“They’re going to cook the sanguma mama!”
The shout went up from a posse of children as they raced past the health clinic in a valley deep in the Papua New Guinean highlands. Inside, Swiss-born nurse and nun Sister Gaudentia Meier — 40-something years and a world away from the ordered alps of her homeland — was getting on with her daily routine, patching the wounds and treating the sicknesses of an otherwise woefully neglected population. It was around lunchtime, she recalls.
Sister Gaudentia knew immediately the spectacle the excited children were rushing to see. They were on their way to a witch-burning. There are many names for dark magic in the 850 tongues of Papua New Guinea, sanguma resonating widely in these mountains. The 74-year-old sister hurriedly rounded up some of her staff, loaded them in a car and followed the crowd, with a strong foreboding of what she would find.
Two days earlier she had tried to rescue Angela (not her real name), an accused witch, when she was first seized by a gang of merciless inquisitors looking for someone to blame for the recent deaths of two young men. They had stripped their quarry naked, blindfolded her, berated her with accusations and slashed her with bush knives (machetes). The “dock” for her trial was a rusty length of corrugated roofing, upon which she was displayed trussed and helpless. Photographs taken by a witness on a mobile phone show that the packed, inert public gallery encircling her included several uniformed police.
In Papua New Guinea, the Pacific nation just a short boat ride from Australia’s far north, 80 per cent of the 7 million-plus population live in rural and remote communities. Many have little access to even basic health and education, surviving on what they eat or earn from their gardens. There are few roads out, but a burgeoning network of digital-phone towers and dirt-cheap handsets now connect them to the world — assuming they can plug into power and scrounge a few kina-worth of credit.