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"Sanguma em i stap": Ethnographic citizenship and epistemic exclusion in Tok Pisin sorcery stories since 1945

"Sanguma em i stap (Sanguma is real)": Ethnographic citizenship and epistemic exclusion in Tok Pisin sorcery stories since 1945

Ryan Schram
University of Sydney
October 25, 2019

To be presented in the session “Making the occult public” at the 2019 meeting of the American Anthropological Association on Saturday, November 23, 4:15–6 p.m. (Convention Center West, Room 306)

Paper and slides available at http://anthro.rschram.org/talks/sanguma/aaa. (Please do not cite or quote without permission from the author.)

Abstract: In Papua New Guinea, people's political participation takes place in contact zones among many different cultures, and public discourse circulates only when people create interfaces between disparate languages, systems of knowledge, and value orientations. Citizenship rests on one's capacity to translate oneself; yet translations are not treated equally in mass print media. In the same way that the national creole language Tok Pisin is subject to competing ideological evaluations about the nature of multilingualism, Tok Pisin public discourse is characterized by competing tendencies toward epistemic inclusion and exclusion. In this paper, I present several different frames found in Tok Pisin public discourse which privilege different epistemological positions on sorcery and other occult topics. In each case, talk of the occult involves both an openness to differences in knowledge and a tendency to treat particular knowledge claims as beliefs (bilip) to be overcome. While bilip has become the dominant way to constrain public talk about the occult, I also show that the bilip can be reinterpreted to index a moral stance of mutual recognition of differences as well. Competing tendencies of inclusion and exclusion in Tok Pisin discourse also feed into and reinforce each other. The struggle over ontological recognition will thus always be a part of creole cosmopolitanism in PNG. Keywords: occult, belief, creoles and pidgins, media, citizenship.

Jimmy Kain's story

"Sanguma em i stap (Sanguma is real). From the government, you would notice that they are focusing on the violence against alleged sorcerers and their human rights, but what about the other side of the issue? As a government we have to come down and see the real issue that is affecting our people. Sorcery related killings are happening everywhere," said Mr Kain. "Mi laik appeal long gavman of the day, disla sorcery act em i stap pinis. Long dai blong disla innocent pikinini, mipla laikim osem gavman i mas wokim sampla action long enforsim disla lo (We want to appeal to the government of the day, the Sorcery Act is already there.)"

—“Community rallies to weed out sorcerers” (Arnold 2017) [The reporter only translates some of Jimmy Kain's quoted statement, and alters its meaning slightly. My own English translation of his full statement is: “I want to appeal to the government of the day, the Sorcery Act is already there. Of the death of this innocent child, we(excl.) demand that the government take action to enforce this law.”]

Two different metapragmatic operations are needed to produce valid public discourse in PNG

  1. the identification of common grounds for communication in diffusely and unevenly shared languages, and
  2. the typification of the persons who occupy these meeting places as a basis for containing, commensurating, and ranking differences among them.

Tok Pisin and the politics of knowledge in PNG

  • Jourdan and Angeli (2014) argue that both the ideologies of reciprocal and hierarchical multilingualism determine the public role of pidgins and creoles.
  • Using this distinction, we can draw an analogy between the politics of language in PNG and the politics of knowledge.

Implicit and explicit typifications of the occult

  • When writing about the occult in Tok Pisin, it is common to list several terms which all refer to overlapping ideas, including sanguma, puripuri, malira, posin, blek mejik, and blekpawa, among others (see e.g. Gibbs 2015).
  • Another English-derived word soseri (from sorcery), however, is a marker of a prestige register. Its use changes the multilingual context for discourse on occult topics because as a prestige term it also indexes English as a dominant code and metalanguage. There is an asymmetric “semantic ascent” (Quine 1948, [1967] 1992)

Wantok Niuspepa

The occult poses an acute dilemma for Wantok Niuspepa:

  • It embraces Tok Pisin as a grassroots language for a new nation.
  • It strives to conform to the model of mass journalism as an anonymous voice from nowhere, and thus tends to favor official sources as “authorized knowers” (Tuchman 1978; Fishman 1978).

A 2012 article in Wantok

"Bilip bilong posin sanguma daunim divelopmen [The belief in magic sorcery defeats development]" (Yakai 2012)

<html> <table> <tr> <td style=“padding-right:0.5em;”


Long PNG, <strong>bilip</strong> bilong posin, sanguma, marila o puripuri i bikpela tru long planti rurel komyuniti. Maski wol i stap insait long 21 Senseri we bikpela senis i wok long kamap insait long wol dispela <strong>bilip</strong> i stap strong yet long planti rurel komyuniti long PNG.

</td> <td style=“padding-left:0.5em;”


In PNG, the <strong>belief</strong> in <em>posin</em>, <em>sanguma</em>, <em>marila</em>, or <em>puripuri</em> is very important in many rural communities. Even though the world is in the 21st century, and major changes are happening around the world, this <strong>belief</strong> still remains powerful in many rural communities of PNG. (Emphasis added.)

</td> </tr> </table> </html>

The two sides of belief

Per Robbins (2007), both belief (English) and bilip (Tok Pisin) have two distinct senses:


  • Belief that…
  • Belief in…

Tok Pisin

  • Bilip olsem…
  • Bilip long…

A 1988 Simbu Nius article

Lead paragraph of "Masalai kilim man indai [Spirit kills man]" (Daka 1988)

<html> <table> <tr>

<td style=“padding:1em”



ampela taim igo pinis long Fonde 9 dei bilong dispela mun June ibin gat wanpela man long Kunabau ibin indai. </td>

<td style=“padding:1em”



arlier, on Thursday, the 9th of this month June, there was a man of Kunabau who died. </td>

</tr> <tr>

<td style=“padding:1em”



ndai bilong man, Wagluo Fabian krismas bilong em 63 yias old na wanpela lida man bilong Kunabau eria, ol man iting olsem em ino indai nating. </td>

<td style=“padding:1em”



he death of the man, Wagluo Fabian, 63, and a leader from the Kunabau area, people think that he did not simply die. </td>



<td style=“padding:1em”



gat dispela <strong>bilip</strong> bilong masalai istap yet wantaim ol lain istap long dispela hap olsem na ol ting olsem masalai ibin kilim indai late Wagluo Fabian. </td>

<td style=“padding:1em”



hey have a <strong>belief</strong> in a spirit that lives with the group who live in this area, and so they think that the spirit killed the late Wagluo Fabian. (Emphasis added.) </td>


</table> </html>

Narrative sequence in "Spirit kills man"

The byline?

“Spirit kills man” concludes with a statement that distinguishes the report from straight news:

<html> <table> <tr> <td style=“padding-right:1em;”



aunsola Aglua Daka [sic] i bringim kamap dispela igo long Simbu Nius na tok lukaut bilong em igo long arsait lain istap namel long ol Kombuku bilong Kunabau olsem ol mas raun stret long bush bilong ol na noken brukim lo bilong tumbuna, nogut bai ol kamap birua bilong masalai gen. </td> <td style=“padding-left:1em;”



ouncillor Aglua Daka [sic] revealed this to <em>Simbu Nius</em> and his warning for outside groups living among the Kombuku of Kunabau is that they must travel straight through their bush and they should not break the traditional laws, or else a spirit attack will happen again. </td> </tr> </table> </html>

Under this final sentence is an apparent byline “By: Agua Daka.”

Conclusion: PNG's complex civic competences


Arnold, Michael. 2017. “Community Rallies to Weed out Sorcerers.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, November 7, 2017. https://postcourier.com.pg/community-rallies-weed-sorcerers/.

Cramer, Katherine J., and Benjamin Toff. 2017. “The Fact of Experience: Rethinking Political Knowledge and Civic Competence.” Perspectives on Politics 15 (3): 754–70. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1537592717000949.

Daka, Agua. 1988. “Masalai Kilim Man Indai.” Simbu Nius, June 1988.

Daukas, Nancy. 2006. “Epistemic Trust and Social Location.” Episteme 3 (1–2): 109–24. https://doi.org/10.3366/epi.2006.3.1-2.109.

Fishman, Mark. 1978. Manufacturing the News. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Gibbs, Philip. 2015. “Wok Long Painim Gutpela Sindaun Long Bogenvil.” Wantok Niuspepa, July 30, 2015.

Jourdan, Christine, and Johanne Angeli. 2014. “Pijin and Shifting Language Ideologies in Urban Solomon Islands.” Language in Society 43 (3): 265–85. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0047404514000190.

Quine, W. V. O. 1948. “On What There Is.” The Review of Metaphysics 2 (5): 21–38.

———. 1992. “Semantic Ascent.” In The Linguistic Turn: Essays in Philosophical Method, edited by Richard Rorty, 168–72. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Robbins, Joel. 2007. “Continuity Thinking and the Problem of Christian Culture: Belief, Time, and the Anthropology of Christianity.” Current Anthropology 48 (1): 5–38. https://doi.org/10.1086/508690.

Tuchman, Gaye. 1978. Making News: A Study in the Construction of Reality. New York: Free Press.

Straight, Bilinda. 2008. “Killing God: Exceptional Moments in the Colonial Missionary Encounter.” Current Anthropology 49 (5): 837–60. https://doi.org/10.1086/591423.

Yakai, Mathew. 2012. “Bilip Bilong Posin Sanguma Daunim Divelopmen.” Wantok Niuspepa, September 6, 2012.

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