Saturday, 24 March 2012

The Father, the Son, and a bit of Sorcery

As unsexy as it is, I’m going to have to begin with a disclaimer. This entry is about beliefs, and consequently, about religion. It’s pretty hard to talk about religion and not offend someone, so if someone questioning religion or trying (and probably failing) to make humorous remarks about religion offends you, and you’re not in the mood to be offended, don’t read on. That said, I’m not out to offend anyone and I can honestly say that I respect people who have religious faith.  In previous entries I wrote off hand, humourous (well, I tried) things about malaria, but that doesn’t mean that I actually think malaria is a joke at all, and well, the same is true for me regarding religion.  So, if at all possible, please read this entry in the spirit that it is written – I want to explore, not out and out condemn, religion as I see it manifesting in PNG.

 Religion is a big deal in PNG. A Very Big Deal. I’m not sure if there is officially meant to be the whole ‘separation of church and state’ thing going on, but certainly the reality is that John Lennon could never have claimed to be bigger than Jesus in PNG. (Unless perhaps he played rugby very very very well.) According to the census data, something like 98% of Papua New Guineans identify as some sort of Christian. Let’s try and forget the fact that no one can locate a single person in all of Madang (a fairly large town) who was actually given a census form to complete last year and instead accept this statistic as valid. It probably is. So, it would seem that the vast majority have no problem with their government being deeply influenced by religion. In fact, even the national anthem mentions God with lines like; “Now give thanks to the good Lord above, for his kindness and wisdom and love” and “Praising God and rejoicing to be, Papua New Guinea”.

The Catholic Church near our house.
Nearly a third of Papua New Guineans are Roman Catholics. Like me! Well, except that I’ve ‘lapsed’. I’m not sure if there is a statue of limitations with regards to being a ‘lapsed Catholic’. I’m not sure if there’s any rule like, once you’ve evaded the confessional box for 18 years no amount of Hail Marys can save your sorry soul. If so then I’m certainly in trouble. I’m often asked here if I’ve been baptised, or which religion I belong to. I have to admit to usually not being very brave and answering that yes, I have been baptised (it’s true) or that “I was brought up with the Catholic faith”, also true. This is a very convenient and non-confrontational way to be honest and yet to completely avoid getting into any discussions regarding homosexuality (illegal here) or abortion (also illegal under any circumstance and please note: PNG has a shamefully high rate of sexual violence). Sometimes I do feel like a coward, but at the same time, I haven’t come here as some sort of ‘anti missionary’ to ‘de-convert’ people and I don’t really think my doubts would be that welcome. So, I do what my friends in Oz know to be a rare occurrence for me and I keep my views to myself.

As for Geoff, well, he’s an Asian! I mean, what can you expect? Some sort of Buddhist? In fact, he’s only been asked once so that says something, yet I’m asked quite often. (I do wonder sometimes what people make of our marriage :)

Anyway, so far I’ve been involved in staff meetings at two different high schools, one run by the Catholic Church and another at a government school. Both schools start their meetings with lengthy prayers, thanking the lord for whatever good stuff has gone down of late and asking for assistance with whatever help is needed (and this is why it can get lengthy). To have this kind of praying going on in a government school in Oz would be unthinkable and really reminds me of how different things are here.

The Vunapope cemetery, where priests and
archbishops are buried.
Religion has also been something in the forefront of my mind because of the research work I’ve being doing with local health workers who work to promote safe sex and provide information about sexual health. The use of condoms is obviously a big problem for the Catholic church and in fact on World Aids Day (a big deal here, which is great), you could have been forgiven for thinking that it was World Condoms Are Evil And Will Make You Get an STI Day. (This was true of the community I visited but apparently not at all the case in other nearby communities.) So much of the focus was on condoms and how bad (and ineffective) they apparently are. A prominent person also made a speech in which he told the audience that AIDS is one of God’s ways of punishing people for their bad behaviour (this was about 5 minutes before a very brave man who is HIV positive was welcomed to the microphone to speak to everyone). Fortunately a young child from a nearby school who had won a speech contest (where the topic was HIV) then spoke about how God loves everyone and wants the community to help people with HIV – yay for someone who grasps the essentials! I was also asked to make a speech (random white lady = instant side show) and I echoed this young sage and then said many horribly cheesy things which are way too embarrassing to record here (but I admit to thoroughly enjoying myself at the time).

From what I can see PNG has a few rather serious problems regarding STIs, (including of course HIV) and a population explosion and these problems are somewhat exacerbated by the stance of the Catholic Church. Or, the church might argue, exacerbated by the general population’s inability to stop getting it on – a compulsion Papua New Guineans seem to share with other humans. This is not to say that there aren’t some very practical/blasphemous (depending on your take) Catholics around who say things like (in support of condom promotion) “ahh but the Pope is very far from here”. 

And of course, the Catholic Church is not the only player. From my own personal experience, the Seventh Day Adventists are also rather numerous. I’ve never known someone from this religion before, but I know many over here and they are easily identifiable for one reason. Pearly, white teeth. Seventh Day Adventists are not allowed to partake of things that are obviously addictive (I say obviously as they are allowed things like sugar) so this means no coffee, no alcohol and no buai (betel nut). Everybody else chews it and it does awful things to their teeth (and causes mouth cancer). The SDAs are therefore instantly recognisable by their lovely teeth (they also have no probs with family planning and condoms).  Unsurprisingly, a large number of the health workers Geoff works with belong to the SDA church. I guess this makes it easy for them (easier than the Catholics) to work for an organisation that, at its core, is all about preventing STI’s and safe sex (as opposed to abstinence).

Other churches that are active around us include the Uniting Church and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, though apparently the latter group are (nation wide) very small in number. Which leads me to wonder how it is that they find their members….. You see, when I walk past the nearby Catholic Church when mass in on, I often hear singing. Lovely harmonious singing. I also hear lovely harmonious singing when I walk down the street and large open trucks drive by, packed with women and children in the back who are singing away to pass the time. It should come as no surprise to anyone that Papua New Guineans, like many other peoples of the Pacific, can carry a tune. That is, except for the members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation who live near us. As I type this (Saturday afternoon) they are pumping out fast and furious Christian rock music and I’m really at a loss to relay to you just precisely how bad it is. First of all, the “singers” are a karaoke nightmare (they have microphones and amps – amazing when you consider that no schools have such equipment). They’re really really awful. Then there’re the lyrics. They mostly sing in Tok Pisin, which is not the problem. It’s the repetition, that and the never ending, rhythmically anarchistic drum solos which make me wonder if they are being paid by the clever Catholics to make the Catholic services seem all the more enjoyable. I’ll provide you with a sample of the some of the lyrics we are treated to.

Mi gat Jesus, mi amamas.
Yu gat Jesus, yu amamas.
Yumi gat Jesus yumi amamas.   (amamas means ‘happy’)

Into the above, please insert several ‘Hallelujahs’ as sung by a teenage boy with a breaking voice and no volume control. This is what we listen to every Saturday night. And then again on Sunday morning. Geoff and I have several theories going but the most convincing one is that the few lost souls in PNG who can’t carry a tune are not welcome at the major denominations and so are somehow shepherded into the welcoming arms of the JWs and given a microphone.

So there are many different denominations, each with their own take on how to have amamas with Jesus. This does not mean however, that Papua New Guineans have forgotten their pre missionary past. Quite the contrary. Sorcery, witchcraft or ‘sanguma’ is alive and well in present day PNG. I asked a group of educated, thoughtful and thoroughly modern individuals whether or not the average PNGn believed in witchcraft and sorcery and one of them quickly answered; “Some people will tell you that they don’t so that they seem modern or educated, but everyone believes in that kind of thing. Everyone”. And, sure enough, everyone in the room agreed and then gave me examples of sanguma they have personally encountered. I have also been reading the work of senior secondary students who have been interviewing someone they admire and writing a biography of that person. Many of them write about what an upstanding and devoted Christian their chosen person is and about all the success they have had in life in spite of the many vicious acts of witchcraft committed against them by jealous, plotting sorcerers. Some of them explain that it is thanks to this individual’s faith in the Lord that they have been able to overcome the evil spells cast upon them.

Look closely. Yes, those are Mother Mary statues on their heads. 
I asked some people how witchcraft is carried out and they said that it often involves using some of the person’s hair or nail clippings (like voodoo) and mixing it with things like ginger (mmmn ginger) and then of course some incantations. One person, (who does in general believe in sanguma) told me with a chuckle, that if sanguma was really all that powerful then PNG would do better in international sporting matches so at times he has his doubts. When I expressed surprise about sanguma being used against rival sporting teams, I was told that ‘everyone does it’ when games are on. Apparently some areas/clans are better at it than others and therein lies the success of certain teams. It seems that during the upcoming PNG games, there will be sanguma happening all over the place.

It may seem at first to be sort of contradictory that people here are of the Christian faith but then believe in sorcery, but then I guess, the bible is full of stories of magic like miracles. Also, if God exists and you can pray to him and ask him to help you then why wouldn’t the devil have some sort of similar arrangement? I’ve heard many laugh at PNGns for being ‘silly’ to believe in such things as sanguma, but it strikes me as kind of hypocritical to respect people’s religious beliefs when these beliefs involve conceiving without sex, walking on water, and rising from the dead, but not to respect someone for believing in the power of a spell to make someone sick. Me, I like to avoid all hypocrisy by respecting all, believing in none and hoping for the best when my time comes. Certainly if my approach is wrong, I’ll be the one to bear the brunt of the outcome.

For me, the big problem with sanguma is that when someone dies, rather than trying to understand why they died, people put their energies into uncovering who made them die. It doesn’t seem to be a problem here so much (in ENB, some people seem more concerned with the possible impact on their sporting team), but in some areas of PNG, people are tortured (until they ‘confess’) and then brutally murdered for supposedly committing sanguma. Sadly we read about this in the papers quite regularly. Actually recently there was a great article about a woman who is a kind of a one woman rescue squad who takes the (often) women (and their children) into hiding so that they aren’t hunted and killed as witches.

Recently I heard from someone I know that they had to explain to a family member why another family member had died and that the cause was medical and not sanguma. Sadly this was one voice of science against many voices claiming that witchcraft was at play. Of course, if you don’t understand the basics of how the body works or how diseases are these powerful but naked to the eye things, then how are you to understand that a seemingly healthy person just dies? And why does medicine say it can cure things like Malaria but then some people die from it? So, it can seem to the family that it’s not Malaria but something sinister and mysterious. What’s really sad to me is that so many people think that there are others in the community who plot against them. It must be a frightening thing to believe.

I don’t know what the answer is with regards to the sanguma stuff. I would like to think that religious leaders were actively encouraging people not to kill each other for any reason (10 commandments anyone?) but I can see how things aren’t so clear cut. I mean, in the old testament, God smites people all the time that he’s unhappy with. And look at a country like the U.S - where many people claim to be God fearing yet the death penalty is enthusiastically practiced in many states. If religion brings people peace and happiness, that’s great, but honestly, I find it pretty confusing.

That said, I’ve gradually become used to religion being all around me here. I mean, I live in Vunapope where ‘vuna’ means ‘place’ and although ‘pope’ is pronounced ‘po-pay’ it means, (obviously) ‘Pope’. I love where I live and our landlord (who is one of the Catholic brothers) is a truly lovely man and his concern for us and the dwelling in which we reside is so refreshing after renting from those who practice the dark arts, or Melbourne Real Estate Agencies as they are more commonly known. Our location also affords us a high degree of safety. The kinds of people who like drinking in the street and generally behaving badly do not do so within the Catholic mission.

So, here I find myself, a lapsed Catholic married to an atheist condom promoter, now residing in the heart of the Catholic Church in a very God fearing nation. Since moving here I’ve had many flashbacks to my religious past. Some good - singing in Church, pancake Tuesday, the kindness of Sister Theresa; our R.E instructor in primary school, and some not so good. Like visions of Mrs O’Connor forcing us, her rowdy grade 4 class, to dance enthusiastically to Elton John’s ‘Healing Hands’ every morning. (Sir Elton John? How could she not have known!) I don’t think I’ll return to Australia a revived Catholic (is that the opposite of lapsed?) but you never know, I may have picked up some handy ways with ginger…. 

Oh, and some random photos below....

I tried to explain about the Baining Fire dance in the entry on masculinity.
RecentlyI found that Geoff had these great photos.

This is one of Geoff's photos, a much clearer pic of the Dukduks which I
wrote about in the previous entry on the Tolai people.


  1. Jehovah's Witnesses are more popular in countries that are less Internet enabled their proselytizing doesn't get exposed as a scam.

    My family was spiritually and financially swindled by the Watchtower society,3rd generation Jehovah's Witness Danny Haszard

    FMI dannyhaszard(dot)com

  2. Hey Simone,

    You're so right when you talk about the hypocrisy with religion and magic.'I believe in god but no way does magic exist that's only in children's stories.' I am like you, but sometimes I like to believe magic exists to really get into a movie or a book!

    Looking forward to watching some J drama these holidays! Would love to see some photos of YOU In the next entry :)

    Jya, matta