I have been reluctant to comment on the recent witch burning horror in Papua New Guinea, even though I have previously written at length about that nation’s problems with stamping out superstition-related violence. There was something alarmingly voyeuristic about the way in which the murder was covered, and I didn’t think it appropriate to chime in when others were busy leering at the terrible events in question. But enough time has now passed for more sober takes to pop up, and one of the best comes through the eyes of a Catholic priest who has spent four decades in Papua New Guinea. He coolly explains why the belief in sorcery persists in rural areas of his adopted country, and one of the reasons he offers has to do with the nation’s lack of bureaucracy:
Gibbs said he tried to convince his parishioners to take a more modern and scientific view of the world “such as asking a medical doctor the cause of death,” saying medical authorities need to be more open about causes of death, and in a country that often has no death certificate system, he wants one. Oddly, people will accept a death by heart attack; but not high blood pressure.
A great number of attacks on “witches” come after someone—usually a child—has suddenly fallen ill and died. Absent of any formal explanation of how such a tragedy could have occurred, the superstitious seek scapegoats. A great many innocent lives could be saved if the government could somehow help grieving relatives understand that their loved ones were victims of terrible luck, rather than dark arts. Something as simple as a piece of paper with an official stamp certainly might help bolster the legitimacy of such an official explanation.