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February 22, 2008

Cure yourself: an entry from ca. 2001

I take a group of American tourists to the Karawari Lodge, off the




. That’s where I get some of my best sorcery. Lodge workers Lukas, Chris and Raymond talk to me about their personal puripuri. I’m into aphrodisiacs these days, and because Lukas’ wife Maddy is so beautiful, he’s obviously got some good ones. And frankly, the fact that scrawny bug-eyed Raymond has married at all, much less sire to that brood of naked kids at the airfield, speaks to the existence of a powerful marila. Always happy to oblige in matters personal or prurient, they mention a few extreme formulas involving flame of the forest vine, incanting certain things on top of a tree, walking backwards, and other behaviors that wouldn’t so much surprise people who know me, but which would be trouble to bring back from the lodge. Lukas confides that the best, most effective puripuri comes from yourself. He says this intensely, in a hoarse hushed voiced, and I nod, thinking, how Oprah.

I know, I agree, it comes from within.

Really, he says. But he’s a little embarrassed to talk about it because it’s ‘dirty’, it comes from the ‘dirty’ in you.

You mean from women’s blood? No need to be embarrassed about pollution with me, Lukas, I explain--I am by now used to men talking of women’s biology as some kind of canker on Papua New Guinea society. That’s what I do, Lukas—I’m an anthropologist.

No, not that exactly, he says. You must wake up early, around 5, and before washing, before even spitting out phlegm or pissing, you must cut off some left eyebrow hair, then some underarm hair, and some pubic hair; then mix them and set them aside. Now you can wash. Later, at any time when you want to activate the potion, you cut the skin just under your left breast (--or pull blood out with a syringe, is Raymond’s bizarre suggestion), then mix this with the hairs and cook it over flame in a little swatch of tin foil until it’s black ash. Put this in your lover’s food and your beloved will never let you go, he’ll stick like glue.

Sounds like a trick I could have used months ago.

Months later my seventy-three year old prostrate-cancer-survivor father comes to visit, and I take him down to the Karawari. Ambrose, one of the lodge guides and brother of Jeffrey (another Karawari kid who would come to live with me), takes us for a trip up the Arafundi River with his brother-in-law William, one of my favorite people. We board the Daisy, a small diesel outboard with three seats and a wobbly aluminum canopy with ragged blue tarps. Our first stop is Yimas village where an entire house line stands pounding away at the pith of seven sago palms by the riverside--a day’s work for twenty people that will probably produce a hundred kilos of flour. Maria and Matthias live and work at their community school at the top of the hill. It’s been raining and the path up is very slippery, so kids steady our elbows the whole way up to the spectacular view. It’s a 360 degree panorama of the Yimas Lakes, its rivers and tributaries, with the soft gray the limestone bluffs beyond.

This school is the handiwork of Maria and her Manus husband, who rehabilitated it after decades of no teachers and snakes slithering through the floorboards. It’s a long two-classroom building, now filled with maybe sixty kids from all over the Arafundi River region, this area just south of the Karawari River, itself a tributary of the Sepik. The raw plank building sits on the hilltop plateau site of an old spirit house from Maria’s own clan line, where a few ancient bloodstones still mark the perimeter. The classroom walls are covered with magazine scraps in big felt marker diagrams, and paper mobiles and twig sculptures hang from the ceiling.  Just down the hill are thatch dorms for the long distance kids, because this is the first school for some of the most remote and inaccessible villages of the Karawari foothills. Several days’ walk away, these families live semi-nomadic hunting lives and have little or no contact with outsiders of any kind. But their kids—even their daughters-- are now going to school.

The students are on holiday now, but they still follow us up to the classrooms where they stand behind their desks to sing the national anthem in strong clear unselfconscious voices. I ask which kids come from Awim, Imboin, and the hills, and at least ten raise their hands. One of them is Stanley, an Awim kid who once walked with William, Ambrose and I to the limestone caves in the foothills, where we found old skulls and bloody palm prints in the disused spirit house caves. He waves his hand the highest because he wants me to single him out, which I do. “Oh yes—Stanley—my hero!” 

We head upriver to Awim now, not to climb to the caves, but just to see the riverside village that’s so quiet and remote and lovely. Where people look slightly different from the rest of the Karawari, just a bit smaller, a little more highlands. The river is high enough to take the boat all the way to the village through the baret off the Arafundi. But up that baret about halfway a tree lies across the our way, and although it looks like we might make it underneath, we can’t. Ambrose curses because if he’d only brought a spanner he could take the canopy off and we’d get through. Oh well, let’s have lunch. Poor William, who’s come along for the ride because he’d just been elected Councilor from Awim in the Local Government Council elections, even though he lives in Yimas, and has missed a chance to see his constituency. Unperturbed, he and Ambrose scarf down half a loaf of bread as I explain that I’d like to find a puripuri man to get some get-a-job magic. I figure Awim and the foothills were a good place to look, not so much because they’ve benefited from good luck charms themselves (a rationale that would probably point me to Palm Beach instead), but because magic is so much more important in marginal subsistence villages like Awim. There’s bound to be someone.

We turn back to Wombrumas, where most of the men in the village are hanging out in the haus win, sort of a public resting house with open walls. Naw, Nancy, we got no puripuri. One of them, I know, is an ace medicine man, someone who diagnoses and expels disease from the body, but he explains that he hasn’t got the kind of good luck potion I’m  looking for. A blind man on a stool in the center says he recognizes my voice but he can’t see me. You see, before he had one eye because the other was gouged out in an accident when he was a child. And just now, he says, he was walking in the bush and cut his one good eye. I look closely and it’s got a filmy glaze over it, while my Dad, not having understood the story in Pidgin, is saying it sure looks like this guy has a bad case of cataracts. We talk about eye doctors and how he might get to Wewak, and one of the young men there says he once worked for the hospital in Wewak and could take him there. But the whole conversation is coursed with a fatalism I know too well. Everyone agrees, and everyone also shakes their head saying it’s no good, the old man’s gone blind. They’ll never take him on a full days’ canoe trip to Wewak, costing something like K150 in petrol. He’ll learn to live within his limits, half convinced this is sorcery anyway---someone has sent him blindness from jealousy, or from an old grievance, maybe even a grudge from his father or grandfather’s time.

This is the destiny of a child in Yimas, a fourteen year old named Christian, who follows me around when I visit and who lost his sight in a bow and arrow accident as an infant. Fated to sit in the haus win and be handed betelnut and smokes every day, someone who knows the walk from his house to the garden and the haus win, and little else. It is the memory of this man in Wombrumas that compels me to adopt Christian later, and take him to the States for eye surgery.

Everyone then starts to grumble about how the Karawari lodge no longer sends tourists this far up the Arafundi, and naturally they want me to grumble along. William walks me toward the haus tambaran to explain that Chester seems to have decided that it’s time to favor other areas of the Karawari, and everyone’s tried to change his mind but they can’t. I’ve never heard William speak English, but now he says “Chester is fucked!” with the fluency of any good PNG politician. The intimacy of his using English startles me, and I feel drawn to him. He’s flirty and handsome and a widower, with two young girls. I’m happy to feel that chemical frisson of being near him, but it will probably end at that. The haus tambaran is a flimsy structure, reflecting how recently the Wombrumus people have come to settle on the river, and how temporary their spirit houses always were when lived semi-nomadically in the hills. A young man stands on the fragile sago palm flooring surrounded by the ochre, lime and charcoal sago palm bark drawings that are the clan sacralae of the Karawari peoples. He goes to a sago basket hanging from the back wall and removes a volcanic stone, brings it to us, and explains that this is their sacred stone. As he tell us the following story, my Dad joins us and I translate:

Once a young man came from the bush to a sago swamp camp where he found plenty of fish. But when he got older he couldn’t find any, so he sat down on a chair in his house and turned to stone. His family came and found him there and thought to put him in the haus tambaran. They had a dream where he told them never to put him in the sunlight or the sun itself would change colors, and rains and earthquakes would come. They thought to test this dream and as a result the weather did bugger up. So then they put him in the darkness in a basket in the spirit house, where he remains, forever after.

It’s very powerful, they all say. All the kids lingering outside the spirit house get shooed away-- Klia! the men yell, meaning scram! One little girl steps back and holds her ground in the bushes just out of eyesight. The man showing us the stone explains that if someone handles the stone he cannot eat raw or freshly cooked sago, just old sago pancakes, and he cannot eat fish that day, or he’ll be unable to eat it at all in time, and he’ll starve to death. None of these three men with us can now eat sago or fish today, they say, having seen the stone. Meanwhile, I’m a little worried that this stray girl is going to feel the stone’s wrath and be forever after unable to eat sago or just waste away. I swerve around to bark “Klia!” now and she jumps, then hurries off to the garden behind.

We go on to Yimas Lakes, a vast floodplain fishing ground. By great good fortune find the top Awim puripuri man on our way. He’s fishing in a canoe with his three little boys. After some quick local language discussion, in which it appears the little man is perplexed but subservient to William, he jumps aboard with us and apparently tells his kids he’ll be back, to wait there. Three boys about the size of leprechauns left sitting in the canoe, while Dad, a taut and tiny muscular man, fierce looking, with a clumpy beard, buggy eyes and the dead calm of someone who might kill you, jumps aboard with us. His name is Bruno (‘Apinun Bruno’), which is perfect. We head off with him up front next to William who seems to be explaining my request in elegant hand gestures. Ambrose takes us to Yimas, where we walk uphill to the thatched church and sit down inside, the doorways filling with onlookers. As William talks to Bruno, the men outside start shooing away the kids, saying this is not kids’ business, get away now.

I need something to get a job, you see, I’m saying in Pidgin. Something for good luck, something to turn the heads of the people who would be deciding to give me (that is, my small consulting company) work. William says Bruno needs a name. The best thing I can do is the name of a committee deciding on a consulting job. This seems to suit them, they both look confident now. Bruno goes out now and says he’ll meet us down below by the river’s edge. Moments later I’m sitting in one of the haus win by the water and Bruno’s reciting a spell over two cordyline leaves he’s tied in knots. He says I’m to sit on these while I work, and sleep on these under my pillow, and I can be sure that I will get the job that I want. That’ll be fifteen kina.

Outside the haus win now people are asking why, if I needed good luck, didn’t I tell them before? Because Maria, the headmistress, they say, has some really powerful puripuri--how do I think she got that job anyway? How do I think she built the school? I promise to come back for Maria’s magic, this time to pull a man. William lets out a shrill giggle and stumbles down the path. One of Maria’s sisters now hands me a lovely and diapered newborn with a full head of ringlets. Could be a boy or a girl. It’s a girl, says the young mother from the verandah of her house. She’s beautiful, I say, cooing and rocking her. She’s yours, the mother replies, I want to give her to you. An older woman is placing a shell necklace over my father’s neck who, oblivious to our discussion, is feeling flattered and sanguine. I am, on the other hand, anxious to hand the baby back, saying, Sorry, but I’ve got no susu--no milk, which also means I have no breasts—once again cracking William up, and everyone starts laughing. Months later Maria also gives me a special good luck charm, a piece of bark. I am to hold my letter of application in one hand, and intone, “Monica [for the woman who gave it to Maria], Maria,” and the name of the would-be employer. I should then chew the bark, spit it out and jump over it.

We return Bruno to his three little munchkins in the canoe, and enter the wide open Yimas Lakes, where we take a spin visiting some of the fishing camps. A young boy paddles out from his camp on a small island in the lake, and we drop sago parcels wrapped in banana leaves that Ambrose picked up earlier into his narrow canoe. Then we find Ambrose’s mother-in-law fishing in a canoe with two others, and they load us with fresh fish; Ambrose and William hand them smoked talapia and sago. “These are such generous people,” my father says.

Five years later William is himself struck down by sorcery. Jealousy, people say. It began with flu-like symptoms, then it looked like TB, and by the time they got him to the hospital in Timbunke they had to send him home as untreatable. He and his little girl Nancy, my namesake, motored all day back home. The next morning he died. Aged 42 or 43 max.

Paijia stands at the top of a garden path wearing his crescent shaped wig covered with daisies topped with a spray of cassowary feathers, his eyes circled in yellow clay, and a pig’s tusk through his nose. “Yu kam! Aiiiiii! Skin blong yu tait!” (There you are! You look so youthful!) he laughs, almost as if surprised at himself, striking his left forearm with his right hand to indicate how well his youth and beauty potion has worked on me. Like a chuffed plastic surgeon, Paijia wants me to offer testimonial, when in fact I haven’t been feeling so young or fit for a long time. But Paijia is my personal naturopath, as much counselor as healer, and I might be terminal and probably get the same reception. How tight your skin is! It’s not fawning, more like showmanship. He’s just happy that I’ve brought along a group of British tourists. We climb the path toward the crest where he stands waiting, and I note Peter, the bus driver from Ambua lodge and a Huli tribesman himself, is reminding Paijia of my name—lest he offend by calling me Mary or something. Now the florid witchdoctor extends his arms to embrace me, and tilts his head.

“Oooh Nancyoo! Yu kam bek!”

I laugh, call him a ‘gris man’ (or liar), because he really is a snake oil salesman, and he beams back and nods vigorously to the gathering tourists. His hand sweeps toward a low kunai grass hut behind him, the consultation room.

Kam, kam,” he insists, the merry publican.

These occasional visits earn him bread and butter from the lodge, and constitute a much coveted gig amongst Hulis all over the Tari valley in the Southern Highlands. We inch closer but don’t stoop to enter, even though Paijia finds this risible and waves us provocatively toward the opening to this small dark space with a damped earthen floor and a cold pile of ash in its center. The tourists retreat to a couple of plank benches at the edge of the clearing and Paijia, having proven some point about the crudeness of his habitat, settles himself crosslegged on a log and sets to meticulously arranging his bustle of tanget grass from his wide bark belt in back, for modesty.

“Picture?” one of the tourists asks, raising her camera and looking first to Peter and I, then to Paijia, who, with a flip of his wrist signals that he’s only too happy to pose. Two safari suited tourists come forward, bend to snap their subject, and inch back again, nodding thank you’s with obvious uncertainty whether Paijia can understand them.   

But of course he can. And after a suitably dramatic pause, he commences a well rehearsed but not yet wooden Pidgin monologue about himself, and his importance to the Huli people, the sorts of medicine he provides, the unimaginable dangers he has already averted for his clients, who are absolutely fraught with fears of sorcery, female bodily fluids, and things that noiselessly afflict you at night. I sit nearby to translate at appropriate pauses, and also to iron out some of the rhetorical wrinkles in this winning but occasionally contradictory pitch. When he gestures to his wig and asks his audience what they find different about his dress from other Hulis and whether they’ve seen anyone else dressed quite like himself around Tari, the response is polite dumbfoundedness. Paijia is Duna, in fact, I explain, not Huli, and so he pierces his septum with bone rather than cassowary quill, and decorates his wig with more marigolds and leaves than the Huli. Having arrived only yesterday and been carted two hours by bus to this first village tour, none of the visitors are in a position to recognize this fine distinction, and yet they smile and nod while Paijia impatiently scrapes mud off his thigh, like the main attraction that he is, waiting in the wings for his cue. Probably his great grandfather or grandfather, I go on, also a witch doctor, was imported into the area during a crisis like a drought or terrific war loss, when Huli sorcery appeared to have failed. And now Paijia is an institution.

We are a team, Paijia and me, the jocular showman in yellow and red face paint, next to the blanched American tour guide. I’m Abbott to his Costello, Burns to his Gracie, and he seems to think the combination more effective than a solo act, not just because I make him explicable, but also because I legitimize him, make the theatrical ethnographic, and he continues to smile in an intuitive comprehension of my straight lines, as though we’ve always collaborated on the script. In fact, I have fallen into a routine of his making. Such is his spell that when he wants to add a flattering coda, a grandiose Thank You to Nancy for bringing Paijia tourists today, all the way from around the world to see his humble compound and family, I can do nothing but mutely nod, it seems too hackneyed to translate, and yet always, as if responding to his cue, Peter will step up to explain that Paijia is thanking Nancy for bringing all you nice people from the other side of the globe to see him here and all the Huli people in Papua New Guinea. It’s an ingratiating tableau, but ingenuously delivered. Because what makes Paijia likable, for all of this showmanship, is his evident self-awareness, the comic predictability of his gestures, even the very idea of selling his ‘secrets’ as a day trip for tourists, with such impish charm. I’m the one who comes off stilted and embarrassed.   

The Huli come to Paijia for fertility potions, good luck charms, cures, and spells to kill your enemies.  He enjoys a certain prestige. Huli culture is steeped in biological esoterica, with young men enduring long training periods in the rules and precautions for health and virility, the food taboos and dangers  of female bodily fluids. Hence Paijia is in constant demand, a very busy man. I have often been seduced by his claims of well-being and success and now enjoy a client-doctor relationship something like the rock star and her Dr. Feelgood, caught in the addiction of suffering his ever more ridiculous prescriptions to correct the symptoms—both social and physical—brought on by the last potion. The saga of my dependency has gradually been incorporated into my own spiel for the tourists.    

“Paijia, taim yu givim mi dispela dring bilong taitim skin...” (That time you gave me the skin-tightening potion…)

“Skin bilong yu tait nau!” (Your skin is tight now!)

“Taim mi dring, mi go bek long Lodge na troaut! Mi bin sik nogut tru!” (When I drank it I went back to the Lodge and threw up, I was so sick!)

Only a few months before, Paijia spat a mouthful of chewed leaves into a bamboo tube filled with special mountain spring water, uttered a spell facing the sun, and handed me the tube to drink. He promised me eternal youth and tight skin. How could anyone decline? I knelt down, faced the sun and held a limestone (the tautness of which my skin was promised to resemble) with my left hand and guzzled the cool liquid. Then I went back to the lodge where I retched and suffered gut-inverting diarrhoea all through the night.

“Marasin rausim sik blong bodi, olosem yu kamap strongpela!” Paijia’s explanation: the medicine expelled my body’s toxins. “Nau bai yu kisim gutpela wok.” Now you’ll get a good job, he adds, somehow confusing the tonic with a good luck (get a good job) charm I’d purchased earlier. Minutes later, as he’s leading the tourists to his sacred lair of the red ochre vagina cave, he falls back on the path to assure me that he can make a special strong get-work potion this time, if I like.  I’m disheartened by the thought that even Paijia finds it pathetic; I’ll never be anything but a tour guide. Sensing my lack of enthusiasm, he goes on to suggest I could be eligible for a discount on his most precious and valued magic, that of sending the black lava killing stones out at night, in case there’s anyone I’d like dead.

“Planti ol waitman baim pinis.” Lots of white men have bought this.

What, the stone goes out at strikes someone at night?

It sallies forth but doesn’t kill at night, it only marks the victim for imminent death. But for you, Paijia insists, a special price. No one will ever suspect when the victim contracts cerebral malaria or is one day hit by a car.

Ai Paijia, mi poritim yu.”  Paijia, I’m afraid of you. I’m afraid I’ll be tempted.

“Mi no giaman!” I’m not lying!

Hambakman!” This strikes him as very funny.

My relationship with Paijia’s potions started when I was living with a young helicopter pilot in Goroka, whom I suspected of landing at one too many strips around the country. He’d be off working at Tembagapura in West Papua for two weeks, then fly to Thailand, then be back in Goroka for two weeks, then off again.  I liked the independence but worried about these circuits, and so I wanted Paijia to prescribe something that would make him absolutely faithful to me alone. The answer came in two blades of grass that he folded into a leaf and placed into my palm, explaining that I should chop this up and put it in the man’s food, and then spread a bit across my forehead. When I look at this man, he will be like a dog in heat and never leave your side. But—and here Paijia leaned close to whisper---do not ever, by any chance, look at the wrong man, or the whole thing will backfire.

Two weeks later, it’s Independence Day, September 16th, and my birthday. Jason has flown in for the weekend. I chop that puripuri into his burger and serve it with a sprig of parsley. Then I rub some on my forehead. “Dinner honey, eat up.”

Later, he rolls over in bed and suggests we live apart.

“Backfired!” I yell at Paijia when I see him next. “That potion backfired!” This appears to surprise him until I explain that a Manus Island friend seemed to think this was because I was given a potion for a man to pull a woman, and not vice versa. Oh yes, yes, he agrees, and like any good salesman gives me an even better potion in recompense—this time a ginger root I’m to smash and eat and pull this man back. He’ll be back, Paijia promises—even though by now I’ve lost interest.                                

Everywhere, puripuri or sanguma, black magic, is nothing to joke about, and I’ve been pretty reckless in my public pursuit of it. It plays a part in most deaths, directly or indirectly, and even the whisper of someone’s powers of puripuri can cause his or her extradition from the community. Most likely her, though, because women are more and more commonly being accused of having black magic and their punishment or murder condoned as a community service. It’s because I’m a European that Papua New Guineans even tolerate my asking about  puripuri so openly, even something as benign as marila.

There have been exceptions. While I’m running a workshop in Maimafu, a remote Eastern Highlands village that has the distinction of possessing the steepest airfield in the southern hemisphere—a one-shot-only landing field that rises at 45 degrees to the limestone face of a neighboring mountain—I ask around, as usual, about fertility potions, things to help me conceive with my current boyfriend, a Martinique filmmaker working in the capital. There’s quite a bit of conferring with one man regarding an aphrodisiac leaf he’ll have to retrieve from an uncle on the far side of the valley; some discussion of whether this is be appropriate for my purposes or not; and finally, the third-hand intelligence that it’ll be available at this man’s compound the following morning. I walk over with some colleagues, highlands men, and as we enter the clearing between houses I do exactly the wrong thing by calling out my contact’s name and then chiding him for not having my magic potion after all. Horrified, one of my colleagues turns to me and hisses, “Pasin maus!” Shut up! Like--what are you crazy? Rather like standing on the Lower East Side street corner and calling out your drug dealer’s name. Only, in that situation you’d be excused for being high, whereas now my normally sanguine friends are deserting me to far corners of the compound. As testament to my contact’s unflinching graciousness, he waves  me over to a flower garden behind his house. Never saying a thing, he palms me a leaf wrapped in newspaper along instructions written on a scrap of notebook paper: Take this once in boiled tea or meat. As I leave, his wife surprises me by coming forward with her own contribution: a silver-dollar size piece of bark which I am to chew, she whispers conspiratorially, and it will ‘open my belly.’   

But later, long after it hasn’t worked, long afterits cause is forgotten, the leaf and bark do  work, in an unexpected way. I’m living in Goroka, and come back from lunch date to find my flat’s been ransacked, everything of value is gone. The TV, CD player, CDs, even my toaster. The refrigerator’s open and all my food is gone. Clothes were ripped from the closets (only to be found on the children next door, who are also munching my bread and shaking their heads, ‘No, no, Missus, we didn’t see anyone.’) Upstairs, though, in my bedroom, I see the closet doors open, but nothing on the dresser or bedside table’s been touched, and only one drawer’s been pulled up and now hangs precariously, still full of junk. But then I come closer. All my many Ziploc bags of barks and leaves and scribbled recipes lie scattered over the makeup and jewelry bags. None of the earrings or necklaces or mascaras hae been touched, because, I realize, someone’s seen the puripuri and bolted.

Another time, Paijia gives me a white mixture of ground bones that are supposedly from deceased West Papuan witchdoctors, which I am to rub on my upper lip before seeking a job.  It’s  also supposed to prevent roadblocks, a lucky byproduct I find when we nearly get held up on the road later that day, and miraculously, the crowds part. But the ‘Got Milk?’ look doesn’t get me work. I’m supposed to say Gau bi bi when I spread it on my upper lip just before I enter the interview. While I sit at Paijia’s cave and he enumerates these instructions, I have a brain pause: one of those moments when everything goes blank, like a mini-stroke, or a chemical surge, and I  am just about to fall over when everything returns. Full consciousness again. Alertness, memory, language. Not to mention my confidence in the supernatural. Thank you Paijia, how much do I owe you?

Years ago, I was working with a highlands woman who showed up for work one morning with a huge abscess on one side of her face. It must be because we walked over my uncle’s grave yesterday, she told me, and I forgot to acknowledge him. That day she went back and placed flowers at the grave, and by the end of the week her abscess was gone.

Traditionally, unmarried Huli men would prepare themselves for adulthood by entering a ‘school’ for bachelors that would put them in seclusion for a period of between 18 months to 3 years. This is where they’d received instruction on the biological and ritual process of masculinisation. A small percentage of young men still do enter the haroli cult, where the core ideas include the polluting effects of female substances for men, especially menstrual blood. The boys are separated from their mothers and all women for this period, and when they’re allowed in public, they are absolutely forbidden from physical contact with any female. The idea is that they are building up sufficient masculine essence, expressed of course as semen, to be able to withstand the corruptive effects of sexual intimacy. It’s PNG Parochial school.

‘Cults’ of manhood exist across Papua New Guinea, and virtually all of them rely on some version of this idea that women’s sexuality is so powerful as to threaten male health and masculinity itself. Yet mother’s blood is also a life-giving force, and the haroli cult also rests on the notion that we all depend on women’s blood, even as it may be harmful. It is so hot, so powerful, as to both create and infirm human life. Each bachelor cultivates a bog iris, a plant said to have originated in ground saturated with female blood; and the bachelor group as a whole owns a small bamboo tube that contains a portion of an ancestral woman’s blood. This blood, together with the bog iris, guarantees male health and vitality and, paradoxically, protect men from the evil emanations of living women. The assumption is that, while all bodily fluids are powerful (and semen, saliva, mucus, excrement, urine and breast milk, along with blood, all play their part in Huli sorcery and healing magic), a woman’s menstrual blood is the most powerful--indeed it is awesome in its powers of fertility. While men commonly denigrate women as ignorant and treacherous and ‘untamed,’ they also admire to the point of envy their fundamental powers of reproduction. Only a woman can make a person. Hence virtually all initiations in Papua New Guinea involve some sort of pseudo-procreative blood-letting or birth act. A parthenogenesis.

Special magic and a restricted diet help build a boy into a man and make his hair grow strong.  Under the guidance of the cult expert, the boy’s hair is picked out and periodically splashed with ritual waters until it is long enough to be shaped by a circular band of bamboo in what looks like a mushroom of hair. Eventually this band is replaced by an oblong bamboo shaping the hair into  something like a toreador’s hat. Throughout this period the boy sleeps on a headrest that prevents his hair from being squashed. And after roughly 18 months, the entire coiffure is clipped off close to the scalp and sewn and picked into the renowned Huli ceremonial wig. Iridescent blue Superb Bird of Paradise breastplates and parrot feathers are added, and in some locations the wig is also encased in a shell of red ochre clay.

The haroli cult is a religion of physiological fitness. It’s almost Aryan in its principles. The body is its temple, and the aim is to invest men with the total power of fertility. Through the consumption of food that is homeopathically related to female fertility, and the elimination of other female toxins, men stimulate their own growth and gain parity with if not dominance over that irreducible perogative women have of giving birth. 

I’m running the Karawari lodge down on the Sepik for a few months when a man arrives at the  aid post down the hill horribly cut up and bloody. His family has him on a makeshift stretcher by the side of the river and are waiting for a canoe to get them back to their village upriver before nightfall. He’s been attacked by a wild pig, they explain. But they don’t want to talk too much. They’ll be back tomorrow for more antibiotics. When I ask why they didn’t stay in the village here, they just shrug. I walk up the hill to the village and choose to vent my frustration at a local leader standing outside his house. You people are inhospitable to visitors, just because they’re from Tangimbit and not from your tribe! This man stands there with hands on hips, listening. When I’d finished he tells me to stop complaining and mind my own business. Scorned, I stomp up to the lodge and blasted my staff for everyone’s pig-headedness. Lukas patiently explains that they can do nothing to help the Tangimbit man because his cuts are the result of sorcery. No one can or should interfere. He stole money from the old man and renowned witchdoctor in Ambonwari, and as a result the old man set a pig on him. He’s supposed to die. To interfere will only invite sorcery upon myself.

It’s the fatalism of this that irks me, a laissez faire logical fatalism that’s almost Hindu in it’s great shrug in the face of destiny. It’s magic—so give up. It’s easy to see how religious missions graft their fire and brimstone upon such logic. The Lord and the Devil are just two more instruments of social control, after the threat of ancestral spirits and possessed livestock taking you down in the bush. The Lord’s will be done. Or Satan’s. In this way, cancer, AIDs, TB, malaria, can all be construed as instruments of a divine order.

Christina is the Public Prosecutor in Goroka, and we’re having coffee and pancakes at her place one morning when she starts to talk about the Bena sorcery case. The most horrific trial she’s ever been involved with, it’s consuming her and her offices, making her sleepless with questions at night. The incident happened in Bena about nine months ago. There was a young woman washing in a waterfall pool somewhere, who got hit on the head by a falling rock. She was grazed, but appeared okay, and yet died a few days later. All the men in one house line for some reason turned upon the women of their house line and accused them of killing her by sorcery. One night this came to a head, and all the men gathered inside a round house, most of them standing around the perimeter, but five or so in the center. They brought in eight women, one by one--their wives, sisters, mothers, and aunties.  And one by one they gruesomely tortured them with a branding iron, bush knives, and sticks. They ripped out their intestines, the uterus being the site of sanguma (they all said later). Disemboweling, mutilating their loved ones before their own eyes. One young woman who miraculously survived said as she bent to enter the house someone shoved a bush knife up her vagina, then they poked a hot iron into her stomach. This went on from 7 PM to daybreak, and by early morning the last two weren’t fully dead yet. Five were so mutilated their bodies were cooked and bones thrown in a mass grave. One was buried. One went to hospital but died, and the other survived. The mothers, grandmothers, wives and sisters of these men. Witnesses saw it all, women with their guts ripped out, men with busknives dripping with intestines.

Christina says she doesn’t get people crying in her office—they’re usually there long after the emotional moment. Christina herself is a tall dark haired Australian woman with a warm smile,  but whose daily court garb, the straight skirt, blouse, robes and abbreviated white wig, does not invoke bathos and confession. But these witnesses cried and cried remembering the sight. The woman who was taken to the hospital, was released the next day with absolutely no hospital record taken for her, and died a few days later. So there’s a problem with bodies now. Does Christina disinter the one buried woman? Does she ask for DNA samples from the bones at some prohibitive expense and no guarantee they’ll survive being sent to and from Australia? Does the disinterred one body still have signs on her skin of her wounds? The wounds on a body should match those described by witnesses…It’s a tricky case.

The accused have shown no remorse. At first they denied any guilt whatsoever. Sitting at the hearing, Christina turned to look at the five men and was struck by how well fed, presentable, and educated they looked--not the wild eyed bus kanaka at all. Not the men you’d point to as suspects. Chillingly ‘normal.’ It shatters all my hard-won confidence in being able to judge a book by its cover here. And it raises too many questions about cultural relativism. How can one person ever be known by another, how can one culture comprehend another if we look at such behaviour as (for example) traditional values distorted by (say) Christianity? What is essentially human, when what we hold to be basic affinities between mother and son, sister and brother, husband and wife, can be superceded by some need to protect the clan? Is the gender divide this fundamental? How can family bonds be so tenuous, so disposable, in the face of brotherhood? What is blood? They killed their mothers. Two men killed their own mother, Christina says. She asked an old man with pierced septum and long lobes why he killed his wife, and why he didn’t stop the others from doing so, and he said that if he hadn’t they would have killed him. But the village has about 300 people and surely if a group had objected to this slaughter, they could have stopped it, could have overwhelmed the rest. What is courage in society where ‘consocial’ personhood precedes individualism?  I think of my French boyfriend who had lived in Burundi just before the Hutu and Tutsi slaughters. When he rang his friends to see if they were still alive, he found that a Hutu neighbour had killed his own Tutsi wife. ‘These were people we knew! They came to our home and ate and drank with us!’

I go to see Bunesito at his office about this story. He’s Bena. He hasn’t heard of it, when I tell him I’m shocked that men could be convinced to kill their mother. We close the door to the conference room and he speaks in hushed tones. This sanguma is something comes from Simbu Province, it’s introduced, he says. Traditionally here and there in Bena men had powers, its true, and he mentions Fore sorcery, and Baruya sorcery--all by men, for protection, for fighting. He says people taught it around as a skill before. But this new stuff, he says, it comes into the blood. It’s something that enters the clan by way of the women’s blood.…Of course.

The National April 24 1996 p4: Woman accused of sorcery tortured. By Wesley Bunpalau.

Lae: A Chimbu woman residing at the West Taraka suburb here was tortured on Saturday night by a group of men who accused her of performing “sanguma,” or sorcery, on another woman which resulted in her death recently. The torture victim, Mary William, had two of her fingers—one on the right hand and one on the left—completely sawn off in a slow and agonising manner. Both her ears were also partially chopped off and she was burnt all over with hot iron rods. She was also knifed in the head. Ms William was the third victim of torture by the same group…..Hospital authorities are baffled by the fact that despite Ms William having reported the torture to settlement committees, no action has been taken to bring those responsible to the police….Ms William said from Angau Hospital that she was woken up on Saturday night by the group’s ring leader. She said the ring leader, who is known to her, told her to put out her hands and started sawing off one finger with a knife very slowly. “He told me not to cry out or he would chop off my head, so I just kept quiet while he cut my two fingers off slowly,” Ms William recalled of the nightmarish incident. She continued: “The other members of the group came with hot iron rods and started burning me all over my body. Some kicked me and threatened to chop off my neck if I called out. That’s how I got the cuts on my head.”

Bodily substances have particular meanings in PNG cultures, they actually define relationships between people, and are, as physical substances, also defined by social relationships. This is where blood, spit semen and mucus are much more than fluids, they are the essence of a person and can give life or cause death and everything in between. Of course this is true in the western world, because this is how we understand disease to travel. But in all societies that don’t share a Mendelian view of biology, it is not the cellular level that counts, but the macro level of these fluids. You can actually think about social relationships in PNG as being part of great gooey networks of these substances, sort of like bloody pulsating intestines connecting individuals in a vast web of exchange. Infection, transmission and conception occurs at this level and always between people, never in isolation. Children, for example, are born of the repeated contributions of a father’s semen and the mother’s blood, and shaped by the foods both parents eat or abstain from eating. Importantly, birth is no more an end process than the first insemination, because the helath and disposition of a child continues to be shaped by a mother’s milk and diet—in fact you are the child of the woman who nurses you, whether or not she’s your biological mother. There are foods to make you strong, virile, brave and, most importantly, male or female. In some places there is a very real fear that children improperly socialized and inadequately nourished will grow up to be neither. This is where boys endure bloodletting rituals for initiation, to rid themselves of their mother’s postpartum blood and make room for the new masculine substances (in some places including semen) his father and uncles will feed him. Perhaps the most dangerous bodily substance is a woman’s menstrual blood—a ‘hot’ life-giving force that can also erode male virility by contact. Thus there are taboos against sex during menstruation, and dietary laws to build up a young man’s resistance to this blood before marriage. But the biological threat of a wife ebbs over time, with the repeated contributions of her husband’s own life-giving substance, semen, until happily, in middle age, she becomes completely neutralized, completely diffused of ‘heat’, to stop menstruating altogether. Most communities had menstrual huts for women to spend this ‘hot’ period of their month in safe confinement, and there are places in the highlands where men still avoid women completely during their menstruation. This is where women don’t so much need to carry gun for protection, as one American tourist noted, if they could just wave around a used tampon.

So I’m in the bush when I first feel the cramping and low grade fever. Not menstrual cramps, either, something different. An older man gives be a knob of desiccated bark to chew, which does temporarily allay the pain. It isn’t malaria, either. This fel like I’d swallowed a stone and couldn’t pass it. I go see Dr. John Mackerell at the Family Clinic in Madang. An eccentric with a long pony tail and cowboy boots, John thinks it’s amoebic colitis, for which he prescribes a course of anti-parasite pills. After that, a course for worms. After that, I’m bleeding irregularly and John insists I be admitted in the local hospital for a curette scraping (or D & C, which used to be a euphemism for abortion), to send cells to Australia. When the results came back, I can only reach him after hours, drinking at the Madang Club. Poor dear, he’s already had a couple of beers when I forced him to utter the C word over the phone right there at the bar. Looks pretty bad, he says the next morning. Uterine cancer. But it’s stage 1, grade 1, so you’re fine if you go get a hysterectomy in Australia. You’ll be right. Don’t worry. My friend Rosie brought me to the doctor’s and doesn’t have to ask when I leave the consultation room. She’s got an ice cream waiting for me. “Ya drongo. Here, get stuck into this.”

The last time I saw Dr. Mackerel was when Rosie herself had a migraine. She rang me for a ride to the doctor, and sat with a small dustbin on her huge stomach for retching, squeezed into the passenger seat of my tiny Suzuki, forcing wheelies at sharp turns. Rosie’s the biggest person I’ve ever known, and yet she’s dwarfed by her own personality.

Now I’m being placed on a gurney and wheeled from the intermediate ward by a male Engan nurse whose beard is immaculately twisted like a handlebar moustache, rolling down the path outside and into the operating theatre. Lots of mismatched scrubs cover everyone inside—blue, green, and a delicate flower print on someone’s head. I’m gassed on a steel table where the doctor and four nurses approach through a view framed by my own stirruped legs, and feeling very calm and high I insist that if they find a fetus in there they must put it back, because it’s sure as death and taxes going to be the Christ child. My doctor emits a girlish giggle and steps forward, palms inward.

A Manus friend of mine is afraid of me as soon as he learns I have cancer. What he fears is not that I’m contagious, nor that I am the specter of death, but that I’ve been sorcelled for good reason, and therefore dangerous to be around. Besides, he knows me well enough to know this might be true.

“Imas puripuri. Puripuri bilong Palimbe,” friends says. It must be sorcery. From Palimbe. I violated a serious taboo on the Sepik River some months before and have yet to really face the consequences. During a male initiation, I witnessed a segment that was particularly off-limits for women, and as an afterthought they demanded compensation. It was all resolved in time, by a  crooked police man and lots of money, with a guarantee of sorts that I wouldn’t be sorcelled. Eventually I wake up strapped to a Kraftmatic bed in Cedars-Sinai, Los Angeles, with a narcotic drip and a TV remote, looking over a field of bouquets lined up along the wall. I’ve had my hysterectomy and during the course of it had two giant ovarian tumors discovered and removed. Now I’m deliriously contented. Like Tom Sawyer, alive to see my own funeral.

Dr. Cass tells me everything went well. “Did you hear our jungle calls as you went under?”


“We were making jungle calls before your surgery. Just to make you feel at home.”

She left and Dr. Leuchter, the chief surgeon, came in.

“Thanks for the jungle calls.”

“Jungle calls?”

“Dr. Cass said you were making jungle calls as I went under.”

That is not something I would do.”

Then the handsome young resident comes in. “Thank you for that gourd.” I handed out PNG gifts around before the event, just in case. Dr. Liu got a very long decorated penis gourd from the Sepik River. “Was that a hat or something? Cause I was wearing it on my head yesterday.”

Friends and friends of friends in the U.S. talk to me about cancer with the implicit assumption that sickness, and cancer in particular, might be something we bring on ourselves. Something in my diet, my demeanor, my temperament, my sexual history or lifestyle has given me cancer. As a serious epistemological shift has occurred in the States, away from strict biomedical diagnoses toward a willingness to entertain alternative therapies and with them nontraditional causal explanations, it is harder than ever to feel the innocent victim when you fall ill. I am amongst the first to say that a disease has a social component, and that state of mind determines one’s health, but there’s a threshold, I think, that cannot be crossed in individual culpability. One might just as soon say you brought sorcery upon yourself. In fact, in PNG, it is the family, the clan---all those who identify with you—who share the blame for sorcery. That’s how it works as a social deterrent. Indeed, this is how Americans are beginning to use the social diagnosis of cancer: as a corrective.  What are you type A? Are you on overdrive, or oblivious to the real priorities? It is a threat hurled at people who see to have internalized all the principle ethics of monopoly capital—those individuals who work too hard or strive too much, often at the expense of family and friends.

One of the ovarian cancer websites recommended to me describes the various alternative therapies for my cancer, from bovine cartilage and Coenzyme Q-10, to coffee enemas and pressure chambers. My favorite is the sweat cure, which rids the body of toxins, and recommends exercise with plenty of clothing, saunas, warm tea, and lots of cayenne pepper. But for the pepper, this is my life in PNG. The site also has a link to ‘spiritual therapies’ where a page devoted to the work of one therapist who has developed an interesting theory of family life. "When we understand the systemic laws that allow love to unfold,” says the web page (citing this man’s book), “we may be able to help suffering families and individuals to find solutions. It's profoundly moving to observe clients approach the Order of Love and spontaneously melt into soft and intimate love, even after a lifetime of hate, anger and abuse."  It goes on to explain that the family system, like any system, has its own natural order and when that order is disrupted, the effects are felt by subsequent generations as the system tries to right itself. There appear to be certain natural laws operating to maintain that order and permit the free flow of love between family members. According to this therapist, the solution to life in family occurs when each of it members takes his/her appropriate and actual place, takes upon his/her roles in life, taking care of himself/herself and avoiding intervening in other's destiny.

I assume the Order of Love has been disrupted and so I’ve contracted cancer. It doesn’t take much to push this theory into a directive against adoption, cross-cultural marriage, ‘miscegenation’ and freedom of choice. One would ideally never do something your grandparents couldn’t have foreseen. Like, in my case, adopting a Karawari son. I am confused at where the spiritual healing for ovarian cancer may be, except that there is a hidden censure of miscarriages, abortion, gene irregularities, and all those things that put a woman at risk for it. If conservatism is the answer, then we would assume no small scale societies would ever know ovarian cancer, and all those places where there is no diagnosis of it, where people have followed the same marriage rules for hundreds of years, are naturally immune. How is it, then, that these are the places where family roles bleed into each other and everyone is deeply committed to each other’s destiny?

To my relief, spiritual healing is the one thing Spa Cedars Sinai does not purvey. No one blames me, and everyone coddles me as an old fashioned victim. Dr. Tsui checks my scar (“That Dr. Leuchter does a nice job with a knife, eh?”) and I take the opportunity to ask him for a prescription for Prozac. Even though I am jubilant that cancer has been swiftly and expertly excised from my body, I’m still overwhelmed by the whole thing. I miss my kids back in Madang, and feel suspended in vitrine for a period here in Los Angeles. Prozac may make me a little more Californian about this whole thing: more open to ‘visualizing’ health and channeling my healing powers. 

“Not a problem,” he says. Then he looks up from the chart. “You know it suppresses the libido?” Like a hysterectomy and going bald don’t.

In the case of my cancers, the risk factors have expanded recently to include genetic disorders (linked to genes also associated with breast cancer), a high fat diet, infertility or lack of pregnancies, age, obesity, the age at which one first menstruates, and even the use of talcum powder between the vagina and the anus (I’m not kidding).  Although every Cedars-Sinai ob-gyn resident seems to have asked me how old I am and how many pregnancies I’ve had, thankfully no one’s brought up the talcum powder. The irony is that I’m young for this (43), not fat, not an Ashkenazi Jew with BRCA gene mutations, and while I’ve not given birth I have had four unsuccessful pregnancies. And then the fact that I’ve lived in Papua New Guinea for the last thirteen years, where junk food is about as accessible as spa treatment. It leaves me, my friends and even my doctors a little mystified about cause (indeed doctors have gone out of their way to meet me as the exception to all rules), unless you resort to a speculative and too popular view of cancer as something stress-induced, something to do with your personality.

Cancer is a repression of anger, the theory goes. Or, it is stimulated by trauma. In A Doctor’s Guide to Natural Medicine I read that “emotional stress, certain personality traits, and other psychological factors can deeply influence the origin, development and outcome of almost every disease, including cancer” (1998, Dr. Paul Barney, Orem, Utah: Woodland Publishing, p.171, quoting oncologist Dr. Douglas Brodie). Moreover, often an event of profound sorrow precipitates the development of cancer. Many theories exist concerning the whys and wherefores of this link, but it is accepted that unresolved grief or anger is often at the root of physiological changes. Personality types that are prone to perfectionism, have a great sense of responsibility, or exhibit a strong work ethic also seem to be more susceptible to developing cancer. It is the inability of these individuals to “de-stress” that is thought to compromise their immune systems, thereby predisposing them to illnesses like cancer. (Ibid)

There is also the trend toward cancer comedy, the belief that humor helps the healing process, and the scores of well-meaning benefits called Comedy Cures, Laugh Out Loud, Just for Laughs, Surviving Crisis and Trauma with Humor, spin offs from Gilda’s Club, and all purveying the  idea that a good sense of humor’s going to help. Laugh, silly! (At least you’re not dead). Like being grim is what got you sick in the fist place. Have a good belly laugh between retching from chemo. You look funny! At first, right after the surgery, everyone had a joke to cure me—if only cheer me up, but I’d have to wave people away eventually, when my stitches began to hurt.  Stop—no really--you’re killing me!

Susan Sontag was the one to address these implicit postures in her 1978 essay, Illness as Metaphor. Her aim at the time, she claims, was to bring clarity and comfort to those who felt increasingly shamed by their diagnosis of cancer, as if dealing with the illness itself weren’t enough to handle. Cancer had long been perceived as a self-inflicted wound, and Sontag was keen to point out it had become something less glamorous and ennobling as TB had been made by nineteenth century Romantics. With cancer, it is as if a lack of character, or a flaw in the psyche, has been allowed to invade the self and wreak silent devastation. We may even think of it as the mind’s inability to control matter, which articulates nicely with pre-modern ideas about disease being some sort of demonic possession, or punishment for a crime of the ancestors--even a judgment on the entire community, and therefore a reflection of the state of society. In this way cancer has a moral quotient, the way disease in general once said something about the person, family or community that was weak enough to be afflicted.

Gradually a premodern idea of illness was transformed into an idea of punishment fitting the sinner, that disease was an expression of “what the victim has done with his world, and with himself..."(Sontag, Illness as Metaphor, 2001, New York: Picador, p. 47). Disease is a reflection of one’s either wasted or well-spent life. As Sontag reminds us, one character in Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain even says, “(A)ll disease is only love transformed.” (Ibid, p. 40)

Wilhelm Reich was the one to advance the theory that all disease represented some form of sexual repression. The fact that his mentor, Freud, contracted mouth cancer led him to make the link between “mortal disease and the character it humiliates” (he said that, I didn’t) (Ibid). You can see how similar thinking haunts as prominent a person as Norman Mailer in a seventies-era anecdote Sontag relates. Mailer, whom she describes as a “cancerphobe” had “recently explained that had he not stabbed his wife (and acted out ‘a murderous nest of feeling’) he would have gotten cancer and ‘been dead in a few years himself.’”(Ibid p.22). Thus murder is a defense against cancer.

It is with the interest of a cancer patient that I read an LA Times item about Mailer’s current wife, Norris, who has been on a book tour of her own, and who now wears a wig, the article reports, because she’s in chemotherapy. But when the reporter pressed her for information on her cancer, she balked, explaining that Norman had advised her not to talk about her illness, but to focus on her work and her self as an author. Heaven forbid the illness should become confused with her self.

Theories that diseases are caused by mental states and can be cured by will power are always an index of how much is not understood about the physical terrain of a disease…A large part of the persuasiveness of psychology comes from its being a sublimated spiritualism: a secular, ostensibly scientific way of affirming the primacy of ‘spirit’ over matter…Ostensibly, the illness is the culprit. But it is also the cancer patient who is made culpable. Widely believed psychological theories of disease assign to the luckless ill the ultimate responsibility both for falling ill and for getting well.”(Sontag Ibid, pp. 55-57)

It is a natural outgrowth of modern medicine that we should include mental aberrations as a category of disease. We are so much more sick in the head these days. More and more those antisocial or self-destructive behaviors that were once criminal are now pathological and their ‘perpetrators’ reconfigured as victims. In principle, I’m happy about that. I have always been the victim of my own stupidity. But the converse also applies, and the more we include mental illness into the field of treatable afflictions, the more we assume that diabetes, heart disease, asthma, and a number of conditions that are associated with ‘bad’ behavior, are all symptoms of mental illness as much as they are physical phenomena in themselves. It’s not unusual to tune into a public radio show on alternative medicine, as I did so many times in LA, and hear advocates of ‘visualization therapy’ for cancer relief emphasize that their Gestalt training has led them to an understanding of the states of mind that underlie all disease. At once attractive for it’s promise of bypassing expensive conventional remedies and for locating the power of healing in the individual, the practice of alternative medicine can sound a faint echo of Freudian efforts to correct repressed sexuality before it becomes antisociality. It reminds me of a very fit elderly gentleman who recently told me he thought arthritis could all be linked to stress and anger management. It’s the ultimate laissez faire position: I am well because I have willed it to be. You never hear Sudanese refugees blaming themselves for starvation and disease, any more than you hear the disabled bemoan their inability to ‘visualise’ able-bodiedness. These born losers are simply not part of the calculus.

In most small scale societies there is not the same separation of mind and body as in the west,  not the same belief that the mind acts independently of the body, as a civilizing force, or as the microchip for the machine. If someone is incurably sick it is less likely to be his or her own fault as the generalized fault of social tensions, something left unresolved from the clan past, or a friction borne of jealousy (that is to say, borne of one side’s arrogance and the other’s envy, both equally antisocial). Even as we might borrow ancient or tribal protocols as forms of alternative treatment, these can never rest on the beliefs that generated them. Nonwestern systems are just different. There aren’t the cartesian dualisms that spin off western logic, that mind versus matter, male versus female, social versus individual, real versus surreal, material versus spiritual (and so forth)-- categories that have arisen from a long history of western thought. Tribal societies tend to see the mind and body as an integrated whole, and individuals more as sets of social relations than self-contained beings. The answers to illness do not lie in treating the body as a machine or in tinkering with the master program. Sickness is attributed to malevolent social relations forces, to breaking social and moral codes, or to disharmony within the village.

An Australian researcher has linked Papua New Guinea's burgeoning HIV/AIDS epidemic to the torture and murder of women accused of witchcraft. It was revealed yesterday that one woman died after having her uterus ripped out with a steel hook and others were held down and burned with hot metal. In one of the worst cases, witnesses say women were publicly tortured over almost two weeks to extract confessions they had killed people using sorcery. …Duna men wear elaborate wigs made from human hair and their culture is marked by a deep-seated fear of witches. Newspapers rarely reach Lake Kopiago and few villagers have access to a radio - so government campaigns to increase awareness of HIV/AIDS do not get through. Dr Nicole Haley said that in this information vacuum women are being scapegoated for inexplicable deaths of relatively young people as the nation's HIV/AIDS epidemic spreads from urban areas and mine sites. At Lake Kopiago, an old man has admitted to beginning the first of what has become a spate of witchhunts by naming women he said he saw in dreams using sorcery to make people ill. A tragedy unfolded as six women - aged from their early 20s to early 50s - were held and tortured over 13 days. "They were beaten, stabbed, cut with bush knives, burnt with reinforcing iron and crowbars," Dr Haley said. "Two of the women were sexually assaulted and one had her uterus ripped out with an iron hook. That woman died as a result and others sustained horrific, disabling injuries.”

Apparently when Dr. Haley phoned the nearby mining company base at Porgera for medical assistance for these women, they sent out a chopper with medical workers, but not right away. By the time it arrived, the ne woman had been mutilated and died, and the others had managed to escape. Too late for the one bottle of aspirin and box of bandages these medical workers had brought.

In the field of medical anthropology, cartesian dualism underlies an important distinction made between illness and disease. Sickness is divided into disease, which refers to abnormalities in the structure or function of organs, and illness, which is the perception and experience of certain states, and not limited to disease. Thus medical anthropologists can chart the epidemiology of a disease, such as HIV, as independent from the beliefs that govern human behavior surrounding it. HIV-infected truck drivers in Africa pick up young virgins who will draw the disease from their systems, and, in this logic, staunch one line of infection; while in fact, the young girl dies of some protracted ‘illness’ and the truck driver infects 50 more people. It is another way separate natural facts from cultural constructions. Ironically, it is the field of medical anthropology and its investigation of disease in different cultures, that is most disrupted by our tendency to include psychological and social components to diagnosis and treatment (as with substance abuse and alcoholism). What do we call a Papua New Guinean who chews betelnut or a Samoan who drinks kava? 

Witch hunt victim tortured, The National,

24 April 1996

:Lae: Mary Williams of Chimbu claims she was tortured by a group of men who accused her of practising sorcery. Ms. Williams, who is recovering from her ordeal at the Angau Memorial Hospital, said two of her fingers were sawn off and her ears partially chopped off. She was also burned with a hot iron rod and stabbed on the head. She is the third victim of an alleged witch-hunt at

West Tararka

. Another woman and her eight-year-old son were last week admitted to the hospital after being tortured in the same manner allegedly by the same group of men.

It’s no wonder why my Papua New Guinean friend is afraid of my cancer. Which is, after all, cancer of the womb. But most of my magic has not been effective. Maybe I’m a bad customer, a fair weather apostle of the supernatural. 



,” whispers Dr. Mackerell’s nurse Imelda, as I pay her for getting the bad news. Then I tell the kids. “Cancer” Edward repeats, slumping onto the door frame. “Ooohhhh no.”  He walks outside to tell Jeffrey, who’s playing a kind of ‘she loves me-loves me not’ card game on the grass. These are two of Christian’s brothers, all of them about nineteen, from the




, all living with me in Madang. They look after Chris, who was blind until the miraculous eye surgery only a few months before, in


. Now he has one eye, and moves around as though he were always sighted.

“Cancer?” Jeffrey asks, coming inside. He stares at me.  Imas puripuri bilong Palimbe.”

“I won’t die, though,” Isay. “I’ll have to go to




for surgery, that’s all.”

Jeffrey is the religious one; I find missionary tracts under his bed called ‘Satan’s Dark Promise’ and ‘Behold the New Millennium.’ Edward is the musician with an ugly homemade tattoo of a naked girl on his bicep and a propensity for falling in love. Christian is an aspiring musician, a gentle soul with nearly total recall of everything that has happened in his life and a penchant for recounting the finest details over dinner. In this way he is the perfect


character: a man more interested in memory than in money. In 1999 I went online looking for a cornea transplant for Christian, and the Price-Whitson Vision Center in Indianapolis responded like manna from on high, offering him free cornea surgery. We had visited the one Australian eye doctor in the country at that time, who had thought nothing of swiveling around in his examination chair to tell me in English that this lad’s visions was hopeless; he was a village kid and there’d be plenty of worthier candidates on the list of transplant donees in Port Moresby, and I really ought not to bother after all. Chris and I left the exam hand in hand and he asked me very tentatively, There’s still hope though? Which required only one reply. So we went on the internet. Then we fundraised and saved forever, and arrived in


in January 2000, only weeks after I had witnessed the male initiation ceremony in Palimbe, on the eve of the Millennium.  There they successfully restored Christian’s sight in one eye.

It was almost miraculous for Christian. The sight didn’t instantly occur when the bandages were removed, though. In fact we had a newspaper reporter and cameraman there for the first shot of the new eye, but when the bandage fell off Chris’ face with it—a cruel joke! I’m still blind!--, and all of us for a moment hated the expectations that had been raised by such a cinematic set-up. It took weeks to dissolve the surgical swelling. Jeffrey had campaigned to bring Christian to a faith-healing jamboree advertised in the paper. Sponsored by an organization called Kaikai Bilong Tingting (Food for Thought), the ad featured a shot of an American minister, Pastor Barry Smith, below a banner “WARNING” and flanked by two birds of paradise. He looked remarkably like Billy Graham, but for a raft of discolored teeth.








“Mums, em bai inap stretim Christian,” Mum he can fix Christian.

But in the end Christian healed himself—he did. He took the terrible gamble and held his breath for months, and came through on the other side with vision. He jumped the first hurdle of the pre-surgery interview when assistants ran through the list possible outcomes to absolve liability: he could be more blind than ever, he could be disfigured, he could even die. Chris balked that first day, but then actually heard me out and decided to go through with it. People feted him on the radio, and at parties, and every day in

Los Angeles

he began to see more than the day before. Then one day he could really see. In Madang we all of us have a joke about the lads and their girlfriends. “No ken troimwe huk nabaut nabaut”—Don’t throw your hook just anywhere, I tell them. “Na noken pulim pis ikam bek long haus!” And do not bring fish back to the house. We’ll be driving along in our little Suzuki, Jeffrey and Edward scrunched up in back and Chris in front, when schoolgirls in their cotton frocks are walking to school, and Edward, our romantic, will invariably say, “Pis.” Or we’ll be in line at a shop and Edward will see the check-out girl and simply say “pis” so that Chris and Jeffrey crack up. So Chris and I are walking from




to our little bungalow, crossing


, the road behind all the beachfront houses. Chris waits behind me as I open the gate, and just then a tall gorgeous rollerblader in bikini top, bike shorts and long flowing brown hair, zooms by. Chris taps my shoulder. “Mum—Pis! 

Barely weeks after Chris’ triumphant return to Madang I start feeling sick. My brother and sister in law convince me to come back to the States. They make the appointment with a renowned gynco-oncologist, Dr. Ronald Leuchter, who has probably deigned to see me only because I live in

Papua New Guinea

(which, some would say, is a good enough reason to live here). He schedules an appointment for within a hour of my plane landing at LAX, and my  beautiful blond girlfriend Leslie picks me up and whisks me to the doctor’s office. I introduce her in the Australian manner, as my girlfriend, and she sits quietly in a corner as Dr. Leuchter puts on rubber gloves, straps my ankles in and plunges inside within for a quick feel. Yes, yes, he’s nodding, he can definitely feel something. His other hand is probing my abdomen from the outside, like he were feeling the width of my stomach wall. Turning to Leslie, he explains that there clearly is something on the ovary, too. A tumor, maybe two. Leslie gasps—ovarian cancer? As I pull myself together, the two discuss the fact that I have no insurance and can probably be put on a poverty plan with the cancer care center, but that I will have to have surgery within the next few days. It’s now that I feel that familiar resentment that my own doctor, like everybloodyone else who moves in Leslie’s orbit, prefers to talk to her than myself. Pretty girls first please. This is obviously why I live in PNG, to get some attention. Hey doc—I believe I’m the one with cancer. But jetlag makes me passive, and when we walk out I merely mention to Leslie that she’d more of a liability than an asset in life and death situations.

“That was your fault,” she says. “You introduced me as your girlfriend.”

“Did I? Well then, why is it then that you’re the one who gets to wear the pants in this family?”

I am put on the poverty plan, thank god, and have chemotherapy at Cedars Sinai for the next nine months. I hold onto the little




hacienda Christian and I shared during his post-op months, and once every three weeks I check in to Cedars-Sinai and spend the night. It’s partial out-patient care. I go in on Tuesday afternoons and wait for a bed to become available, and by dinnertime I’m settled in watching Frasier by remote control. Sometimes friends stop by. But usually I go in on my own. This despite girlfriends like Leslie and Leigh—god bless Leigh, who asks Dr. Leuchter during a break in surgery whether I am going to live or not??---who always offer to deliver and retrieve me. I sort of like the whole chemotherapy culture, and rather enjoy doing it on my own. By there’s a change of shift and a new nurse and assistant both come and sign their names on the blackboard in my room. Cedars-Sinai is the best hotel in downtown LA, where every room’s an en suite and all the staff is dedicated solely to your comfort. Maybe this was just in the cancer ward, where everyone’s bald and freaky looking and really can’t be pushed around. But I am feeling very spoiled.

After dinner the IV nurse comes and pops a hole in my arm, then tapes it up. This one’s named Walter, that’s what his ID says. What would it be like, I ask him, if all of a sudden he developed a queasiness to blood on the job? He’s taping my arm and doesn’t even look up to say,  “Well then I guess you’d be hearing me go thump in the next room” (here he mimes falling down from buckling knees) “and you’d say, ‘That’s just Walter, come to pop another vein.’”

Every hour a nurse’s assistant takes my temperature and blood pressure, just to make sure I’m not slipping away. And no less than three times each night someone from the kitchen drops off a breakfast and lunch menu for tomorrow. Someone puts a ‘cap’ in my toilet, which is a distended plastic bowl, so they can measure how much I pee through the night, I suppose to gauge whether my kidney’s shot. The Russian nurse is my age and sometimes stops to talk for a while, but not before she slips on an extra paper gown and set of gloves, reminding me to flush twice when I pee. The chemo makes me radioactive, makes my urine radioactive (and I suppose the threat is that residual urine will backsplash a stranger who sits on my toilet). Around

ten o’clock

they start me on a glucose drip. Just before the night shift leaves, sometime like five AM, the nurse comes in and gives me my antinausea medications: one is a pill, the other, the Benadryl, is a drip, and it hurts like hell at first, before making me gloriously, drunkenly high. Then they start the chemo. Taxol takes three hours, and the carbo drip is one more hour. I never feel these chemicals because they go on more smoothly than the antinausea drugs and quietly smother any new cells my body’s producing. 

If we believe it’s possible to personally bring on an illness like cancer, it is not too great a leap to invoke sorcery. That is, if you believe your mind can do that much damage without trying, you might imagine someone else’s being even more capable through practice or concentration. It may even be a more causal explanation than is the idea that changing diet or temperament will promote or suppress disease. We all know of pessimists who live to ninety and innocent children who die of leukemia. How can the rules be so inconsistent? How can one person achieve maximum health and well being through some nonwestern or alternative protocol, and another person not? What determines success? Because once you’ve moved away from a strictly clinical biomedical framework, it is ambiguous, uncharted territory, and all too easy to turn to spiritualist answers: the devil? divine justice?

People die from simple things in PNG, simple preventable things. Infection, childbirth, ulcers, dog bites, and of course cancer. And now and again they make miraculous recoveries from cerebral malaria, spear wounds, and head traumas. The critical factor is not so much whether there’s aspirin or chloroquin in the aid post, but whether he or she knows that someone live or dead has it out for them or their family, clan, community. Sometimes these are random acts, too. You hang your underwear on the line and a sorcerer may put gonorrhea on them. Sometimes they’re wrapped up in basic biological ideas. Sleep with a virgin and she’ll take away AIDs. Slice your foreskin down the center it protects you from STDs. A menstruating wife can kill you if she drips her blood stepping over your food. The small boy who clings to his mother may grow up to be a hermaphrodite. The list goes on. But before direct causal answers, people first ask: who has it in for me?

In my case, it was a small village in the Middle Sepik River. At the turn of the millennium, I witnessed an initiation ceremony that is, in theory, off limits to non-initiates and women. Parts of these rituals have long been open to the public, to tourists whose contributions help pay for some of the ritual foods and materials.  And I had seen many stages of the process before, without fuss. It’s something so extraordinary that I’d always wanted to see the entire ritual, and so I’d sent word months before that I’d like to come and watch. I’d come with a friend from L.A., and both of us sponsored three of the initiates who received the hundreds of tiny nicks running down their back, buttocks, and around their nipples. These were then irritated until they become raised keloids to resemble the skin of their primordial ancestor, the crocodile. It was precisely this cutting process, and not the preparatory celebrations or ritual stages of healing, that I came to see. 

The money we paid to sponsor the boys would ameliorate the breach of taboo represented by me, as a woman, witnessing the actual skin cutting. As with everything in Papua New Guinea, such rules were negotiable, and as we seemed to have allayed offense, everything went off without a hitch. That was, until we left. That’s when a neighboring village got wind of our sponsorship and put the heavy on for us to ante up. So they sent a policeman after us, with threats of jail and exorbitant compensation claims. It was all resolved in time, and with money, but no one would disagree that the disharmony generated might linger on. Or that sorcery might be its final form.   

I believe I woke up from surgery saying More drugs please. I pump the painkiller dispenser every four minutes for five days thereafter, waking up in the middle of the night to re-pump. As a consequence, I have some wonderful dreams. I dream of the old man Otto from Palimbe who may or may not have sorcelled me. His appearance is an oracle, or a confirmation of that fact:  Otto with the dead bulldog expression is accepting my cartons of cigarettes, cans of tinned fish, a pint of bootleg brandy and many bags of rice. We sit side by side on a limbum palm bench in the men’s house surrounded by all the men in his clan. He’s chewing betelnut and spitting streams of red juice. Nodding, saying, nothing will happen to you, you’ll be fine now, everything’s okay.

One night I’m drifting to sleep when I hear my name whispered clearly over my left shoulder. It’s an aural hallucination, but the voice has a Papua New Guinean accent.  But then another time, I’ve actually left my cell phone on and drifted to sleep, when I hear the voice of my cousin Barbie calling my name down some radio channel, like the tinny voice of conscience in a cartoon. “Are you asleep?!”

I go bald during a very busy week. I’ve been hired as a market researcher, conducting interviews all over the San Fernando Valley. Fortunately none of these people know me from before and can’t tell the difference between this wad of dirty blond hair pinned to my head and the look I should be sporting. In the evening, I unpin the mess and clumps fall out in my hand. Early on the vision of my first chemo patient in the cancer care waiting room threw me a little, when I knew she was a member of my tribe. The colorful turban and straight backed posture. An attractive forty-something in a smart suit and demure makeup--utterly confident in her I’ve-got-cancer look. Something clutched my stomach and I realized how unprepared I was for the coming weeks. At home with my hair in patches, I flip through a catalogue of terry cloth turbans with applique daisies, and at the very back I find four pages of  prosthetic breasts. “Uterine and ovarian cancer,” one of my clinic doctors read off my chart that week. “The ovarian cancer, that’s the one would’ve killed you.”

I can’t do this, I want a wig. So a Hollywood wig maker makes me a human hair Lady Godiva wig that enhances my look tenfold. Never mind when it slips forward Neanderthal-style, or the sticky tape grips like a suckerfish. I’m carrying a foreign object on my head and I like it. It’s my friend through the long months of chemo (except for that one night, after jerk chicken with friends Muriel and Bill, they’re driving me home when I throw up out the window and all over the long loose locks.) Not to mention that tipping my wig g'day proves useful, especially when pleading for discounts at Pottery Barn. My brother and I are trying to get a salesman to discount a floor model chair, and the young man keeps shrugging, saying it’s a matter of discretion really. I lift the wig, “Would it matter if I were dying of cancer?” Oh god, Nan, said my brother. But we get a huge discount.

Anthropologists working in Papua New Guinea talk about something they call the ‘social skin.’ It has to do with how people conceptualize their own health and moral fiber. Kenneth Read wrote about the Gahuka-Gamu’s social skin in the fifties, talking about both the covering of the body and the person’s social and character traits. Good or bad skin indicates a person’s moral character, or even temperament or mood. And the Gahuka-Gamu would experience themselves most intensely, Read said, when they were in contact with others through their skins (The High Valley 1955, New York: Charles Scriber’s Sons, p.276). The first thing people say to defend themselves against moral or physical accusations, even today, is, ‘My skin is clear.’ Lovers assure each other they are free of disease by saying ‘My skin is clear.’ People often say that they have to look after their skin properly, which includes their behavior. A healthy body is defined by visibly healthy skin and its activity. But ‘bad’ skin is only a manifestation of something within, and a person can be gripped by disease and show only the minimal symptoms of changed breathing, slight fever or chills, maybe lethargy—signs on the skin. (Ibid: 23-4)

Once all the hair is gone from my body, all the nose hair and public hair and even the eyelashes, and I am bald as a baby, I can rub my hands over my forearms and legs and feel for a time like I’m an infant again—this is baby’s skin. No creams or peels or dermabrasion can ever give me what chemotherapy does for a time: perfect skin.

After my last dose of chemotherapy, I travel home by way of the Maha Kumbh Mela in India. At Parayag, Allahabad, where the holiest three rivers—the Ganga (Ganges), the Yamuna (Jumna), both rolling down from the Himalayas, and the Saraswati, a river of myth--converge, there is every 144 years (the twelfth cycle of every twelve year cycle) the largest gathering of humanity. The last Allahabad Maha Kumbha Mela was in 1857, which was a lifetime before Mark Twain attended a lesser Kumbha Mela and wrote about it in More Tramps Abroad in 1895, saying,

These pilgrims had come from all over India: some of them had been months on the way, plodding patiently along in the heat and dust, worn and poor, hungry, but supported and sustained by an unwavering faith and belief. It is wonderful, that the power of faith like that can make multitude upon multitudes of the old and weak and the young and frail enter without hesitation or complaint upon such incredible journeys and endure the resultant miseries without repining.

Here, on January 24, what’s called the Mauni Amavasya, somewhere between 22 and 30 million pilgrims come to take their snan or dip in the Ganges. They swell to bursting the pontoon bridges of the temporary city to get to the Treveni Sangam for this holiest of baths. Waves and waves of saffron and apricot pilgrims, moving as a river themselves, peacefully, almost unproblematically, throughout the main thoroughfares of the sangam, past tents and stalls and bodies curled on the dry brown. An old woman, back bent with age, is offering prayers to the sun standing midstream at the confluence. A Naga sadhu, naked and hairy, sitting on a tri-cycle is clicking photographs. This is a challenge to all the photojournalists who had had their cameras banned--but then the pent-up warrior-wrath of another Naga erupts as he snatches the camera of a journalist, crashes it to the ground, and dances upon the debris. Behind them pass the gold embroidered silk umbrellas disciples are holding over an aged swami. In the akara of the Nagas, you pass naked men balancing on one leg as they have for twenty-five years, or pierced through nipples and foreskin with heavy iron locks, and others pulling wagons of rocks by the chain attached to their foreskin. Twenty two million apricot-coloured people on the mudflats of the Ganges, and myself, in a wig and no immune system.

At dawn on the Mauni Amavasya, the first of the dipping days, thousands of Naga and the Jamuna Vishnaite saddhus fight for position to be the first the water, and from periphery of a claustrophobic crowd on one of the distant pontoon bridges, I watch as a sea of naked men scramble to the river’s edge, some with raised knives and others brawling with fists. They knew they were going to fight, and even called in a swami from Nepal to arbitrate, but it was no use. There are more than 15 sq kilometres of people here; there was bound to be some pushing. I enter the akara of a swami and a Japanese woman yogi on the day she is to reemerge after being buried alive for three days (yogic concentration sustaining her), but it’s now 11 AM and she’s to be  disinterred at 1 PM, and although hundreds appear happy to wait in the brilliant sun, I cannot. In the main thoroughfare, I’m pressed into a frightening but harmless crowd as the procession for the Maharaja of Hardwar passes, and I can just make out the magnificent man on a litter and gold throne surrounded by devotees. Then there’s a procession for Hari Krishna, with lots of dopey twirling Europeans in saris.

I go bathing with the staff of my up-market Cox and Kings safari camp (where tents have flush toilets), including someone who keeps calling himself ‘No Mistake’ and a Rajastani named Pikshu who charms me to death. They’re solicitous and have me watch their clothes when they dip entirely, after I’ve dipped only partially, from the edge of our long flat boat in the brown tea colored waters. But they yelp when I try to photograph them (‘Not here!!!’) –not at the sangam--where police could wallop me if they saw the camera. ‘No mistake’ one of them says, imitating my ‘namaste’ now. We dip into waist-high water within sight of Sonya Gandhi and the celebrity bathers, and within seconds of scrambling back aboard, and quickly throwing on their layers of clothes in the fierce winter chill, my companions pull out their hair oil and hand mirrors and set to primping themselves as I laugh (“You girls!”). Returning to shore, we pass a mud flat island where a young and handsome sadhu sits in a small shelter with his offsider, and a fire and a lingam before them. We stop and get out to offer pias for which we are blessed.

Surely this must be one of the reasons I’ve survived the chemotherapy, to see so many beings in one place, with one purpose, so orderly (but for police lathis striking photographers here and there), and so convincingly dedicated to the conviction of life beyond now. At the camp, I meet Micky and Michael from Orlando, and a charming Italian man named Gigi from the Italian embassy in Delhi, with his friends the German journalist Willy, and his Korean wife, both of whom have just been posted to Bangkok from Delhi. We all get giggling about our ideas of Islamic heaven: lots of water fountains, water pipes and young boys (or girls) playing flutes. Gigi says he’s allergic to coriander, which has a poison in it related to the poison in parsley (although parsley doesn’t effect him) and in the past women used to eat massive amounts of parsley as an abortificant. “Now I understand my miscarriages after Italian food,” I say, which cracked him up.

After dinner I visit a palm reader who deeply examines my left palm and yet says very little about my self beside, “You are a very good person.” I nudge him on matters of health and twice he says, leaning back, pulling my upturned palm toward him, and smiling, “I am coming to that!” although when he does come to that he has very little to say other than that I will live a long life. Then there’s something recommended sexually—something maybe tantric, although I instantly forget the details. It’s an allusive suggestion only, and when he offers it he seems perfectly perched between lewdness and wisdom. Finally, he writes down on his own stationary a sort of prescription for me, including an astrological puzzle on the top right corner. Swami Yogi Prakash, Astrologer, Yoga Expert, Tantrist, Counselor, Healer & Naturopath suggests:

1)       Wear a white natural pearl of 5 kts in silver ring in left hand ring finger.

2)       Practice DEEP YOGIC RELAXATION. 

3)       Your birthday, at year 57, will be lucky. The other years of luck will be 43, 52, and 70.

I drive back to Varanasi the next day (the driver explaining, “In India you need good brakes, good driver, good luck!”) and sit down in the hotel restaurant next to a couple of Americans. They’re fortysomething well-groomed and sun-kissed people: him heavy and jowely, like a Julian Schnabel without facial hair; she, back to me, looking like a streaked blonde, ex-rocker chick or something, I can’t tell. But their conversation is beautifully exotic.

“I grew up, I always felt, I’m used to everyone always approaching me as a beautiful woman.”

“That’s you’re cross to bear!” he chuckles. “It’s easier to make money than to be happy. You know who told me that? Madonna! Madonna told me that. It’s easier to make money than to be happy.”

“I know that.”

“But women, women want men to be in their little nose-to-grindstone job and not play!”

Voices raised, creating a performance that’s as if fully aware and at once totally unaware of the audience.

“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust baby.”

“Sometimes I think I could take my own life—not tragically, but in a very focused way, just by thinking about it. It can happen, I believe that.”

“No,” he says at one point. “I would miss you, I’d miss your energy, your energy, your self!”

At this point Chuck, a midwesterner, joins them and they move on to the Bible. The couple lauds Chuck, who is born-again, as a really together person, and they seem to establish a discursive medium between the evangelical and the New Age: the confluence of American thought streams. Everything I’ve spent nine months musing over, all the memories of sorcery and Sontag and the worries about bringing on my own illness, all the hallucinogenic months of radioactive chemotherapy and feeling the warmth of my family and dearest friends wash over me—or the wash away, in fact, like a chemical black-out, this time a chemo-induced temporary amnesia. And I’m listening to these ideas as if they were fresh and inventive and I were reading them for the first time. All this converging here in a Varanasi hotel restaurant, one transplanted American conversation jogging my brain like a musty odor arouses old memories.  People heal themselves. They do. They use the social tools available to build scabs over wounds restricting them. They heal each other, too.

I return to PNG and spend several weeks in a remote Torricelli mountain area where they have always had healing rituals to cure biological and social ills at the same time. One of my own anthropological ‘fathers,’ Bill Mitchell, worked there in the seventies and wrote a wonderful readable account of his work in a book called Bamboo Fire. Generously, he sent me all kinds of material when I told him I was going back. He also suggested the book by an old friend, an American missionary named Donald McGregor, who wrote his own account of these rituals in  The Fish and the Cross. I use all these materials to write up my ethnography of the conservation zone being established in the area, a report that will be used by biological fieldworkers sent to protect a miniscule population of tree possums called the Tenkile. My students and I have walked all over the mountainous zone, covering thirteen villages of fragile economies that have held fast to their natural medicines and sorcery, while resisting the kinds of thought conflations that equate women with Satan. Men are the sorcerers here, still. They have not taken Christianity and modernity and created a belief in the demonic powers of women. They believe in social illness and social cures, for men and women both. Bill Mitchell produced a remarkable film in his time  of an outcast man who had been barred from marrying a certain woman and grown mortally ill. The community finally performed healing rituals on him, knowing it was too late, but as a comfort of sorts, an assurance that he still mattered to the community, even if, in fact, he had been treated poorly by it. The kind of ‘consociality’ and inclusion of the gesture is truly different from anything we could know in the West. Yes, we bring our terminally ill to specialists, and yes we perform acts of tenderness that surpass those shown this old Taute Wape man (because, make no mistake, he was not treated kindly). But he was part of an ailing whole, he was an open wound that needed to be healed. And he knew that without being conscious of it as he died, one part of a large whole passing away.

(Years later, two Australian biologists working in the area send me an email reporting that these same people had included them in a bizarre ritual that they wanted me to explain, something to do with healing, where they had to be undressed and ritually washed. “We were given a tru tumbuna style welcoming.  Last year they did the same but said it was “Cranki” and thought that was why Jim experienced bad weather in the mountains last year.  So this time they did it completely naked.  We felt so privileged.  As a part of the ceremony Jim and I washed naked with the locals [Jim in the river and me in the house].  They also used these totem like poles called “mani” to represent the ancestors.”--   What was this? Nothing less than being ‘made’ members of the community, by being stripped and vetted of difference—one great colonic to bring them into the fold.)

I sit in the Varanasi hotel room happy to have seen the Kumbha Mela, and happier yet to be going back to PNG rather than Los Angeles. I had violated taboos, paid my compensation, and would now be more a part of that life than I ever was before. I had been made a member of my own artificially constructed world. I would no longer bleed as a woman, no longer endanger PNG men my by intimacy or bodily fluids. I had lost libido along with that lust to be a cosmopolitan. Now I was cleansed, remodeled, healed, and knew where I belonged. 

The first man is laughing now: “What’s the one possession you wanted, you fought for when we divorced? You had a house full of art and beautiful objects and furniture, and what’s the one thing you wanted of all that? A statue of Christ!”

“Yeah, I fought for that!”

“It’s all material, yeah. You’ve got a house filled with art and you chased me for a $100 statue.”

“I’m not into power.”

“I do question. I do doubt Christianity. That’s why I’m into Hinduism. You know what Randy and I talk about when we fly around in his plane? We talk about the history of the Bible. We do. Yeah. You know he’s a pure soul. You remind me of Randy, a really wonderful old friend. I’ve known him since I was 20, taken a company public with him, we’ve been through everything.“

I turn to look at them now for fear that this is an extremely ironic routine they’re performing, not unlike faux fabulous conversations friends and I used to have on trains and in restaurants when we were young (‘I miss Paris, but my agent needs me in Prague by Tuesday’)

Chuck is saying: “Have you ever read the old testament? I think it’s time for you to read it. I’ll write down a web site for you.” And he scribbles something on a tiny note pad.

Young Leibert arrives a couple of months after I return to Madang, to fill out our Karawari subclan at the house. With nothing but the clothes he’s wearing, he walks off the twin-engine plane a skinny, chalky colored six year old covered head to toe in the dry flakes of a ringworm-like skin disease called grille. It makes rather ornate circular patterns, almost a paisley, of flaked skin, which, left untreated, spreads over ever crack and lobe of the body. Sometimes it itches so bad, people scratch until they bleed. I’ve known Leibert all his life, he’s the son of a Karawari lodge worker who, like his many brothers and sisters, has had this condition all his life--only worse. And Leibert has one of those intelligent little faces, he’s irresistible. It takes two months of antibiotics (many of which get spat into the potted plants) before that beautiful deep cocoa skin is finally unveiled. 

But Leibert’s a little scary at first. Sort of a bighead in the village, he quickly blossoms into a full blown brat in Madang. We drive up to the house and Leibert bounds out to shake the neighbor boy’s hand saying, “Hi. Mi Leibert.” By the second week he’s out after dusk bossing the street kids in a game of cricket. “Hia hia!” you can hear him calling. “Bikhet” Christian says. “No gat brakes!” we laugh—he has no brakes. Christian asks (flush from his newfound worldliness), Why don't you buy a digital camera and we can sell him on ebay?

One afternoon the Sepik pop star Felix Yausi is playing with the Wiggy Wiggy girls at the Country Club. My friend Leonie is visiting, and we also have the old man Yangsa Dui with us, when we head off with Leibert for the afternoon ‘parents and kids’ dance. It doesn’t take long before Leibert’s out there one the dance floor, feet planted widely, dipping his hips in a crowd of mothers and kids and singing to Yausi’s hit single, ‘Karawari Style.’ I’m the only white ‘mother,’ which makes him cringe when I join him for a dance, so he leaps onto the stage and someone ratchets the mike down so he can sing shaking his hips before his idol on the stage. I’d say he’s come out of his shell. But the one gag I can’t tolerate is when is finds the chemo wig and races around the house naked, with long blond hair and my favorite running shoes. “Rausim! Yu bikhet!” You’ll pay for this!

Strangely, now that I’m back in Madang, back to the life I was living before Chris’ surgery, before my chemo, before all the time in the States, I’ve having weird dreams about LA.

"You need to address that."

"You need to read this book, Venus and Mars on a Date."

"You need to start asking yourself, 'What do I need?"

A` funny British volunteer in PNG once used to do the best imitation of Americans with a serious but warm expression, saying, "We need to talk."

I'm having brunch with LA friends who are, by now, all very successful film people, 'in production’ as they say in LA. They’re sharp and ironic, and now speak another language than I do.

“Production people, center of the universe. Scuse me, I’m a producer here.”

“Geeks without social skills.”

“Like aristocracy everywhere”.

“Hi, I’ve got a big nose and horrible social skills, but there’s a castle upcountry.”

“I hate creased pants and what else is it?”

“Is this water Evian or Perrier?”

“Everything. And the color pink even if it is the navy blue of India."

“No, not don’t change it, I’d rather have the water without ice and a green thing floating in it than a glass of ice.”

“I’ll have that without the cheese or the onions, and what other dressing do you have besides Ranch? Can I test it first?”

“And this water is cold. Can we get some hot water this time?”

“Spoons thank you.”

“John Walker Lynn, that’s what’s wrong with Marin country parenting.”

“His father’s gay.”

“And his mother’s a member of the Manson family.”

“And so he’s just doing an al Qaeda internship, that’s all.”

“It’s his gap year.”

“Looking for some other form of misogyny, rebelling against the gay Dad.”         

“Give me girls in wafting fabric, everything covered please.”

“No keg parties.”

“Are you taking a sip of my juice here? Give me your disease eh?”

“Oh sorry. Righto, you can get MS right along with my cold, I forgot.”

“That’s like little Rae, Leigh’s girl, asking me if she can get my cancer from my germs. I told her, yes of course darling, drink up.”

“Thanks I will.”

“Do we hate the Olympics? Think of the world spandex market. And so when did Spielberg get so, what is it, athletic? He gets to bring in the flag!”

“Right there with Jean Claude Keely and Lech Walesa!”

“Well there’s an axis of evil.”

“That Russian skater in the backless white outfit who couldn’t train because she got a sunburn in a Salt Lake City tanning salon?”

“Who told those girls they could wear tails? And now the boys can’t wear Brian Boitano tights.”

“What would Brian Boitano do?”

“You have to have a certain millimeter now, like dive suits.”

“Or be covered in spiderwebbing, like the skiers.”

“Yes, and teddy bears and sparkle makeup and a gold medal. Every Ukranian girls dream.”

“I need to have kill rights on the doll when I become a superhero.”

“You’re thinking gymnastics and the summer Olympics anyway.”

“Oh sorry, yes. They have their own issues with the height of the French cut leotard.”

“The French!”

“But the opening ceremonies, the fashion parade of nations.”

“Who designed those horrible white and blue warm ups?”

“Again the French!”

“Or French Canadian.”

“Can we get more water? I’ve asked four times now.”

“I’m never eating out with you again.”

“Production people!”

“Will Charles really marry Camilla?”

“Any man who wants to be his girlfriend’s tampon is trouble.”

“But he is sensible, he’s already bred, and he has a nice house. Plus he’s into menstruation. Dread to think what'll  happen when she hits menopause.”

“Ricky, do your Sean Connery-- please!”

“Okay, from The Rock. “Yer beyest? Yer beyest? Loser always whine on about their best. Winner go home and fuck the prom queen.”

“Is this salad dressed? I don’t think its dressed actually.”

“You know, if you were dropped in a Middle Eastern country the entire female population would stone you.”

“They’d both be pistol whipped by women in burkas.”

“Here here, I’m for that.” 

“Good to see you getting involved anyway.”

“Oh please, like you don’t complain sometimes?”

“This is why I hate production people. Crawl back into your cave will you? That’s the only place you can get double decaf mocha frappa evian water anyway. I don’t know Stephen or Ethan or Marty or Tom or any of these frickin first-name-only Hollywood people.”

“Oh here we go. Did I mention it’s all about me?”


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