Reflections on Darkness: Cargo Cults in PNG

By Tom Reeve (an email in reply to “Flags and Stones“)

In 1972 I was sent (jointly by the Departments of Agriculture & Health) to investigate the reason for malnutrition and deaths in a very remote area at the very south of the Chimbu Province (Karimui), Papua New Guinea. It involved a couple of weeks walking and detailed checking of gardens etc in an area which had only recently been brought under government control.

The main reason for the people neglecting their gardens, then going to the bush in a weakened state to make sago etc (leading to deaths of children) was that a bizarre cargo cult was governing their thinking.  I was shown the “temple” of the cult (in hushed tones by my guide/carrier) -where sexual acts were allegedly performed publicly by the leaders. It was a very dark place and I could feel it.

Later on during that same patrol I was asked for government permission for them to kill a sorcerer. I wrote an official report which has been quoted by researchers.

Subsequently, in Port Moresby, I visited an old Kiap friend from the Chimbu (Bernie Maume) who had been promoted to HQ to monitor all the cargo cults of PNG. He had a large map on his wall with a coloured pin for each cult (maybe over 50).

Nearly all were triggered by the US Army unloading mountains of equipment during the latter parts of WW2 and then leaving it all behind. Traditional sorcerers took over the scene with added power. Many were in Roman Catholic areas (Sepik River) -the Roman church, as an anthropologist once told me, causes the least disturbance to animistic beliefs.

In Australia we are in Stage 2 of the Cargo Cult where the gear has already arrived and to have everything is seen as the ultimate goal – to the exclusion of eternal realities.

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