John asked for other variants on the definition of sanguma.  Murphy (1985: 100) defines sanguma rather specifically: "The term originally comes from Madang where it was used to describe a species of malign sorcery and also the person gifted with the power of performing it.  It was performed by bringing about an apparent mesmerism of the victim by the sorcerer who then led him to his assistants and then the thorns were pushed into parts of the body where it was desired pain or illness would manifest itself and eventually cause the death  of the victim.  A short thorn was pushed into the tongue causing it to swell so that the victim could not talk and tell the name of the sorcerers.  The thorns were dipped in a special secret brew which apparently rendered them poisonous.  The victim invariably died.  The term has spread to other parts of the Territory to describe similar sorcery where the victim first undergoes mesmerism or is frozen with fright."

Thomas Slone 3 September 2002

As it happens, a Lihirian visited me last week with one new item of information on the topic of sanguma. A man from Matatukuen village, Masahet Island, NIP, called Lupak was a policeman in German times, dying in the 1950s or 60s. He always maintained that he had been to Africa, "another country with black people in it", which educated Masahet islanders late in his lifetime apparently thought rather far-fetched and disbelieved him. But my informant, Luke Kabariu, says he now recognises that he must have been telling the truth; there is no argument, I should say, that Lupak was in the police force of German New Guinea. Although I do have genealogies for the whole of Masahet, they are rather shallow and only a modern Lupak appears in them, not the old police fellow.

This is a reminder that the Southern African sangoma ‘killer witch’ theory is at least feasible. Presumably the Germans would have had their colonial police in Namibia and Tanganyika. Does anyone know for sure if sangoma is known in Namibia as it is in South Africa?

I don't have the Murphy reference, but we do need more detail on sanguma in the Monumbo language of Bogia, and indeed some proof that it hasn't entered that language from TP, to attribute the term to this place.

John Burton 3 September 2002

Bryant reminds us that sorcery in the Torricelli area traditionally works at a distance, and his sources suggest that the currently vogue form of sanguma is a more recent import. I can add two points, based on my experience in the coastal/mountain Arapesh westcoast region. One is that sanguma sorcerers would naturally have modern tools at their disposal, so that one very commonly feared version of what happens to a sanguma victim is that he/she is injected with battery acid via a syringe. Nevertheless, the quite elaborate schemas for what goes on in sanguma seem to combine new elements with old. So the expert sorcerers are still said to reside inland, where they are believed to go to the haus tamberan to learn the relevant magic, e.g., to turn human bone into the kambang-like powder they use to stun people in the forest. The other point is that the Arapesh word for sorcery/sorcerer strikes me as borrowed: [maio]. Does anyone else know this term?

Lise Dobrin 4 September 2002

I seem to have missed the original correspondence re sanguma, so please excuse any duplication. An important article is:

Laycock, Donald C. 1996 "Sanguma." In Papers in Papuan Linguistics, 2, pp. 271-81. Pacific Linguistics, A 85. Canberra: Australian National University.

Laycock reviews much of the literature on this subject, both regards definition and origins of the word in TP. He cannot find any similar word from southern Africa (p. 277) and concludes the TP word is most likely from Monumbo (who nowadays are most often called Mambuan by other groups).

Laycock has a very useful bibliography which, however, should also include:

Poch, Rudolf 1908 "Reisen an der Nordkuste von Kaiser Wilhelmsland." Globus 93/9: 139-43.

In this source, there is a reference to the Monumbo 'zanguma' on p. 141. This comes from Poch's research there with Fr Vormann in 1904. Laycock's first reference to the term is a letter from Vormann in 1906-7. (BTW, Poch is also important to us as he made the first sound recording of TP in 1904 which he was in Potsdamhafen in the Monumbo area: of a Sulka police man!). Re your comment about Papua New Guineans in Africa. This interests me a great deal. Certainly a group of 150 boys and men from German New Guinea went to Dar-es-Salaam (arriving on 29 January 1906) to help suppress the Maji-Maji Rebellion. Some returned for health reasons on 12 March, others on 25 May. Otto Dempwolff, of Austronesian linguistics fame, was working in Africa then and was thrilled to spend as much time as possible with the Papua New Guineans. He even recorded some of them singing on cylinders. Perhaps Lupak was part of this contingent (sadly he is not among those recorded)? Or were there other trips to Africa by PNGns during this period? I have no information that this group ever went to other German colonies in Africa.

Don Niles 4 September 2002


I don't have access to much library material here, and the detail you give is impressive. Anyhow, if Laycock couldn't find any southern African origin what's all this on

and similar sites ...

I see that sangoma principally involves traditional healing but nevertheless...

John Burton 4 September 2002

Thanks for putting me onto these sites. Interesting indeed! For what it's worth here are Laycock's comments on the 'sanguma' and Africa connection, or lack thereof:

Laycock, Donald C. 1996 "Sanguma." In Papers in Papuan Linguistics, 2, pp. 271-81. Pacific Linguistics, A 85. Canberra: Australian National University.

"As for sanguma, the probability is fairly high that it does come from the Monumbo language. Not only do we have the first mention of the word only seven years after the opening of the Monumbo Mission Station in 1899--or probably six years, if we allow for the time Vormann's paper took to get to Germany and be printed--but we have a number of other related words in the Monumbo language. In any case, it would seem unlikely that the word could have been imported from anywhere outside Papua New Guinea. I have wasted a lot of time trying to track down a reported 'sanggoma', with approximately the same meaning, from southern Africa; but I have been unable to document this in any reliable source, and cannot find words even remotely like it in a score of African language dictionaries. If the word 'sanggoma' for assault sorcery does exist anywhere in Africa, I believe it must either be a chance resemblance, or else a loan word into African languages, perhaps introduced through the medium of SVD priests, via their headquarters in Vienna. But I think we can ignore the African connection for the time being." (p. 277)

As the sites indicate, however, there is a 'sangoma', now used in English, perhaps deriving from Zulu, etc.. Laycock tries to go further, but lacks information for most other Torricelli languages. He then asks how 'sanguma' (the only word in TP from a Papuan language) could have come into Tok Pisin, considering the small numbers of speakers of Monumbo:

"I can hazard a guess that the transmission process was related to the German plantations (many of them mission-plantations) along the Bogia-Madang coastline. Once the word entered the pidgin of other groups, the SVD priests would be likely to preach against the institution of 'sanguma'--and thus help to spread the word. (It is even possible that SVD priests preached against 'sanguma' before the word was in their area, and spread it that way). The further extension of plantation labour from Madang to the Gazelle would have carried it to that area, and the Sepiks--who had the concept, if not the word--would have got it in the time of extensive Sepik labour-recruiting following World War II. But this is something that would have to be documented another time. The spread of the word 'sanguma' in the post-World War II period is, I think, related to the spread of Tok Pisin, via the plantations." (p. 278)

It should be noted that Laycock died in 1988 and he may have further wanted to revise his paper for publication.

Don Niles 10 September 2002