Death and Sanguma in Paradise

The sky was just starting to get light when I heard the wailing next door. The death wail is fairly distinctive and instantly I knew someone had just died. Soon after that, someone inside the house started yelling, “Jesus, send her back” for the next 5 minutes. It wasn’t too long before relatives were informed and started to trickle in to cry and sit with the family.

House Sail

Large tarps like these are set up around the house where someone dies. These “house cries” allow people to be there 24 hours a day until the body is buried.

After my wife baked a couple loaves of banana bread, we took them and went to sit with the family to show our condolences. The young girl that died was 16 and was a niece of the lady she was staying with. She was sick for several days and complaining of severe neck and head pain. When she started to lose consciousness they took her to the local medical facilities but it was too late to help her. This family is a Christian family that regularly attends church, sings praise songs, and has at least one pastor of a mainline denomination in their family tree.

Because of her age and the way she died, it was immediately suspected that she was killed with sanguma (sorcery used for the purpose of killing). Most of the deaths in the Sepik region except for the very old seem to be attributed to sanguma. At the very least the possibility is seriously discussed. People are deathly afraid of sanguma.

Carrying Casket

Wailing as they go, people carry the casket to the cemetery.
Picture by Michael Johnson

There are many ways that people use to find out who is responsible for the person’s death. Some of the ways are watching the body for movement when a person enters, knocking on the casket and asking questions until the body answers with a bump, reviewing past events, reviewing relationships to find ones that are strained or broken (motive), asking for manifestations or spirit possession from the dead person’s spirit, carrying the casket around the village and letting it guide you to the cause of death, and many others.

The extended family of the girl who died was certain of who was responsible for the girl’s death, so they sent the police to get a confession and arrest them. I cannot begin to tell you the rest of what was told to our family and it is hard to express the range of emotions we felt as we listened to the rest of the story. We can tell you it was very different from anything in our cultural background.

One of the hardest things for me was hearing the fear that sanguma has over these Christians and the things they will do because of the fear of sanguma. It begs the question, “Is God more powerful than sanguma?” or is He just another spirit to placate? If the God of the Bible is not able to protect from sanguma then He really is no god at all.

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