Witchcraft and sorcery hinder development processes

Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea - LATE last year, two incidents were reported involving the accusation and execution of ‘witches’ – one at Kamaliki in Eastern Highlands and the other at Spagil in Simbu Province. Investigation into the case in Simbu has been initiated by the Criminal Investigation Division.

It was alleged the executioners of this particular woman are ready to compensate the husband, who earlier fled and reported the matter to the police. People in the area confirmed that the woman had gone missing, but did not know when and how she disappeared.

The story of the incident was that some young and angry men went berserk at the death of a big man, whose death was believed to be caused by witchcraft. The young men surreptitiously hunted the woman and executed her and concealed the cadaver.

Negotiations between the police and leaders of the clan over compensation payments to the husband have yet to be concluded. However, this is not the first witch execution in the area. There have been numerous occasions when angry and violent youth sought out people accused of witchcraft and murdered them. Many of the young men are understood to have carried out these executions while under the influence of marijuana.

The crime of hunting and executing witches has become a worsening phenomenon in the Highlands Province. Even provinces such as Enga and Southern Highlands have come under this spell which traditionally mainly took place in Simbu and Eastern Highlands.

However, witch executions in traditional societies were a form of punitive justice. The witches were condemned and executed by the clan for bringing undesired evil to society. There was no need for investigations in order to prove the contrary, and once accused, justice was swift.

Today, however, people accuse others of witchcraft just out of sheer jealousy or as a form of vendetta. The reasons for violence against people accused of witchcraft would be different now than in traditional society.

A couple of years ago at a seminar in Goroka, former editor-in-chief of The National Frank Senge Kolma, asked a resident National Court judge in Goroka how the courts were dealing with witchcraft and sorcery cases.

The judge was a Melanesian, and I could see the struggle he went through in trying to provide an answer. The difficulty was in relation to this question: How do we deal with a belief system in court? If people are convinced that the bashing and murder was justified, according to their beliefs, what can the courts do?

Nonetheless, the courts deal with cases of injuries and murders, and not necessarily act as an arbitrator for a belief system. The courts are instituted to deal with cases that are evident and tangible. They deal with the principles of causality (cause and effect) from the legal framework of western societies. All evidences has to be verified by the five senses (empirical evidence), and have to be perceived according to the western way of thinking (logical positivism).

In such cases, courts and prosecutors only deal with the crime and the inflicting of bodily injury or murder. Under the current legal framework, it is difficult to apprehend perpetrators of witch executions. The first difficulty is that in a witch execution, there is unanimity achieved and the evil or the murder is sanctioned and commissioned by the community.

This makes it difficult to call for confessions from witnesses to such evil. No one in the tribe would take the witness box, if the murder got a collective concession of the tribe – and this is possible with the type of beliefs people possess.

This defeats the principle of the court proceeding where witnesses are necessary to give evidence in cases of murder and any other forms of crime. Even if a person is willing to come to the help of an accused, that person could share the same fate as the ‘witch’. Perhaps most crime against an accused witch that come to the notice of the police occurs near urban areas even though most witch atrocities that occur in rural areas are unreported.

The second difficulty with prosecution is that the crime of hunting and executing witches is done surreptitiously and swiftly, even at odd hours in the night with the cadaver usually concealed. They are either thrown into pits such as toilets, or thrown into flowing rivers, or burned in order to disfigure and conceal the remains.

A court generally needs bodily remains as tangible evidence in order to prosecute. This makes many witch executioners bold because of a lack of witnesses and evidence before the court. As such most cases involving witch executioners eschew current legal proceedings.

In order to deal with the issue of witchcraft, we have to deal with it at the level of people’s beliefs. To change a belief system, we have to deal with perceptions of people and how they interpret such phenomenon.

Witchcraft beliefs are not determined by conscious factors, but belong to the unconscious residue of the human psyche. Witchcraft beliefs have to be attacked in that region of the unconscious. There is no empirical or rational explanation for beliefs about witchcraft. There is another difficulty with Christian churches regarding belief in witchcraft.

In my understanding, the so-called mainline churches would condemn witch executions as an outright murder, a deliberate taking of one’s life and against God’s commandments. Conversely, many Christian sects view witches as agents of Satan who need to be eliminated. There is religious justification for execution of witches in their belief.

This poses a further enigma regarding conflicts over Christian religious convictions. Even the educated elite in our country is divided over this issue. Those who do not affirm the existence and activities of witches see it as belonging to an obsolete cultural belief – an act of making scapegoats out of innocent victims.

However, others are fearful that witches are still around and are careful they do not themselves become victims. I recently asked a very enterprising young businessman if he was willing to start something up in his village. He said he was willing to do that, if there were no witches around.

Currently, he said, there were many. In many areas along the coast, the chiefs and kukurais are regarded as dangerous sorcerers and any young plutocrat cannot build up a mini-empire for fear of the chief’s envy.

Witchcraft and sorcery are not only a legal or psychological problem. It also influences the socio-economic activities of people. Many people leave home and are not willing to go back because of fear of witches. This fear can be greater than concerns about guns, which displace people through tribal fights. Relationships are often impeded and groups within a clan can split up over issues involving witchcraft.

People in Waigani think it is possible for people to go back to the village and start some kind of economic activities to enhance the Government’s export drive. However, witches and sorcerers are guardians of an egalitarian society, where economic activity in the village is communal and gains are shared. Perhaps a concerted effort is needed to deal with the problematic issues of witchcraft and sorcery, for they can hinder development processes.