Our forebears’ practices deserve our accolades


Keith Jackson & Friends: PNG Attitude, 29 January 2012

PAPUA NEW GUINEANS TODAY SHOULD BE PROUD of our ancestors for their sapience in containing the deadly diseases tuberculosis and leprosy from spreading and killing the people in the period prior to the western influence.

Before western medicine was introduced into Papua New Guinea our ancestors already had their own traditional medicines and preventive methods for controlling curable and none curable diseases, chiefly TB and leprosy.

Tuberculosis and leprosy were recognised throughout PNG as communicable and deadly diseases well before western influence. The people had no traditional cures for the diseases, particularly leprosy, but they developed other methods to prevent the diseases from spreading and killing them off.

Confinement of the victims was one way of isolating the diseases from spreading. If a person contracted any of the diseases and it became known through the onset of the symptoms, the information would filter quickly throughout the community. Everyone would know about it and stay away from the victim.

The victim, like every other member of the tribe, being  knowledgeable of the rules governing the prevention of the spread of TB and leprosy, would  confine him or herself to his or her home. He or she would be restricted from going out and interacting with the rest of the people; bathing and fishing in the waters; and hunting and collecting firewood in the bushes etc.

Only the close relatives would bring food, water and firewood and leave them at the door of the victim’s home. The victim would collect the items after the relatives had left. 

Whenever the relatives would like to talk to the sick person, they would stay some distance away and talk.

The village chiefs would constantly monitor the condition of the victim by asking the relatives or sending spies to observe and report back. If by any chance the sick person, particularly a TB victim, got healed, the person was free to live a normal life.

On the contrary, if the chiefs learned that the victim’s condition had gotten worse, they would meet in secret and issue a decree for elimination of the victim from the community.

A squad of strong young men would be appointed to carry out the decree.

There were several methods that the people practised . One popular way was arson. The squad of young men would set fire to the victim’s house at night while the victim was fast asleep. The squad would make sure that the victim was burnt to death and did not escape.

The other popular method was drowning the victim in a big river or sea. The squad would tie a rope around the neck of the victim and drag him or her to the river or sea and drown them. Then they would cut the rope and leave the corpse behind to be washed away or eaten by crocodiles and fishes.

Spearing and poisoning the victim were the other methods.  Spearing a victim was  carried out mainly when the victim misbehaved by going into the no-go zones and/or engaged in restricted activities, for example, bathing in the streams.

The most lenient method was confining the victim in a deep inescapable cave until he or she died. The victim was dragged to the cave by tying a rope around the neck and left there. The relatives would from time to time bring food and water and let it down into the cave by rope. The rope was pulled back after the food was taken. This continued until the food was not taken from the rope. Then the relatives knew the victim was dead. They would stop bringing foods to the cave.

Despite the many languages and tribes and the enormously diverse cultures and traditions, amazingly the TB and leprosy preventive methods were common throughout PNG. Similar methods were practised in every tribe across the nation with only slight variations.

According to my father, who is now in his late 70s, the people did not develop these extreme methods overnight. The methods were evolved over a period of time after all the other avenues such as traditional medicines, magic and spiritual mediums had failed to produce positive results.

The methods had been passed on from generations to generations and they became an oral law to the people. Everyone including the chiefs and their families respected the law. Nobody would question, resist or break it. Even the victims respected it and cooperated.

The chiefs had to enforce the law without fear and favour for it was their paramount responsibility to safeguard the lives of the whole community without compromise.

By western culture and principles, critics would label our ancestors as primitives practicing inhumane and barbaric practises. But let me point out that given the highly communicable and deadly nature of TB and leprosy and the fact that the people did not establish cures for them, the extreme preventive methods they applied were apropos. In fact the methods had served their purpose tremendously by preventing the diseases from spreading and killing off the people.

Because of what our ancestors had done, 800 plus languages, 600 tribes and their diverse cultures and traditions, were saved and thrived up to this very day.   Certainly our ancestors were smart and they deserved to be honoured. I take my hat off to them for their sapience. They truly deserve our accolades. 

Published by Ples Singsing

Ples Singsing is envisioned to be a new platform for Papua Niuginian expressions of creativity, ingenuity and originality in art and culture. We deliberately highlight these two very broad themes as they can encompass the diverse subjects, from technology, medicine and architecture to linguistics, music, fishing, gardening et cetera. Papua Niuginian ways of thinking, living, believing, communicating, dying and so on can cover the gamut of academic, journalistic or opinionated writing and we believe that unless we give ourselves a platform to talk about and discuss these things in an open, free and non-exclusively academic space that they may remain the fodder for academics, journalists and other types of writers alone. New social media platforms have given every individual a personal space to share their feelings and ideas openly, sometimes without immediate censure. The Ples Singsing writer’s blog would like to provide another more structured platform for Papua Niuginian expressions in written, visual and audio formats while also providing some regulation of the type and content of materials to be shared publicly.

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