined to think he was dealing with a malingerer, but he just wondered, and he was not a man who liked to be left with any lingering doubts about any final diagnosis he might make, so he ordered an x-ray. And just as well he did as the x-ray revealed a foreign object very close to vital organs that would have eventually caused death if not removed.
The interesting thing was that there were no surface signs of how this object had got into the man. The skin was unbroken and intact. The foreign object was a piece of wire which Dr John removed.
In this incident sorcery was used but not in a supernatural sense. The sorcerers had ordered that sanguma be employed to end this man’s life.
Fr F. Mihalic explains this: “sanguma, (sang-guma) (Mel) secret murder committed by orders from sorcerers. The victim is waylaid, short poisoned thorns are inserted into the base of his tongue, causing swelling and loss of speech. Then other thorns (usually from the wild sago plant) are pushed into vital organs, where they cause infection and eventual death.”
The Jacaranda Dictionary and Grammar of Melanesian Pidgin
The actual method employed may not be exactly as described by Fr Mihalic, in the case under discussion, but anyone who has lived in the Sepik would have some awareness of the existence of sanguma.
There are many factors associated with magic, black and otherwise, which are both physical and psychological, and even criminal, to say nothing about any spiritual dimension, if it exists or not. The question of what people actually believe is also important.
I’ll leave the last word with the Bard, in what I hope is a respectful tone, and of course there is some sanction of magic, if indeed it be, of the good variety: