The campaign against sorcery in PNG continues

For now nearly two years, groups in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and abroad have been campaigning to end the killing and torture of women accused of sorcery. Recently, grassroots organizations in provincial centres have taken up the cause in earnest, and brought renewed international attention to the matter. Two of these organizations are particularly noteworthy. The first, founded in Queensland in the weeks after the brutal public execution of a woman named Kepari Leniata in Mount Hagen town, is called the Leniata Legacy. Involving people from urban PNG and Australia, they have raised money for campaigns against gender-based violence. They held fashion shows in Queensland towns and more recently have launched campaigns on social media to denounce violence against women, including what is now called “sorcery-related violence” (SRK) (Jorgensen 2014). Another group, the Seeds Theatre of Lae, launched a grassroots campaign to reach out to rural communities in the PNG Highlands. They planned on touring regional villages and staging public awareness events, including skits that explore the consequences of sorcery belief. Seeds Theatre also says on its web site that they wanted to inform the rural public that the national government had repealed the Sorcery Act 1971, which contained a clause that seemed to implicitly permit self-defense against the threat of sorcery.

This paper was originally presented in November 2014 at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association. In it, I argued that most of the response of anthropologists tended to frame the current outbreak of violence as the symptom of an underlying cultural syndrome. For some anthropologists, this is the persisting belief in the occult. For others it is the foreign contamination of charismatic Christianity, including its own beliefs about demonic forces. I argued against this reliance on belief to explain people’s relationship to the occult. Now, as Papua New Guinea citizens, from all walks of life, are starting to respond to these attacks, my point needs to be made again. We need to listen carefully to the models which people themselves use to account for this social problem. We will find, more often than not, that they also turn on ideas of “culture” and “belief”. It is an anthropological rationalism which, in the hands of people dealing with everyday problems, can turn in to an internalized stigma. Leniata Legacy and Seeds Theatre, at least from the outside, appear to be rationalist responses to SRK in PNG, yet they are different, one transnational and feminist, and the other local, urban and youth-oriented. From the beginning as well, church organizations have also campaigned against what they call superstitions. Thus it goes to show, as I also conclude in this paper, anthropologists no longer have the exclusive priviledge of neutrality and objectivity in talking about social problems. We are part of the problem, and we can be part of the solution, but what we can’t be is judges or arbiters of truth.

Watching the watchers

Papua New Guinea is a place where the natives study the anthropologists.

It was an old joke already when I heard it in 2004. A kindly hotel operator told me this on my first trip to Milne Bay Province, before I embarked in search of the Kula ring, before I knew that I would instead focus on Christianity as a discourse of the contemporary juxtaposition of gifts and commodities in an island society.[1]

And it was true. Wherever I went, anthropology preceded me. On my first Sunday in Auhelawa, a society on the south coast of Normanby Island, a woman approached me with encouragement: “We have been hearing a lot about your place, so maybe it’s good if people hear about our place.”

In Argonauts, Malinowski advises to go to the field without “preconceived ideas” from theory (1932 [1922], 9). He does not mention how to avoid the theories of culture one finds in the field. On Normanby Island, culture was a topic of the school curriculum. Words like custom, tradition, meaning and belief were familiar tropes for their own and others’ behavior. Several men were familiar with Bible translation; others with documenting clan genealogies. A previous missionary left a copy of Notes and Queries in the school’s library. Papua New Guinea is a place where the people watch the anthropologists and learn anthropology. They use it as a discourse of identity in a global and postcolonial world. They use to communicate with non-Melanesians. And they use it for practical purposes.

This raises many questions. There’s the dilemma of the fieldworker: Should I provide copies of my genealogies to such a litigious people? There is also the epistemological conundrum of the ethnographer: Can I ever provide a definitive account of a culture when this culture writes itself? I am drawn to these issues for another reason. Anthropological knowledge about people’s collective life takes place within a manifold, and consequently alongside other, alternative knowledges. Informants are helpers, interlocutors, and critics all at once, and continue to participate in these relationships online, on the phone, and in global networks of travel. Some people deny coevalness and some have coevalness thrust upon them. Anthropological knowledge is implicated in many current issues in PNG yet few anthropologists have examined the influence of anthropological theory on people’s self-conceptions, let alone question their own role in this.

In what follows, I consider two spectacles of culture, moments where an incommensurability of values comes to public attention and people attempt to bring to bear their own anthropologies to govern and police it. One is the spate of public accusations of sorcery and magic, often including public torture and execution. The other is an attempt by the current speaker of Parliament to remove traditionally-styled carvings from the parliament building because they were cursed. These episodes have not taken place in isolation. Events spur media coverage, reaction and debate, leading to further developments. Many sides in the discussion about these two episodes attempt to invoke an anthropological concept of culture, and so anthropologists are denied the possibility of being neutral observera. Rather in both cases people act in ways that demand attention of witnesses. Many different witnesses, globally and locally, respond by trying to give a meaningful and coherent explanation of what is going on. In this paper, I argue we step away from a binary distinction between observer and participant and instead propose a continuum of witnesses, different in their level of involvment, but each alike in attempt to create an account of what they see, and equally interested in laying claim to certain kinds of expertise, and thus casting doubt on other ways of knowing.

The haus krai

Sorcery and witchcraft are widespread in Papua New Guinea. Generally all illness and misfortune, especially leading to death, is widely attributed to an invisible magical cause. People’s mutual responsibility for each other’s health, and the suspicion that another has secretly or unknowingly betrayed that responsibility, is one thing that many people of PNG find they have in common, although to varying degrees and in various cultural forms. Killings of those accused of magic have never been uncommon, even as violence has been reframed as criminality. Human rights organizations assume that the few but regular reports of such killings appearing in national media are only the tip of an iceberg.

On February 6, 2013, Kepari Leniata, a 20-year-old woman was killed in front of a large crowd in Mount Hagen town. Many elements of the story are disturbing, and I apologize for being explicit. After a boy died in the local hospital, his relatives accused three women of killing him with magic. I quote from the Post-Courier report:

[The boy’s] relatives rounded up the three women early yesterday morning and interrogated them, using heated iron rods and other weapons. […]

The perpetrators tied the woman up with rope, drenched her with petrol, placed her on top of a heap of rubbish then placed used tyres over her before setting her alight. (Wama 2013)

Not only were dozens present when she died, but people could witness her death again and again. Pictures of Leniata’s death spread quickly through online social media, and were published in international newspapers. The story was repeated over and over. PNG’s prime minister, leaders of churches, United Nations officials, and human rights activists expressed outrage. What was different about this death was, it seemed, in fact its similarity to so many other killings. Killings of suspected sorcerers have occurred for years, and have been reported widely in many instances, but usually days after the fact. In 2009, another woman was killed in public in the same town under very similar circumstances. Yet unlike in the past, when people condemned Leniata’s killing, they condemned the pattern of killing throughout the country, and demanded answers to the question of what caused the pattern.

The audience for her death became an element in the story. The PNG Post-Courier’s editorial singled them out, saying that the presence of the crowd suggested that they believed the killing was “normal” and “acceptable.”

The photographing of yesterday’s brutal act by the crowd (including school children), without making moves to stop and condemn the murderers’ actions, points to a bigger danger of ordinary Papua New Guineans accepting this callous killing as normal and this methodology of dispensing justice as acceptable. (Post-Courier 2013)

The editorialist contrasted this with the reactions of the editorial board and its PNG readers:

[W]hen we hear stories of Papua New Guineans being accused of sorcery and burnt alive in a somewhat public spectacle, we recoil with fear and disgust

In these and many reports of Leniata’s death, the cultural beliefs of the crowd are blamed. Many described the belief in magic as a primitive mentality persisting in an era of rationality. International and national media, predictably, rewrote the story as ‘witch hunts’. “It’s 2013 and they’re burning witches,” gawked one headline (Chandler 2013). Women’s organizations staged a rally in the form of a mourning house, a haus krai, to shame the government to act. A new narrative frame emerged: Melanesian women were victims of endemic violence in a culture which believed that women were witches. Many organizations, Amnesty International being one prominent example, drew a link between widespread wife-beating and rape throughout the country, noting also that these crimes were rarely reported or punished, and arguing that the cultural beliefs about gender motivated all of these forms of violence. Culture was the perpetrator.

As many anthropologists have noted, this new narrative vastly simplifies the discourse of sorcery-related violence in PNG up to this point. Both men and women are accused, and often when their killings are discussed, the story is told as a clan dispute, or a conflict between political rivals. In other words, belief in magic is not the prime motive.

The new cultural discourse of violence lays blame much more broadly. It lumps the bystanders in with the perpetrators, and distinguishes these participants from people on the outside. Bystanders are guilty for having a belief in magic, and accepting violence, while outside observers can be neutral because they have no belief in magic. Entailed in this framing is a specific hierarchy of causes. Ideas are more important than actions. What matters is people’s beliefs about illness, not what they do on that basis. Moreover, a person’s ideas are identical to the constructs of a collective consciousness of one’s community. Many government officials blamed traditional culture as the culprit. In their view, the crowd was swayed by the collective representations they had all imbibed from a young age and accepted without question. In other words, the new discourse of violence constructs culture as an empirical feature of specific populations which causes violence. It is an epidemiological discourse in which beliefs are symptoms.

It should be noted that many academics and journalists have also presented Kepari Leniata’s killing and similar incidents in terms of local jealousies or covert attempts acquire land. Others blamed the work of so-called witch doctors who convinced people to make accusations. While culture did not figure prominently in all of these other accounts, they all apportion some blame to bystanders as well as perpetrators. These other accounts also presuppose a priviledged position from which one observes other people’s behavior. In a functionalist lens, all social problems look like dysfunction. Whether they saw the actors as superstituous or strategic, these accounts all wanted to posit a empirical presence an attitude, a value, or a strategy which independently acted upon people to cause the pattern of killings. In either view, difference itself is an excess and a pathology.

The haus man

The same kind of epistemology of diagnosis can be seen in another public debate in PNG. In December 2013, the speaker of PNG’s parliament ordered the removal of several traditionally-styled carved wooden decorations from the parliament building. The building itself is a national icon. Built after independence, its design resembles a Sepik men’s cult house. Zurenuoc declared that the original decorations were “evil” (Evara 2013; Eves et al. 2014). He also suggested that the images had a foreign origin (Eves et al. 2014). Many parties, including anthropologists from the country’s cultural institutions and abroad, seized on the speaker’s comments. They attributed this to influence by new Pentecostal churches, a possibility also raised by foreign anthropologists. Many commentators generally saw the speaker’s actions as a symptom of social contagion. Religious fervor inspired by foreign churches was causing a weakening in the separation of church and state.

What is interesting in this case was that Zurenuoc was in a position to talk back. After weeks of media comment, he took out a four page advertorial section in a government-friendly newspaper (Gerawa 2013; see also Zurenuoc 2014). In a statement on his plans for the parliament building, he now distanced himself from saying that the traditional decorations were a curse. He now attributed the animistic view to the country’s first prime minister, Michael Somare, who was also the one person most closely associated with the building’s neotraditional aesthetic in people’s minds. It was Somare who once said these carvings possessed a spirit, Zurenuoc argued, because they were drawn from the carving traditions of a specific culture. Zurenuoc merely wanted to choose new decorations as national symbols, ones without any specific cultural referent. In other words, a debate between rationalism versus superstition was reframed as a debate between two opposing visions of rationality, secularism and Christianity. Whereas critics accused Zurenuoc of failing to see that national symbols were merely pointing to culture, Zurenuoc now said that because of their specific origins, they could not adequately represent true national unity. The decorations were idols, he said, only insofar as they represented specific cultural ideas about magic, and hence, he claimed, refered to things that did not exist, and should not be believed. Zurenuoc never denied that his motives were religious but he did reject the idea that his religious vision was simply a belief, at least in the sense of a uncritically accepted truth. Rather Zurenuoc presented Christian truth as an objective reality which could ground a multicultural state. For Zurenuoc, the atheism of his critics was the pathology.

Contesting cultural explanations

Zurenuoc’s response suggests a new way to think about sorcery as well. Rather than presuppose a distinction between observer and observed, I suggest that there are no positions of neutrality. Instead, everyone is involved in some degree and everyone who is circulating knowledge of sorcery-related violence is also involved in producing an account of why it happens. External observers who blame culture place themselves in a position of objectivity, recruiting an empiricist conception of social being to distinguish themselves from the mob. This however is not the only account of violence which circulates. In a recent paper, Jorgensen (2014) identifies a set of distinct features of sorcery which recur in many recent accusations including Kepari’s killing. One is that the sorcery itself is imported, from Simbu or from Australia, and is more potent than local forms. Another is that it can be divined and banished by similarly new, imported techniques, especially a glasman (PNG Pidgin: diviner), who can see the invisible signs of affliction. That is to say, accusers say that the magic they attack is not related to traditional magic of the past. It comes from another place and spreads from place to place. Jorgensen emphasizes that recent killings are more often in response to this generic national sorcery complex. I would add that as a delocalized and untraditional phenomenon, it also escapes from the trope of culture. By responding to this magic, the accuser is asserting that the people involved cannot be classified by local social and cosmological categories. And in so doing, the accuser is also rejecting a spatiotemporal framing of difference as empirical and social. They do not see themselves as subjects of culture. Jorgensen notes that the perpetrators of violence are often marginal young men without a social identity. Through drug use and shirking normal social roles, such men are also performing an antitraditional self. Finally, Jorgensen also argues that the sadistic torture of accused is also a new and borrowed form as well. This too, besides being a kind of terror, is also a way of marking the boundary between categories of supernatural actor.

In other words, the lethal response to supernatural threat is not an excess of difference, but a behavior that is chosen to exceed the spatiotemporal framing of difference. I argue that the killers of accused sorcerers are not acting according to a social process, or at least not a single, empirical social process. Rather they are intervening in the possibility of normative social order, which is for the most part, the precondition for social analysis as well. The question that remains is why would they want to transgress the boundary between observer and observed.

On the margin

Why are Zurenuoc and accusers oriented toward occult presences? Belief only captures part of their stance. In sorcery accusation and in Zurenuoc’s campaign, people must doubt in order to believe, and so I argue that the occult affords them a kind of social imagination which is particularly appealing to many different kinds of people in PNG now. When people opt to see sorcery and demons where others do not, people place themselves against the alternative of rationalism and scientific materialism. Debates about what belief means have been going on since Tylor. Without necessarily aligning myself with one or another side, I merely want to point out that committing oneself to either materialism or animism involves an act of will. Magic is invisible and elusive, and so knowledge about it is unlike other kinds of collective representations because one’s is only ever peripherally aware of it. The very nature of magic suggests that there are limits to a cosmological schema’s capacity to comprehend reality. In PNG, magic thus cannot help but evoke questions of the relationship between tradition and modernity as they are defined in PNG’s contemporary postcolonial public sphere, which is as the limits of cultural difference in a multitribal yet liberal state. To will oneself to adopt a particular way of knowing is in this sense a political act. In PNG, animism and materialism exist side by side. There is not so much a struggle for dominance as there is a struggle to determine their respective zones of authority. To employ magical thinking is to deny colonial education and medicine and their projects of making rational subjects. To accuse people of sorcery is to deny jurisdiction to courts and police, who only see the world in terms of responsible individuals.

In this sense, sorcery accusations are just one among many attempts to exercise the power to determine reality. In saying this, I recognize that others argue that occultists in PNG are really engaged in covert power plays, discrediting opponents by associating them with black magic and the devil; I am not saying this. Rather occultists seek to alter the constitutional discourse of society, and to determine who has representation and on what basis. This is what I mean when I say that sorcery accusers and Zurenuoc undermine the possibility of social analysis. Specifically, I see their actions as attempts to take away the epistemic privilege of positivism. They wish to create and circulate an alternative account of reality. They refuse the possibility that a materialist account of the world be the only political space in which they are permitted to act. By the same token, anthropologists have an obligation to recognize how a positivist social science of belief undergirds a specifically liberal and secular conception of the PNG public sphere.

In the public discussions of these two events, many have painted a picture of collective hysteria. One does not have to endorse people’s actions, but one does have to recognize that observers are also caught up in the same dilemmas of knowledge as the people we observe, and that observing the world is no longer a scholar’s privilege alone.


Chandler, Jo. 2013. “It’s 2013, And They’re Burning ‘Witches.’” The Global Mail, February 15.–2013-and-theyre-burning-witches/558/.

Evara, Rosalyn Albaniel. 2013. “Zurenuoc Banishes ‘Ungodly Images and Idols’ from Parliament: Speaker ‘Cleanses’ House.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, December 6.

Eves, Richard, Nicole Haley, R. J. May, John Cox, Philip Gibbs, Francesca Merlan, and Alan Rumsey. 2014. “Purging Parliament: A New Christian Politics in Papua New Guinea.” State, Society and Governance in Melanesia Working Paper. Canberra, A.C.T., Australia.–2014–1-Eves-et-al-ONLINE.pdf.

Gerawa, Maureen. 2013. “National Unity Pole a Uniting Symbol; National Pledge to Be Changed House Plans Revealed.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, December 18, sec. News.

Jorgensen, Dan. 2014. “Preying on Those Close to Home: Witchcraft Violence in a Papua New Guinea Village.” The Australian Journal of Anthropology (Early View). doi:10.1111/taja.12105.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1932. Argonauts of The Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea. London: George Routledge and Sons, Ltd.

Wama, Ramcy. 2013. “Burnt Alive!” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, February 7.

Zurenuoc, Theo. 2014. “Reformation of the National Parliament as a Symbol of National Unity: A Tribute to the Founding Fathers Sir Michael Somare and Sir Julius Chan.” Business Melanesia, May.


1.  In other words: You’re hardly the first. If there was a point beyond that, it was an attempt to position me as newcomer and herself and other expatriates and town-dwellers as old hands in the Land of the Unexpected (the country’s tourism slogan at the time). That is: There’s nothing that you can tell me that I don’t already know; it’s only new to you.  ↩