Kumo witchcraft in Papua New Guinea

Kumo refers to a malevolent power said to take the form of a creature such as a rat, bat, frog, snake, or flying-fox (usually a nocturnal creature), with the power to kill or harm people. The kumo creature lives within the body of its host, the so-called kumo-person kumo yomba. Individuals who have kumo are variously called kumo yagl (kumo man), kumo ambu (kumo woman) and kumo gage (kumo child). Kumo is said to be passed from parent to child or grand-parent to child and runs in families. However, it can also be passed to an unsuspecting or curious person who touches a kumo-person on the head or hands. The recipient starts to feel different and soon realises that he or she is controlled by a being within them—a being that calls them their new ‘father’ or ‘mother’. Kumo are said to be able to fly and to pass through walls or doors. While the kumo person sleeps at night, the kumo creature can take human or other form and roam at night, eating human waste and searching for human flesh, particularly vital organs like the heart or liver. The movement of kumo at night may be traced by moving lights (said to be similar to fireworks)—‘witches torches’ (kumo ken).

Traditionally it was believed maladies caused by kumo included infections of the liver (munduo nongwa), inflammation of the lungs (munduo mongungwa), bloody diarrhoea (dem boromai sungwa), or unusual swelling of the body (nangie yakungwa). However, Aufenanger notes that ‘nearly always when there occurred a death, people thought, kumo was the reason for it’. Even today any form of death may lead to kumo accusations. Moreover, kumo may be linked to accidents such as when a person is injured falling from a tree or in a traffic accident. The victims of witches are regularly those of their own clan, and mostly relations inside the same hauslain (sub-clan). Sterly notes the case of a woman accused of killing her own son. Other close relatives threatened with, or thought to be killed by kumo include husbands, in-laws, nephews, grandchildren and brothers and sisters.

No one knows for sure who is a kumo person, as they live in the community just like anyone else in the village. Suspects are accused during funerals, perhaps with reference to some form of ‘strange’ behaviour such as staring at people or having been seen wandering aimlessly at night. Another significant factor is suspicion that the accused may have had a grudge against the deceased. A confession may be forced through threats and torture, but whether they confess or not, the accused are often killed or banished from the community.

Sometimes communities enlist the help of a kumo ‘doctor’ or ‘witch doctor’ to identify the culprit. A kumo ‘doctor’ is a ‘retired’ kumo person who has declared that he or she will not practise kumo for malevolent purposes. I have spoken with retired kumo persons about their understanding of the kumo creature and they seem to be reluctant carriers. One elderly woman told me how her kumo creature (taking the form of a rat) entered her body when she was a young woman. She claims that she didn’t like having the kumo creature, which would go around doing ‘bad’ things, but, although the creature was not totally independent, there was often little she could do about it. She observed that her kumo creature was becoming thin and weak, just like her. A young man who acts as a kumo doctor referred to his kumo creature as ‘nature.’ He had learned to control it as he was not happy with the ‘bad’ things that his kumo creature would do. He said that at times he sent the creature away but it would return to him. Being a kumo ‘doctor’ is a recognised occupation and the practitioner is paid, sometimes handsomely, for the exercise of his or her profession.

The reader can learn more about kumo from publications on the topic including those by Heinrich Aufenanger (1965), John Nilles (1950), Paula Brown (1964), Joachim Sterly (1987) and Casper Damien (2005).

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