Putting Sorcery in PNG into perspective: Part 2

Part 2 of the Report by the Lutheran Students attempts to put the belief in sorcery in Papua New Guinea into perspective.  Part 3: will be discussion of identified root causes of sorcery

A. Traditional PNG

Traditional Papua New Guineans were animists[i].  The belief system was that natural objects, natural phenomena, and the universe itself possess souls. And that natural objects have souls that may exist apart from their material bodies.  Without the underlying scientific knowledge about the forces of nature (eg bush fire, floods, volcanoes, tsunami, disease,  etc), the traditional people search for ways to control those force by controlling the spirits which they believe animate these forces.

Members of communities who could control and command spirits were revered. These sorcerers could protect the community from spells and curses or instill hope in situations of war and despair. On the other hand, warring spirits were called upon as a weapon in times or conflict these sorcerers had the dark power to kill and destroy and bring harm.

Traditional people rarely ventured outside of their tribal lands because of fear of the unknown spirits. Most Papua New Guineans are very superstitious about outsiders and the unknown. Even in the 21st century, households still have rituals that are touted to protect them from unknown or malevolent spirits.

The belief in sorcery had advantages. The fear kept societies free of rubbish and squalor. People deposited human waste as well as any other waste carefully disposed. The people were careful and tried not to anger the spirits. People were vary of outsiders but best hospitality was extended to them.

Within the clan, the fear of being at the receiving-end of a jealous spirit kept societies equal. Everyone had equal rights and had equal duties. Getting ahead in life was frowned upon and the fear of jealousy and sorcery was used to ensure no-one became wealthy. Most traditional societies in PNG are still egalitarian societies.

The sorcery practices in PNG is unique to each traditional custom and culture and differed from one part of the region to the other. The varying customs and cultures determine technique and style a sorcerer or a witch uses either for good or for bad.[ii]

As Christians, we believe that the bad use of spirits, opens the doors of hell for Satan and his demons to manifest supernatural and evil powers.

B. Contemporary PNG

Papua New Guinea is a developing country. A developing country is a poor agricultural country that is seeking to become more advanced economically and socially.  Common characteristics of a developing country include a large base of low income earners, inequality, poor health and inadequate education.  PNG is ranked 157/188 in the Human Development Index[iii].  Which is way behind other smaller Pacific Island countries like Fiji and Samoa (90 and 105 respectively).

About 80% of the 7.5 million population live in rural areas where government services is unreliable or absent [iv] . In terms of Law and Order, reports indicate that there is five policemen to 8,000 people in PNG, whereas in Australia there are 5 police officers per 2,084 population. For health services, there is one doctor to 17,086 people.

The population in PNG is semi-educated, with the level of literacy much lower than the other Pacific Countries (UNCEF)[vi]. According to UNICEF only one in three children in PNG complete their basic education; most do not stay in school long enough to know the learn basic literary and numeracy. PNG has a net enrollment rate of 63 per cent – the lowest in the Asia and Pacific region.

Bulk of the young people who are unable to continue in the education system are left to fend for themselves. Mostly, they are not skilled enough to find an office job, and most have forfeited cultural education when all their formative years were committed to a formal western education. Consequently, there are many young people who cannot find gainful employment in a town and cities, but who also cannot fit back into a village lifestyle. This has contributed to a society of people who do not have a value system and are just floating at the whim of circumstances.

While the basic needs of a traditional society and a contemporary society are still similar, the contemporary society has a few more requirements. These include, goods and services that satisfy a Western standard of comfort and glamour.  A standard which is very unattainable for bulk of population who still live subsistence lives and have limited opportunities to earn enough money to purchase this Western standard.

Even though tribal people may have achieved some level of self-actualization (Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs)[vii]  in their traditional societies, the imposition of the materialistic culture from the West makes people feel impoverished when they do not accumulate the type of cargo that meets the standard set by the West.

The arrival of Christianity since the late 1800s has eradicated some of this belief.  In the 1982 census, about 2 million people (68 %) out of the 3 million population identified themselves as Christians[viii].  After 18 years, the 2000 census states that the number of people who profess to be Christians has risen to 5.8 million (97%) out of 6 million population[x].

The Lutheran church has been in PNG for at 130 years. The missionaries brought the good news of God that liberated people from the power of evil spirits.

It is in this environment that the struggle against sorcery related violence is taking place.


[i] Mundhent Kent 2006, Common Threads of Animism, Melanesian Journal of Theology, 22-1

[ii]Gairo Onagi.(2015) Sorcery and witchcraft related killings in Papua New Guinea_ Talking it Trough- Responses to Sorcery and Witchcraft beliefs and practices in Melanesia (Miranda Forsyth and Richard Eves), pg 8.

[iii] http://hdr.undp.org/sites/default/files/ranking.pdf

[iv] http://data.un.org/CountryProfile.aspx?crName=Papua%20New%20Guinea


[vii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow%27s_hierarchy_of_needs

[viii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion_in_Papua_New_Guinea

[x] http://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/mjt/02-2_208.pdf


Sorcery in PNG: Part 1

This is Part 1 of a 4 part series containing excerpts from a contribution by the Lutheran Students Congregation at the UPNG to the CLRC to inform the Action plan against sorcery issues in PNG.

Part 1 is the introduction

Sorcery related violence in Papua New Guinea (PNG) made international headlines in 2013 when footage of 20-year-old Kepari Leniata being burned alive atop a pile of tires went viral[1]. The young mother was accused of using sorcery to kill her neighbour’s 6 year old son. The mob made up of mostly young men, set her alight in a very public place, in front of onlookers who did not make any attempt to save her.  It was violent and the horror and disgust both within PNG and overseas was fierce.

We acknowledge that Papua New Guinea is a nation with culture that is submerged in spiritual beliefs. The traditional people practiced animism and ancestor worship[2] .  The fear of the unknown, the fear of spirits and strangers and the fear of real or imagined enemies have resulted in a diversity of beliefs that is as varied as the 800 different cultures that make up the nation of PNG.

The difference between now and the past is that the violence related to sorcery has increased in numbers and the level of violence is horrifying. The United Nations estimated that in 2016 in one of Papua New Guinea’s twenty province alone, there were approximately 200 sorcery related killings[3].  International groups such as Amnesty International[4], the United Nations (UN)[5], and Oxfam[6] have condemned the practise of sorcery in Papua New Guinea.

The Sorcery Act was enacted in 1971 by the Parliament to address this issue. The purpose of the Sorcery Act 1971 was to prevent and punish evil practices of sorcery and other similar evil practices, and for other purposes relating to such practice.

In retrospect, the legislation had unintended effect. Among other reasons, the Sorcery Act 1971 legitimized the act of sorcery even if the action was just malicious accusation from evil-intentioned people. [7]  Under this law, a suspect could be prosecuted based on mere suspicion.

A conundrum for the court of law was that the action of sorcery is spiritual in nature and cannot be defended in a court of law, where physical evidence is required for decision making[8].

The PNG Constitutional Reform Committee (CLRC) when formed in 1975 had the responsibility to review the Sorcery Act 1971.  The CLRC meeting of 1977[9] did not have any firm recommendations on the issue. It was later in 2013, on the eve of Leniata Kepari’s death that the CLRC recommended that the Sorcery Act 1971 be repealed and sorcery related violence be tried under the Criminal Act Law[10].

Two years later in 2015, following several national conferences on the sorcery, a committee led by the PNG Department of Justice and Attorney General (DJAG) was tasked to develop a Sorcery National Action Plan (SNAP) to address sorcery related violence. The plan was approved in a National Executive Council (NEC) decision on 21 July, 2015[11].

The Sorcery National Action Plan (SNAP), while approved, still requires implementation. The CLRC is an implementation partner. Given the nature of sorcery as a spiritual matter, the CLRC agrees that the approach must be holistic and particular focus be given to churches as an active partner to find solutions for sorcery belief and related violence. Revisiting the Sorcery Act 1971 is not feasible, and other alternative ways should be considered to address this issue.

The CLRC has invited the Churches to participate in identifying solutions to address the problem.  The power of the resurrected Christ put Christians on the victory side (Revelation 1:5-6). This power includes power over Satan and his kingdom.  The kingdom of darkness is against peace and happiness, but brings with it fear, that sabotages human beings from living fulfilled lives to achieve the great commission of God which is to reconcile all people back to God – our creator.

Efforts so far in addressing the issue include, an Institute of National Affairs (INA) workshop[12] in 2013 in Goroka titled, Sorcery and Witchcraft Accusations: Developing a National Response to Overcome the Violence. A conference in Mendi sponsored by the Catholic Church in 2015[13].  Non-government Organisation have held meetings including the Oxfam[14] proceedings from Gumine, Chimbu Province.  All the recommendations and all the background work has been recorded in the 2015 edited volume titled[15]: Talking it Through Responses to Sorcery and Witchcraft Beliefs and Practices in Melanesia.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gYAp-6abtZs&t=50s

[2] http://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/mjt/22-1_06.pdf

[3] http://www.seedstheatre.org/punishments-for-alleged-witchcraft-in-papua-new-guinea/

[4] https://www.amnesty.org/en/countries/asia-and-the-pacific/papua-new-guinea/report-papua-new-guinea/

[5] http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=44096#.WBbwmfl97IU


[7] Sorcery Act 1971

[8] “Sorcery and Witchcraft-related Killings in Melanesia: Culture, Law and Human Rights Perspectives

[9] http://www.paclii.org/pg/lawreform/PGLawRComm/1977/2.html

[10] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/30/world/asia/papua-new-guinea-moves-to-repeal-sorcery-act.html

[11] https://www.policyforum.net/confronting-sorcery-accusation-violence-in-png/

[12] http://www.inapng.com/pdf_files/PNG%20Sorcery%20Workshop%20Draft%20Program3-5%20Dec%20RevPB.pdf

[13] http://www.mendidiocese.com/index.php/news/item/117-stand-against-sorcery-violence

[14] https://www.oxfam.org.nz/sites/default/files/reports/Sorcery_report_FINAL.pdf

[15] http://press.anu.edu.au

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