A volunteer stands facing a group of women while another proceeds to wrap black wool around the lady’s body until she is sufficiently bound with her arms against her side, unable to move. It’s an unconventional way to begin a Christian workshop for women, but this is no ordinary workshop to address a deep and far-reaching issue in the culture of Papua New Guinea (PNG).
The topic is fear, a universal emotion, but in PNG the greatest fear is of sanguma (sorcery or magic) that leads to sickness and death.
‘Is this how you feel?’ one of the workshop leaders asks the women as she points to the bound lady. ‘Do you feel tied up with your fears?’ The women respond with a resounding, ‘Yes! Yes!’
This fear will keep a woman from going outside to the toilet at night, or hanging her clothes outside for fear that a spirit may attack or put a curse on the clothes. Most are afraid to eat certain foods or go to particular places. Spirits of the dead may cause sickness and death. A few are accused of being the sorceress and suffer retaliation.
Fighting a losing battle
The ‘Do Not Fear’ workshop grew from the deep concerns of a British missionary doctor, Rosie Crowter, who works at Rumginae Rural Hospital western PNG where two MAF pilots are based. As she attempted to teach health education on TB and malaria, it became apparent that it was a losing battle as everyone believed that sickness is caused by sanguma. Mosquito nets stayed wrapped in their original packaging or were used as fishing nets. Pictures of the germs that cause TB were explained away. Sanguma put those germs there.
‘It raised my awareness to the fact that in PNG, health is primarily a spiritual issue, and if you don’t address the spiritual issue, in some ways you’re wasting your time. That’s when I started my transition to Bible teaching. The only thing that could really address the issue is God and God’s Word, helping them to really know who God is so they didn’t have to fear magic because they honored and respected and feared God.’
Rosie put together the 'Do Not Fear’ workshop especially for women, teaching what God says about sorcery and death, and that God is our defender and protector. God controls the heaven and earth, life and death. We need not fear spirits, men, or anything else.
Jennifer and Sarome
Jennifer Wode has been teaching the ‘Do Not Fear’ workshops as well as one on ‘Who is God', having been trained by Rosie. Jennifer grew up in a village 12km up the road from Rumginae.
At 15 she became a Christian but didn’t really understand who God was. Six years later when she ended up in the hospital with a serious illness, she felt God calling her back. She committed her life to God, faithfully taught Sunday School, and attended Rumginae Bible School.
There she met Rosie and began helping her translate Bible verses, attending the ‘Do Not Fear’ workshop, a life-changing experience. Jennifer took the message back to her village, teaching the workshop and seeing women challenged and transformed.
Sarome Kelly, Jennifer’s cousin who also attended the workshop, moved from a life lived in fear to a confident believer in the sovereignty of God – from fear that sanguma will kill her in her sleep to faith in God’s control over her life.
‘This teaching helped me,’ Sarome affirms. ‘Now when I go to the bush, I go by myself. At night too, I go to the toilet. I sleep by myself. I practice this, and the fear goes away. God is in control of everything, even sickness. My big son died, but I don’t say a sorcerer killed him or people made magic. Even I teach my children and they practice this. They don’t live in fear. When their friends talk about sorcery and magic, they say, “That’s not true. Don’t talk about this in our house.” Praise God, because He changed me.’
One of her favourite Bible passages taught at the workshop is Psalm 91. 'God is my protector,’ Sarome says. ‘Fear is gone. I believe.’
Changing a culture
Jennifer has been teaching the two workshops in remote areas since 2012, flying with MAF to places accessible only by boat, walking, or plane. The workshops take five days and include dramas such as the Red Sea crossing to show God power, or Mark 5 where Jesus casts out an evil spirit into a herd of pigs.
Most important is scripture memorisation that helps to reinforce the teaching when fear creeps back. Jennifer confirms that change doesn’t come overnight when a belief in sanguma’s power is so deeply ingrained in one’s culture. One key is to read the Bible and pray, she says. The other is to stay away from any talk of sorcery.
‘Normally they’ll gather around the body of the deceased and talk about who has killed this person, and is his body moving, and all those kind of spirit practices,’ Rosie says. ‘But one of the men commented that the women who had attended the course Jennifer taught were behaving differently, standing back and not getting involved in this magic talk because they believed the teaching about God being in control of life and death.’
‘When they are discussing sorcery and magic, I just keep away,' Jennifer says. ‘I’ll be there sharing the Word of God, but I don’t stay long. I don’t want my ears to hear.’
‘Sarome moved from a life lived in fear to a confident believer in the sovereignty of God’
For Rosie, seeing people understand God’s word and practice it in their lives is deeply satisfying. ‘Jennifer is one of the most encouraging people, just seeing her commitment and her love for teaching, and seeing the impact of what she teaches on other people. That’s what I came to do – equip PNGers to change their own people. I love the fact that she does the workshops without me. That’s exactly what I was aiming at – for them to know the Bible well enough to teach it effectively.’
A key part
MAF has supported the health-related work of Rumginae Rural Hospital since it was born in the 1960s, currently managed by the indigenous Evangelical Church of PNG, and now that support includes the Women’s Ministry workshops and other training courses in remote communities such as one on ‘Marriage and Love in the Family’ for both men and women.
‘MAF takes us to the trainings, so they are a very key part,' Rosie explains. ‘I write books and MAF transports those books from Hagen to Rumginae, and then takes them out to people through the western province. Nine of our health work places are only accessible by plane, and we often do the training in those same places because they have airstrips. It’s a crucial part of our work.’
‘This message is bringing big change in the lives of the women,’ Jennifer says. ‘I just want to say thank you to MAF for helping us take the Gospel out to these very remote areas.’
We are free
At the end of the ‘Do Not Fear’ workshop, the same volunteer is again bound in a rope of black wool. This time Jennifer cuts the rope with a bush knife and says, ‘This knife is like the Word of God. It cuts through our fears and we are free.’
Story and photos by LuAnne Cadd