Most people think of witch hunts as a relic of the past — something relegated to medieval times or 18th century Salem. But that is unfortunately not the case. In Papua New Guinea, fears of sanguma, or black magic, have become widespread, leading to accusations of sorcery and even witch burning, reports the South China Morning Post.
Ruth Kissam, the director of operations at the PNG Tribal Foundation, which aims to reduce gender-based violence in Papua New Guinea, explained that much of the growth in superstitious belief is ironically due to modernization.
“You are looking at an ancient society that jumped straight from the Stone Age into the digital age.”
With modernization came a rapid change to the social fabric of Papua New Guinea. Processed foods and access to transportation have fostered an unhealthy and sedentary lifestyle, and diabetes, stroke, and other obesity-related diseases have skyrocketed.
In addition, new abilities to import goods at higher levels has meant more access to drugs and alcohol, leading to spikes in alcoholism. Demand for palm oil has caused numerous land grabs, causing internal dislocation for many peoples.
This migration of people has also lead to the exponential spread of sanguma. Provinces that had previously never even heard of this black magic practice are suddenly eagerly adopting it after displaced migrants introduce the concept, according to Philip Gibbs, vice-president for research and higher degrees at Divine Word University.
“It’s gone through like a bush fire. It’s a new phenomenon – they don’t have cultural resistance to it – like getting measles where there hasn’t been measles before.”
There are other issues that have come with modernization, such as independence for women. Though women had traditionally been wives and mothers, a new generation is plotting a different course, becoming business owners, lawyers, and politicians, according to Douglas Young, the Archbishop of Mount Hagen.
“The men aren’t warriors any more and when they see women asserting themselves in traditional male roles, on a subliminal level they get scared and retaliate.”
It is likely for this reason that most of the victims of witch burning are women. Young recalls a famous case in which a young 20-year-old woman was blamed for the death of a 6-year-old boy who died of an intestinal disease. Though she had fled to a neighboring province, the woman, Kepari Leniata, was eventually found. She was then tortured with a hot iron and then burned alive, tied to a heap of tires and other rubbish. Witnesses say that it was a slow and agonizing death, lasting over 30 minutes.
The cruel fate of Leniata convinced the Papua New Guinea government to repeal the Sorcery Act of 1971. However, witch burnings are still, unfortunately, being practiced. In 2013, the PNG Constitutional and Law Reform Commission reported that in just one of Papua New Guinea’s 20 provinces, an estimated 150 people were killed due to accusations of black magic.