- By MALUM NALU
KEPARI Leniata was a young woman from Paiela in western Enga.
She was accused of having an alien creature inside her that was causing others to become sick and die.
They called this sanguma.
Kepari was afraid they would kill her, and so she left her home village and went to live in Mt Hagen.
But people still talked about her behind her back.
They still called her sanguma.
When a young boy died in Warakum settlement in Mt Hagen, the young men assumed that it was Kepari who had caused his death.
They believed the gossip that said that she was a sanguma.
They did not try to actually understand what was going on, but just acted.
They stripped her naked, tortured her with a branding iron, bonded and set her on fire on Feb 6, 2013.
The crowd snapped pictures of her torture and killing on their camera phones, proudly sharing it over social media.
There was widespread outrage throughout Papua New Guinea and the world after the murder of Kepari.
However, all this was soon forgotten, and Kepari Leniata became just another statistic in a country where ritual witch killings are rampant throughout villages, towns and cities.
The United Nations has estimated that there are 200 witch killings in PNG annually, but there are no exact figures, as sanguma is secretive so most killings are not reported.
Kepari’s body was abandoned in the Mt Hagen hospital morgue for 11 months, until January 2014, when it was claimed and buried by young Christians.
“Why did young Christians go to the Mt Hagen morgue and claim the burned body of the famous sanguma Kepari Leniata?” says Enga-based American Lutheran missionary Anton Lutz, an outspoken advocate against sanguma beliefs.
“Were they supporting witchcraft and sorcery? No way.
“They did it because they made a choice to do what God says.
“How many other men and women and their children are living in hiding in PNG today?
“Should they be kept safe? Should they be hunted down and killed?
“How many people are known as sanguma and therefore fear for their lives? What negative impacts do they suffer because of this nem nogut (bad reputation)?
“How many have committed suicide so that they do not have to face torture and murder?
“Why is gossip and false belief so popular while research and truth is so unpopular?”
Lutz says many people in PNG claim that they know what sanguma means and base their beliefs on what they have been told – by parents, friends, the media, etc.
“Some people have also personally had strange experiences which they believe are ‘evidence’ that their beliefs are correct,” he adds.
“For example: a person who has been told that ghosts can manifest as owls at night, who then hears an owl at night after their loved one died will automatically assume that this experience is proof that ghosts can manifest as owls, and, furthermore, that their loved one has attempted to communicate with them.
“However, research easily demonstrates that there are many different, unique regional beliefs which are all using the same Tok Pisin word sanguma.
“How can we tell which definition or understanding is correct? All of them? None of them? The definition that you heard when you were a child?
“How can we know what is true? If sanguma has 10 different meanings around PNG, how can we decide who is correct and who is actually blindly believing a false belief?
“Beliefs that are repeated are beliefs that remain strong.
“Every time we repeat a false belief/story we are making it stronger.
“We are passing along a lie.
“Every time we agree and repeat that, ‘there was a lady and she was a sanguma and they killed her and that was good’, we are supporting the environment which will allow this to happen again and again.”
Lutz says sanguma is a general term for many different beliefs.
He says that in some, but not all parts of PNG, the word sanguma means:
- Witchcraft (inherent magic or power);
- Sorcery (technical magic or power)
- Divination (seeing/perceiving what is humanly impossible);
- Ritual killing (targeting and killing others with kastom);
- Evil spirits (Jesus cast out evil spirits, so sanguma is probably an evil spirit!);
- Alien creatures (such as Simbu kumo and Hewa pisai);
- Superstition (believing what is not true); and
- Scapegoating (Blaming people who are Innocent).
“Many people in the Highlands talk about how ‘sanguma is moving into new areas’,” Lutz says.
“What are they talking about?
“Could we prove that claim to be true or false?
“Does anyone know what a sanguma looks like?
“Can they be counted or registered and photographed as they cross provincial borders?
“Of course not. What people are actually trying to say is that beliefs about sanguma are moving into people’s minds and taking hold.
“This concept is similar to saying a virus of the mind is moving from person to person.
“These new beliefs about sanguma cause new fears.
“New fears cause new defensive behaviors, including new efforts to remove people who have been given the name sanguma from the community.
“Often there is nothing but rumours to support the claim that a woman is a sanguma.
“She is assumed to be guilty based on ‘invisible evidence’ and tok win (gossip).
“Yet the Consititution of Papua New Guinea guarantees that everyone who is accused has a right to legal representation and a fair trial.
“The Word of God demands that we ‘Do Justice ‘and stand up for the rights of the widow, orphan and any person who needs our help.
“Yet are Christians doing this?
“Do Papua New Guinean Christians see those who are accused of sanguma as women made in the image of God, worthy of respect and care and love?
“The sanguma beliefs that cause so much fear and thus lead to blaming, torture and murder are beliefs that originated in the Chimbu area where they were called kumo and other names.
“Another area where similar beliefs were traditionally held was the Oksapmin / Hewa / Duna areas of Hela and West Sepik provinces.
“These beliefs are spreading to new areas of PNG where they did not exist before – Hagen, Enga, Mendi, etc.
“Why isn’t the Word of God preventing these ‘beliefs about sanguma’ from entering young and vulnerable minds right throughout PNG?
“What is going wrong?”
Lutz believes that there is hope through education and training.
“We are Christ’s ambassadors,” he says.
“We must have a position.
“We must take a stand.
“It is not ok for us to say we are Christian leaders and then endorse evil, either by our words or by our silence and inaction.
“We need much better understanding of medicine, psychology and neuroscience.
“Education must be ‘for life’.
“For too many schools or educational programmes, academic knowledge is disconnected from ethical decision making.
“We have lost the key truth that knowledge means responsibility.
“Those who are educated have a responsibility to discern truth and untruth.
“Let’s start doing it.”