Sorcery, Illness and Deaths in Papua New Guinea
Belief in sorcery is common in Papua New Guinea and is thought to be the cause for all types of illness, death and misfortune. However, these deeply ingrained cultural beliefs are stopping the promotion of public health in PNG. The example of kuru, the degenerative brain disease, helps us understand that illness and death have scientific explanations and consequently shows the importance of medical treatment and preventive measures in order to promote better public health in PNG.
The belief in sorcery is deeply embedded in Papua New Guinea’s culture and is crucial to the traditional culture and religion of many of PNG’s 860 different language groups. Sorcery, also known as witchcraft or black magic, is often credited as the cause of and explanation for any misfortune, illness, accidents and death.
The belief in sorcery is so ingrained in PNG that the Australian colonial administration recognized the belief by implementing the 1971 Sorcery Act, which makes practice of black magic or sorcery illegal in PNG. Because the faith in sorcery is so deeply ingrained in ancient indigenous religious beliefs they are highly resistant to change.
The pervasive belief in sorcery as the explanation for all manner of illness, misfortune and death has serious implications for basic public health in PNG. Despite the existence of access to biomedical primary health care in most regions of the country for at least ten years, the belief remains that illnesses such as malaria, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are caused by supernatural causes such as sorcery and witchcraft, or the breaking of place, food and sex-related taboos. As a result, many people first seek the care of traditional healers, and even when Western medicine is resorted to, its success is often still attributed supernatural powers.
The notion that illness and death is caused by sorcery and witchcraft is problematic in a number of ways. Firstly, it serves as an obstacle to the biomedical treatment of diseases, such as malaria, which despite being easily treatable are also potentially highly deadly (malaria is the number one cause of illness and death in PNG). Furthermore, preventive measures (such as practicing safe sex to prevent transmission of HIV or other STIs) are not taken to curb the spread of infectious diseases. Secondly, the faith in sorcery creates ethical and practical dilemmas for health care workers who are concerned with trying to change behavior to promote community health, while being respectful of indigenous cultural traditions. And finally, attributing illness and death to sorcery often fuels existing tensions and conflicts, and may result in the torture and killing of accused “sorcerers”.
While the belief in sorcery is part of indigenous cultural beliefs that date back thousands of years, perhaps the example of kuru can be helpful in demonstrating the scientific explanation for the cause of some diseases previously understood to be the result of black magic, and consequently the value of Western medicine in treating such diseases.
Kuru is a degenerative brain disease that is exclusive to PNG’s Fore region. Its symptoms consist of deterioration, from overall weakness and unsteadiness and tremors with uncontrollable laughter, to a complete loss of muscle coordination such that the individual can no longer move or eat. It has traditionally been believed by the Fore people that kuru is caused by sorcery, and this remains the belief today.
Not only did sorcery provide a way of understanding the disease, but it also gave the Fore people some sense of control over the epidemic. However, after decades of research by medical doctors it was discovered that the disease is caused by tiny proteins, called prions, and that the disease may take more than twenty years to manifest itself, and that the disease is, in fact, very similar to a disease called Creutzfeldt-Jakob. Fortunately, new cases of kuru are very rarely diagnosed. Kuru has no medical treatment, however, this example is very useful in helping the people of PNG understand that illness and death not only have other explanations than sorcery, but that they are often preventable.
Belief in sorcery in PNG is not going to stop overnight. However, Morobe Development Foundation Inc is committed to sharing information and raising awareness about important issues with the aim of enabling the people of PNG to make decisions that better their health and well-being. We believe that continued education about the natural and scientific explanations of illness and death, including the value of medical treatment and preventive measures, is fundamental to PNG’s development. Hopefully we may help to slowly dispel ideas about sorcery that are disruptive to modern PNG society.
For more information about the disease kuru and its fascinating scientific explanation, please check out this documentary, available here!
By Willie Doaemo