Papua New Guinea (PNG) is one of the most misunderstood and misreported places in the world. From the outside looking in, where accurate information is difficult to find, it’s hard not to be influenced by media coverage that decision makers choose to share with us. Almost without exception stories focus around three sensational themes, cannibalism, witchcraft and gender based violence (GBV). If you believe the media, it would be easy to think that people walk around everyday in their traditional dress, head clad with feathers, rustling in their grass skirts, wielding bush knives. I mean nothing grabs your attention more than a tribal singsing, a woman having her ear bitten off or reports that someone has been burnt alive accused of being a witch.
I’m not about to say that all reporting from PNG is false but after living here for a year and spending time sharing stories with lots of PNG nationals from many of the Provinces, I felt I wanted to counterbalance the perception that these predominantly humble, generous people are serving up their next door neighbour for dinner and that the extremes are the only things that define PNG.
Nothing arouses quite the same response as the thought of having to eat another human, it’s the inevitable turning of the stomach that you experience at seeing Hannibal Lecter cooking and eating his next victim’s brain. But people eating people is a practice that has long stopped taking place in PNG. Historically cannibalistic behaviour did exist but even the rationale behind why this used to take place is often misunderstood. The whole purpose of cannibalism within traditional beliefs was to get supernatural power. When you eat the person that you kill, their power will go to you and it was believed that it elevated your status as a warrior. It is a complete misconception that cannibalism existed because there was famine, it was purely based around supernatural beliefs and escalating power within a tribe. Cannibalism is part of PNG’s tribal past but I have seen or heard no evidence that it is something that is still taking place.
The other two themes are much harder to dispel but they can be explained in a less sensational, emotive way. The reality is that the vast majority of people believe in witchcraft and sorcery in PNG. According to research carried out by Oxfam in 2009, most of the population does not accept natural causes in case of illness or death of relatives and friends. The belief that sorcerers and witches have deliberately used their supernatural powers in order to harm other people is a common conviction and, the relatives of the victims sometimes adopt retaliation measures against the supposed witches, such as murder, torture, destruction of their property or exile. In the village people always know who has power; there are good and bad witch doctors and it is believed that magic can also be used to protect you as well as be used against you. Jealousy is often a major factor when it comes to people casting magic on others. There is a real fear of witchcraft and some young people actively avoid going to the village because they are fearful that someone will do witchcraft on them.
What I can say is that I haven’t witnessed witchcraft being practiced and I’m not certain what I believe, but I have been surprised at the ingrained beliefs held by many of my educated friends and colleagues. Beliefs regarding the supernatural may not be evident in everyday life but it is the visual retaliation that is as it is so stark. This extreme revenge often occurs in the most brutal and savage ways but these incidents are not common. A murder attributed to witchcraft is often a smoke screen for someone being killed for other reasons like domestic violence, so it is unclear how many of these cases are actually true examples of people being killed for being a witch.
Even harder to rationalise again is GBV. The reality is that recent research into this issue shows that it is massively prevalent in PNG and in some regions practically all women will in some way be affected. Again this is something that is a lot less visible than I imagined it would be. I haven’t seen violence first hand but I have seen the after effects amongst my PNG colleagues and friends who have come to work with black eyes or swollen faces and I have heard about the alarming stories from the volunteers working to help survivors. It is a shocking reality of life here. My feeling is that the medias insistence on focusing on the shock factor and extreme imagery goes no way to help tackle the ingrained violence. These ‘trauma porn’ images just further demonise people and instill fear about a whole country. What would be helpful is not using this behavior to define the whole population.
So there’s the sensational parts demystified a little but what could the media focus on? The unashamedly beautiful and diverse landscape, people who are fiercely proud of their cultural heritage, or any number of the amazingly inspiring people and organisations that work here. I could take photos, make videos and write engaging and interesting features about life here for an eternity.
The cynic in me attributes this disproportionate reporting not only to appeal to the general readers lust for the sensational, but also because demonising countries with wildly different cultural contexts to the West and making people seem less developed makes it much easier to sell ideas to people about taking advantage of them with a clear conscience. It’s no coincidence that PNG has recently become home to the Manus detention centre where people seeking asylum will be repatriated to this already extremely culturally diverse country or why international companies can set up vast mines that give little back to the community but take huge amounts out. Creating a veil of fear and making the country seem dangerous and unsafe makes it much easier to treat people unfairly.
There’s so much more to PNG than I could have ever imagined it’s just a shame that the majority of people only see it through the skewed lens of the media.