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Witchcraft, God’s punishment or just malaria in West Papua?


Who has made Mama Raja ill? Was it witchcraft, evil spirits, malaria or God’s punishment? Dutch researcher Ien Courtens discovered that in the interior of the Bird’s Head of West Papua, the presumed cause of the illness determines the choice of treatment.

By studying the illness progression of Mama Raja, Courtens discovered how inhabitants of the village of Ayawasi in the interior of the Bird’s Head of West Papua heal illnesses. In her doctoral thesis she unravels the different explanations for Mama Raja’s illness cause, and reconstructs the path she followed in search of healing. This approach provided answers to Courtens’ main research question: How are choices for healing performances related to religious change and gender?

Indigenous and biomedical therapies are interchangeable in the initial phase of the illness. Patients frequently choose an indigenous treatment first, such as those learnt during initiation or via dreams. If this treatment does not work, help is sought at the outpatients’ clinic of the missionary hospital. The opposite also occurs. Then ill persons first of all put their hope in biomedical treatments. Not infrequently, people combine these two healing methods until their health improves.

In this initial phase, individuals are mostly pragmatic in their choice. They experience the biomedical treatment as an ’easy way’ of getting cured which works relatively quickly. Conversely indigenous methods are seen as ’hard work’: you have to search for medicinal leaves, roots and tree bark in the rainforest. Furthermore the preparation and use of the ingredients as well as their uptake in the body is a time-consuming process.

Why more important than how

If individuals do not recover in this initial phase, they enter the following phase in their search for healing. Then interpretations of the possible causes of the illness are important. Mama Raja’s case clearly demonstrates that why she became ill and who was responsible for this were more important than questions about the nature of the illness. On the basis of the why and who questions, individuals look for causes of the illness, such as misbehaviour that invokes the anger of ancestral spirits and God, as well as possible perpetrators: individuals who practise magic, witches and evil spirits.

As the majority of the local population became practising Catholics following the arrival of the missionaries, they also consider the breaking of Christian rules and the ensuing punishment from God as a cause of illness. Further the population nowadays recognises the existence of diseases such as malaria and flu as a biological response of the body. In their eyes these biological causes do not conflict with the idea of punishment as a cause, but instead compliment this.

The research was financed by the Netherlands Foundation for the Advancement of Tropical Research (WOTRO).

Dr Ien Courtens | EurekAlert!
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