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Countering poisonous stories: an example of sorcery in Papua New Guinea

28th October 2019

by Miranda Forsyth and Philip Gibbs

This blog is the first in a series examining narration and renarration as regulation from the School of Regulation and Global Governance (Regnet) at ANU. Here, Miranda Forsyth and Philip Gibbs tell us what we can learn from attempts to curb sorcery accusation related violence in PNG.

Narratives of sorcery take many forms in Papua New Guinea. They are both distinctive to the particular locale, and change over time. For instance, in Enga Province the narrative is that some women are sangumas/sorcerers who “eat” the hearts of others. In Jiwaka province, both men and women are accused of transforming into bats and sucking people’s blood. In Bougainville, it is predominantly men who are said to “poison” others by using their leftover food scraps or fingernail cuttings.

These narratives are at their most powerful at times of death, when people are gathered together in mourning, often affected by extreme grief and sometimes alcohol. Then the question is asked: Who caused this death? Talk turns to identifying individuals responsible.

The regulatory force of narratives

In this way, we see that the narratives themselves have regulatory force. In other words, they help to steer the course of events in particular ways. One way they do this is by placing events into particular categories, thus setting the framework for particular behavioural responses. In the case of sorcery (as with climate change), the relevant categories are what Goffman calls a “blind effect of nature” or a “guided doing” of man: “When the sun comes up, a natural event; when the blind is pulled down in order to avoid what has come up, a guided doing.” The sorcery narrative puts a particular event, such as a death, into the “guided doing of man” category, as it connects it firmly to human agency. The regulatory force of this is to encourage identification of the individual responsible, in order for them to face justice, or to reverse the magic, or to simply stop them doing it again.

Such talk can often turn into extreme violence. We have documented cases of women forced to hold dead babies and “put its heart back” whilst being burnt with hot irons.
Yet, this is not always the case. Sometimes individuals stand up and rebut attempts to go down the accusation path. They say things like: “have you seen anything with your own eyes?”, “it is just “tingting”(thoughts/imagination), and “you cannot “bagarap”(ruin) another person’s name with this “hevi”(responsibility)”, to use some evocative tok pisin expressions.

Read the full blog post on The Power to Persuade.

Image: by Joybot, Flikcr, under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Updated:  10 August 2017/Responsible Officer:  Director, RegNet/Page Contact:  Director, RegNet