Burn the witch!

Papua New Guinea found some minerals and natural gas that’s worth something to someone somewhere, so some people are profiting from this boon, and some people are not happy about this boon to others. So much so, in fact, that they’re willing to torture and burn alive people who have a little more than they do. The excuse (besides greed)? Witchcraft! Allegedly. But when has an angry torch-wielding mob ever needed anything more than the barest allegations?

Earlier this year a former school teacher, Helen Rumbali, was attacked in her home by a mob wielding guns, axes, and machetes. Since the attack occurred at night I can imagine a few burning torches were brought along. The mob took Rumbali and three female relatives away to be tortured. Police came in and managed to negotiate for the release of the three relatives, who suffered multiple knife wounds. I assume negations began to break down shortly thereafter since Rumbali ended up beheaded or burned alive. The article is a little unclear here, for it writes about the beheading but the picture caption describes being burned alive. An unwanted end, in any case.

Was this unjustified? Well, a local villager got sick, and ultimately died. Witchcraft was suspected, since the “victim’s grave bore the marks of black magic”. And Rumbali would have gotten away with this nefarious deed were it not for a trail of pesky fireflies that led the witch hunters straight to her.

Tragically, until this year, a 42-year-old Sorcery Act gave people a partial excuse to slay alleged witches for causing the bane we all know they cause. Yet some experts seem to think that the real motivation for the current rise in witch hunts in Papua New Guinea has something to do with jealousy and not an actual fear of witches. Apparently, these experts think that the new found mineral and natural gas wealth is accelerating the gap between the wealthy and poor, which foments jealousy and a desire to strike out against the more economically fortunate. Superstitions once reserved for the highlands of the island have found popularity even in the cities as people deal, badly, with the growing economic divide.

Rumbali was one of these more fortunate. Her husband and son had government jobs and she lived in a real wooden house (until the torch-wielding mob burned it). She had something everyone wanted, including [allegedly] powers over demons in the form of small critters, so she was destroyed.

Economics played a role in the accusations made to the Inquisition as well. During a period when villages were transforming into towns, and the merchant and craft classes were developing, new economic gaps were forming between non-aristocratic peoples. Jealousy bred hatred and the Inquisition gave the green-eyed an outlet by pointing out the green-skinned.

There’s no lesson here. We can compare and contrast. We can pass judgment. We can feel pity. We can be moved to aid in humanitarian efforts abroad. I’m just struck by how fortunate we (we = “Western World”) are that we can blithely adopt a word as label where in other parts of the world that label can leave a person a head short.

Mostly, I’m just struck by the fact that people suck.

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