A true story:
The woman was sitting on the ground bunched up like a little ball. Her head – loosely bandaged with a bandana marked with blood – was resting on her thin knees as she sat squatting on the dirt-packed ground. She was old, weak and feeble. Even the slightest breeze might take her away. Her situation was precarious.
She did not move when I arrived. Fear had stolen her heart. Death – the all- consuming intruder, the great equalizer showing no respect for young or old alike – had come. It had come the night before and stolen away her son, Markus (real name protected), at the age of 35. And it had just now escaped her by nothing short of a miracle as she was accused by a glasman (witchdoctor) of killing her very own son. In the eyes of the community, especially in the eyes of her immediate family, she was a sorcerer, a so-called kumo-meri, and thus needed to be killed immediately. Attempts were made.
I bent down beside her and held her. Whether accused of sorcery or not, this emancipated elderly woman was born in the image of her Creator; she was destitute, rejected by her own family and without hope, as the tentacles of death seemingly closed around her.
Welcome to the world of sorcery-related killings in PNG. As a missionary, an outsider looking in, I am a mere child to the feelings, the emotions, the fear, the anger, the revenge and hatred surrounding those who are suspected of killing a loved one by engaging the spirit world, the sanguma world, the world of black and dark magic. Yet, I have preached and taught in the settlements of Lae for almost nine years now and I weep at the revenge killings of those who have been accused (without any evidence save the lying tongue of a witchdoctor) of an act of sorcery. Families are being torn apart, moms sometimes with their children are killed, communities divided and all because of an accusation to sorcery. It is PNG’s very own witch-hunt. “But ‘so and so’ put a curse on him,” they will say, “and therefore ‘so and so’ must die.” But why are these ‘so and sos’ almost always women with the occasional (elderly) man thrown in? Rarely, if ever, is it a young or healthy middle-aged man. Is that not curious, when in Jesus’ time evil spirits did not show respect of age or gender?
The thought is that the sanguma spirit, the evil spirit, or whatever it is must die, and supposedly by killing the person the sanguma will die. But no one really knows. Does it? There is no proof it is dead! None. Sadly, the only proof that something is dead is the charred remains of a body – a mother, a wife, a grandmother or bubu who wanted to keep living and serving her family as she had been for many years. Their blood, like the blood of Abel, cries out to God for justice!
Let us back up two days. It was a Tuesday evening and I had just finished preaching the Gospel of God’s abundant grace and love to a group of some 80-100 people in a settlement known for its production of homebrew (“steam”), its thievery, and even its murders. As I preached, Markus, the young man mentioned above, was listening rather intently. After I had finished, I shook his hand and said “gutnait” (Good night), not knowing this would be the last time I would ever speak to him. That evening he went to sleep, never to wake up again. The intruder had come. And God, who is sovereign over death, had marked his last breath sometime between midnight and six AM.
But what transpired after his death was not mourning as one might expect; rather it was blood-thirsty revenge. The question that needed an answer was: who can be charged? No one killed him… at least there was no murder that could be recounted. The family was right there, and no one heard anything. But revenge had to be meted out. “Who killed him?” means, “Who put a curse on him?” He must have been cursed! It did not matter that Markus lived on beer and home brew, betelnut (buai) and drugs for the last 20 years of his life. It did not matter that he had some organ failure the week before and was “cleared” from the hospital because they couldn’t do much more. Those facts mean nothing when death rears its ugly head. Who cursed him is the only legitimate question that needs to be answered, it is thought.
Immediately the witchdoctor – the glasman – was requested to come. Bamboo in hand, hungry and in need of money, it took him only moments to produce his verdict: “The mother” he said. Pointing his bamboo stick at the most destitute of the lot, an aged mother crippled over in grief – the charge was made. Who could revoke such a charge? Who could acquit her? The sentence was given. So her own family and friends moved in to kill their mother, grandmother, acquaintance and friend. It had to be death then and there – blood relationships notwithstanding – while the lying glasman, with some 200 kina ($100) in hand, rejoiced over his day’s work. He could now buy a nice 40 kg bag of rice with that, lots of tin fish and satisfy a lot of bellies with his hard labours. The cruel injustice of his act! PNG has re-established the death penalty; and one day, I imagine, witchdoctors will be filed into a waiting cell awaiting their own turn to die, as the blood of countless mothers and grandmothers are on their hands! But now, this glasman is still living with impunity.
He left and retaliation began. Someone swung his knife and cut the mother’s head. A few others tried to rip her from the tree she was holding to bring her to the kunai grass to kill her. Thankfully, a leader in the community was brave enough to stop them at risk of his own life. Had this leader been a son or daughter, they would have killed him or her along with the mother. You can’t stand up for your dying mother if she has been accused of sorcery – it is instant death. Stories abound of children trying to save their mum only to be slaughtered with her. So the group of thugs waited until evening. Their plan was simple: pile 5 tires up under the nearby bridge and when people are overcome with tiredness, they would steal the mother away, put her in the centre of the tires and set it alight. It is one of the more common ways to kill those accused of sorcery in the settlements of PNG. Just burning some rubbish, they would say, but what about the blood curdling screams? Is anyone listening to those? Does anyone care? But thank the Lord, the community leader who stopped the kunai grass killing, had given his life to guarding this poor woman. He cared enough to risk his life for her. And God in his infinite wisdom sent a torrential rain that washed the tires away deep into the ocean. Satan’s evil plans were thwarted, again.
It took more than 24 hours after the death of Markus for someone to call me to come. I have yet to learn why. When I arrived, Markus’ mum could not look up at me and neither could many of those sitting in the area round her. Fear and darkness, guilt and shame, anger and revenge had settled in and the mourning process was grossly interrupted. It had become the devil’s playground. Still, the Gospel of Jesus Christ brings light and hope and peace and that is why I had to be there. And as his workers, we know there is nothing to be ashamed of or fear when we preach Christ and him crucified. Because the Gospel has the power to bear on every situation – even the dark, evil, anger filled situations that Satan tries desperately to retain. Nothing to fear… though I must confess at least a few waves of fear filled me with some extra adrenaline as I prayed for Christ’s protection! We do Christ’s bidding in so much weakness!
What did the power of the Gospel wield that day? Only the Lord really knows, but what I could see was this: He normalized the situation and allowed truth to expose lies. They heard me speak strongly against the witchdoctor and to the people for asking him to come. He is a worker for the devil who does not care about their lives: he does not come to save lives, but to harm. In complete contrast, the Gospel saves, because Christ saves. Christ gave his life not to destroy ours, but to call us back from death to life. He even rescued those possessed by evil spirits as he tarried with us on this earth. He sets captives free. And on the cross, He dealt a fatal blow to death, Satan and all the forces of evil in the heavenly realm (Col 2:15). There is hope in Him. So I put it plainly:
“Why? Why? Why did you not call me first – I have been preaching the Gospel of peace and life in Christ in this area for some 4 months, because I want you to know Christ and his love for you. But Markus dies and you call a glasman. Shame on you! He needed to get paid – he received his pay and where is he now? Is he going to comfort you in the death of Markus? No, he is gone. But the Gospel comes and brings life and hope and it is free and you reject it! But it is this Gospel that I bring to you today… and it comes at no cost to you, only to HIM. He died so that you might live and be set free…!”
I pleaded with them for over 45 minutes demanding that they become life-promoters, not destroyers, as they mourn the loss of Markus. To promote life is to first repent and seek by faith the giver of life, Christ himself, and then love and protect the vulnerable. That’s living out the Gospel!
After I left, some relatives came down from the Highlands of PNG bent on killing the mother of Markus because they had learned that she was suspected of doing sanguma. I praise God that the Gospel had begun its work – the family that had heard the Gospel defended Markus’ mother. Even months later, another one of her children died, but there was no talk of sanguma this time. Maybe they had become life promoters and not destroyers by the power of God’s grace in them.
In the end, my prayer, my humble plea, is that God will open people’s eyes to see the darkness that consumes them as they live in fear of sorcery. I pray that God will bring to justice those false prophets who accuse our mothers with the use of the devil’s tools (bamboo stick or black magic) and leave them to die a horrific death. I pray for the murderers who kill their wives and mothers or aged fathers that they will stop and repent or face the full brunt of the law. I pray that the mothers of PNG need not fear the death or torture when they mourn but they can cry as everyone else does, grieving the loss of life and praying for the comforting hands of the Lord to surround them. I sincerely pray that the witch-hunt will end and for justice and truth to prevail in PNG! God bless Papua New Guinea!