In the early hours of yesterday, a woman in her late 40s was dragged out of her home by a mob who accused her of practicing sorcery.
Until yesterday, she lived much like them; in a tiny rented shack in a settlement in Lae City at the edge of the Bumbu River.
The men carried, what the landlord later described as a bamboo used for witch hunting. According to them, the bamboo tells them where a sorcerer is.
Police were alerted and came just in time to rescue the women we later came to know as Elizabeth from the Eastern Highlands. They fired shots, dispersed the crowd and took the woman to hospital.
Her neighbor, someone who shared meals with her, was initially confused when they dragged her into her yard.
“They were going to burn her in front of my house,” she said. She continued her tale as I listened. She told them that she COULD be innocent. Her closest neighbor became her enemy after a few unfounded accusations.
She went on to justify why the accusations were correct.
“She took my baby the other time. I think she ate her heart. I don’t know.”
Her closest neighbor, now her enemy.
As I stood on the banks of the Bumbu river listening to the men and women talk about the “Sanguma meri,” I was going to interject… to try to make them see reason. But I held back.
This wasn’t something you explain and reason to people who have grown up in a belief system that has never been challenged since childhood. How do you do it?
From the outside, we see the obvious: Brutal violence against women. We see the mob mentality and the abuse. What do they see? A sorcerer who is a threat to society and life itself.
We are on two separate wavelengths. We are not connecting. Police can arrest 100 people or a whole village. But the idea remains. You have to kill the idea with another.
What struck me was that most of the accusers were people younger than me – in their 20s and 30s. These are people you assume would be forward thinking and educated enough to not connect three unrelated deaths to a random woman in their community.
Maybe those who died, perished after drinking water from the contaminated river. Maybe they died from multidrug resistant TB. But how would they know?
Their world isn’t one where bacteria and viruses live. They live in a world where people just don’t die suddenly from heart attacks or suffer from depression or mental illness. There has to be a reason for the death and usually, someone is to blame.
I am disgusted that we have allowed our country to come to this state.
We are partly reaping the results of a failed education system imposed on our communities in 1995. An education system that took grade eight and ten dropouts and put them made them elementary school teachers in a few weeks.
We created generations of Papua New Guineans over two decades who couldn’t even read after third grade. We chucked out critical thinking and opted to have our kids parrot whatever the teacher said and did.
The evidence of the results are all around us… in the primary schools, in the high schools and in the universities.
Then, our very own, in the government system stole money meant to go to the health and education of our kids. Over the years, we saw education funding stolen through incomplete projects and medicine from area medical stores sold to private clinics while public medical facilities suffered.
The Public Accounts Committee hearings exposed so much of the rot. But few of the corrupt got the the pain they deserved.
A friend of mine, an academic, told of how students just want to get university life over and done with so they could “get jobs and work for money.” She said, education has become a burden for those poorly educated in primary school and high school. University is no longer a fun learning experience.
The accusers of the woman are from a generation that came from the broken education system.
Their families are unable to access medical care because then health system is so heavily burdened and still too expensive for them. Every death is blamed on sorcery. Every illness can be blamed on some random old woman living near them.
In Pindiu, Morobe Province where I travelled with a provincial government team, the superstition is so deeply rooted. How can they trust modern medicine when they don’t have access to it?
A village birth attendant assists nearly every woman who gives birth. If a child is born with a deformity, it’s because of sorcery.
Superstition thrives where services are lacking.