A Tale of Sorcery and Marriage Among the Gebusi

This post covers events described in the book The Gebusi: Lives Transformed in a Rainforest World (2016) by Bruce Knauft.


In 1980, while anthropologist Bruce Knauft was conducting fieldwork among the Gebusi forager-horticulturalists of New Guinea, a Gebusi man named Dugawe killed himself.

Knauft did not see the act, only its aftermath, and with other Gebusi individuals he went into the forest to inspect the body. When he arrived, he saw Dugawe’s wife, Sialim, weeping over Dugawe’s corpse. Knauft looked for signs of foul play, and wondered if the death may have been a murder disguised as a suicide. “But the only sign of struggle was a mark on the front of his faded T-shirt; something had poked and scratched down its fabric for a couple of inches.” However, nothing had pierced his skin.

After discussing it with the others, Knauft managed to piece together part of the story:

It turned out that Dugawe had fought earlier that day with his wife, Sialim. During the scuffle, she had held an arrow, thrust it toward him, and scratched his shirt. Their fight had been about a sexual affair that was generally acknowledged between Sialim and a young man, Sagawa. Publicly cuckolded, Dugawe had been furious. He had wanted to kill his wayward wife, and perhaps her lover as well. But Silap and others had discouraged him from doing this. Incensed but lacking other recourse, Dugawe had fought with his wife. He was further shamed by her scratching his shirt, his prized possession. When she went off to fetch water, the men said, he took tubes of poison he had previously made to kill fish in the stream and, in a fit of rage, drank them all. Empty tubes with the smell of the deadly toxin were found nearby. Dugawe had died a writhing death after poisoning himself in anger against his wife (Knauft, 49).

A number of Gebusi men lashed Dugawe’s body to a makeshift stretcher to carry him back to the village, with Knauft walking with them, and Sialim trailing behind. As they were walking through the forest, two women converged on them from another direction. Seeing Dugawe’s body, the two women began screaming and attacking Sialim. They were Dugawe’s extended “mothers”, not by blood, but through an important social kinship category. One of the women began hitting Sialim with the blunt side of a steel axe. She soon ended her attack and began sobbing over the body, while the other woman started shoving Sialim with a pointed stick. The men soon intervened and wrestled them both away, and then continued carrying the body to the village.

When they arrived at the village, they laid Dugawe’s body down in his family house. A crowd of women were waiting nearby and they began beating Sialim, who “could not run away without neglecting her duty to mourn her dead husband.” Knauft writes that, “Our neighbor, Owaya, emerged waving a firebrand in her face and shouted, “Si-nay!” [to Sialim]. I later learned this meant, “We’re going to cook and eat you!”—which is what Gebusi traditionally did to persons executed as sorcerers.”

Knauft goes in to more detail:

Only an hour later, a constable arrived from Nomad Station [the local center of government]. Silap and other men had taken the rare step of sending word to the Nomad Station about Dugawe’s death. Why? Apparently, villagers had worried that authorities might receive a different tale of Dugawe’s death from another source. After a long conversation through several interpreters, the constable finally wrote a brief entry in his police book: “Reason of death: Suicide caused by his wife fooling around.” Though the constable’s inquiry was completed, discussion about Sialim continued. Given the anger against her, it was decided that she should go with the officer back to Nomad and stay there for her own protection. The main events of the day were then over; the piercing wails of women haunted the night.

The Gebusi traditionally believed that all adult deaths were due to sorcery (I described some of the changes the Gebusi have recently undergone in a previous article for Quillette). As a consequence, a sorcery inquest was required to determine who ‘killed’ Dugawe, even though it seemed clear to Knauft that he had killed himself. The sorcery investigation would occur weeks after Dugawe’s death. In the interim, Knauft learned new information that substantially changed his perspective of Sialim and Dugawe:

by the time this sorcery investigation resumed, my opinion of Sialim had changed. At first, I thought she had acted irresponsibly. She had carried on a sexual affair with a young man named Sagawa, and she had apparently shamed her husband into killing himself. But additional facts painted a different picture. As Eileen [Knauft’s wife] found out from the women, Dugawe had previously killed not only his first wife but also his own small son. These murders had been so awful that villagers had informed the police, and Dugawe had served a five-year term at the Western Province prison. To my knowledge, no other Gebusi had ever been incarcerated there—or has been since. With his prison term over, Dugawe had returned to the Gebusi and married Sialim, who had recently been widowed by the death of Dugawe’s “brother.” Gebusi widows often end up marrying a clan brother of their dead husband. This custom is common in a range of societies; anthropologists call it marriage by “levirate.” Such marriages can keep a woman— her residence, her labor, and her children—within the clan of the deceased husband. Women themselves may desire this. Knowing Dugawe’s history, however, Sialim did not want to marry him. As newlyweds, they fought, and he frequently beat her. On one occasion, she showed her bruises to police at the Nomad Station, and, knowing his violent history, they put him in jail. While he was there, Sialim took up with Sagawa, her young lover. Perhaps she hoped her new relationship would become a de facto marriage. But Dugawe was discharged earlier than expected. Enraged, he wanted to kill Sialim and Sagawa. But Silap and other men persuaded him this would only give him a longer prison term than he had already endured. Amid this tension, Dugawe took up again with Sialim. But after their fight, he killed himself (Knauft, 53).

The sorcery inquisition was conducted five weeks after Dugawe’s death, and was led by the local spirit medium, a man named Swamin.

The spirits that Swamin conferred with apparently redirected the popular suspicion away from Sialim as culprit. “Rather than accuse Sialim, the spirits described how ogowili [sorcerer] warriors had descended on Dugawe from a distant settlement while Sialim was away fetching water.” Armed with this knowledge, the men searched the location where Dugawe died for evidence of this sorcery attack:

we searched for the magically transformed remains of the sorcerers’ attack. With Swamin’s spirits guiding us, we found an odd-looking stick that was said to be the “bush knife” that the sorcerers had used to cut Dugawe open. An indentation in the ground was the “footprint” of an ogowili. A discolored patch of dirt was Dugawe’s “blood,” which poured out during the attack. As incredulous as I was, the men around me seemed completely convinced (Knauft, 56).

Knauft adds that they tried to track the putative culprits back to their distant settlement, but, “Swamin’s spirits lost the trail as we waded up a stream. As such, we could not determine exactly where the sorcerers were from, or their identity. But the investigation did validate that Dugawe had been killed by an assault sorcerer from a distant village. It being impossible to discover more, no further action was taken.”

This was the end of the sorcery investigation, and it left Sialim in the clear. Over the next seven months, she spent more and more time with Swamin, the spirit medium who exonerated her. “Strong and robust for a middle-aged man, Swamin had been a widower.” Eventually, she consented to marry him, despite the objections of Sagawa, the young man she had an affair with. By the end of Knauft’s fieldwork, they seemed to be happily married…

However, more details are required to flesh out this story. A year before Knauft’s arrival, Swamin had killed Sialim’s own mother. Her mother, Mokoyl, was thought to be a sorcerer responsible for Swamin’s first wife’s death. l will end with Knauft’s description:

At the time, Mokoyl tried to prove her innocence by conducting a bird egg divination—cooking eggs placed inside a large mound of sago starch. Unfortunately, the eggs were badly undercooked. When Mokoyl had given Swamin one of the eggs to eat—as she was expected to do—he had vomited. This was taken as a sign that Swamin’s dead wife was clutching his throat, refusing Mokoyl’s food and confirming her guilt. A few weeks afterward, about a year before we began our fieldwork, Swamin tracked Mokoyl alone in the forest and split her skull with a bush knife. As the spiritual evidence had confirmed Mokoyl’s guilt, most in the community agreed she had been guilty and deserved to die. Her body was summarily buried in the forest, but villagers from another settlement, knowing she had been killed as a sorceress, dug up and cooked and ate parts of the body before it decomposed. In doing so, they indicated their own support for the killing. Government officers never discovered what happened.