The National

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (March 23) - Sorcery, black magic and superstition "are the way of life in certain parts of Melanesia" that make "modern rules look shallow... we respect the law and Christian ethics but the beliefs in sorcery, black magic and superstition are the way of life."

That statement did not come from a grizzled village elder reminiscing over the past, but from a currently serving and high profile parliamentarian.

Taken in tandem with the voting pattern in The National’s issue question in our Internet edition, Mr. Peter Yama’s troubling comments must be a major cause for concern.

Last night, The National’s Internet voting results so far showed that 55 percent – more than 6,000 respondents – approved of "the use of sorcery and witchcraft as alternatives for solving long-outstanding law and order problems" while 42 percent did not.

In the Middle Ages, most Europeans believed that the world was flat.

There can be few people in the world today who continue to hold that opinion.

That tradition was first challenged by a few brave souls, who found themselves the object of near-hysterical hostility on the part of fellow scientists, of the Church, and of the feudal establishment.

Their views were regarded as heresy against God and Man.

It is at least possible that we are living through a similar scenario in Papua New Guinea.

The National holds a differing viewpoint. We have long put forward the opinion that an increasing number of these killings are far from traditional reactions to alleged sorcery.

Many have been attempts to escape legal retribution, with murderers posing as simple villagers reacting to supposedly identified sorcerers.

Sorcery and witchcraft cannot be blithely written off as "the beliefs of society, the way of life".

It is difficult to credit that Yama or any other thinking Papua New Guinean would seek to defend a practice that has become a minority curiosity in most developed nations. We would like to believe that Yama is merely referring to a particular situation and a specific part of the country. But his detailing of the Bundi people’s alleged fearsome traditional reputation could be interpreted as residual pride in that reputation.

"We respect the law and Christian ethics but the beliefs in sorcery, black magic and superstition are the way of life," seems to us to be an uncompromising platform for a national politician, and one that could realistically be interpreted in only one way.

Are Papua New Guineans prepared to hang the dead albatross of irrational witchcraft around the necks of this and future generations?

Traditional sorcery was a complex system of beliefs used to make sense of sudden deaths, of tribal conflicts, and of other family, clan and village occurrences.

The imported law that now forms the legal cornerstone of our nation was intended as a replacement for those age-old beliefs.

It was seen as a superior method of determining guilt and innocence, and many nations have adopted it as such.

In essence, the imported laws and the subsequent Papua New Guinea amendments to them, hold sway in the urban areas of Papua New Guinea.

If witchcraft and sorcery become in any way enshrined in our rural communities, we will face a dire division of our laws, and ultimately of our people.

Finally, in the same statement, Yama suggested that there may be a link between the recent outbreak of sorcery killings and the massive developments that are set to occur in his and adjoining electorates.

We recognize that it is not unusual for people who feel threatened by external developments to seek refuge in older, and more emotionally secure beliefs. But refuges are temporary accommodation, somewhere to wait until the storm clears and the clouds pass.

Education, and the capacity it will bring to our people to develop and expand a new kind of culture for Papua New Guinea is the best answer; like many other worthwhile goals, it will take time, and there will be casualties along the way.

Sorcery goes far beyond being a traditional cocoon for our people.

It can embrace the practice of inflicting unimaginable and extended terrors upon simple people who are guiltless, and finally achieve their deaths in the most brutal and vicious fashion.

Is that what the people of Papua New Guinea want for today and for the future?

March 24, 2006

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