Calling the dead: spirits, mobile phones, and the talk of God in a Sepik community (Papua New Guinea)

Falck, Christiane (2016) Calling the dead: spirits, mobile phones, and the talk of God in a Sepik community (Papua New Guinea). PhD thesis, James Cook University.

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The thesis explores lines of cultural continuity and change in the Nyaura (West-Iatmul) village Timbunmeli, situated at Lake Chambri at the middle Sepik (East Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea). The thesis examines how people appropriated Christianity, and especially charismatic Catholicism, as well as mobile phones. It argues that persisting ontological premises have influenced the way people made these new things their own, thus stressing continuity within change. Via prayers, spirit possessions, and phones villagers currently call on spiritual others who are an intimate part of their lifeworld.

While Christianity has been influencing Sepik lives since the first half of the last century, mobile phone technology has only recently been introduced. In 2010 Timbunmeli village received access to the mobile phone network. Most villagers use mobile phones to talk with relatives and friends in other places, but some villagers also started to use them to talk with dead relatives. This development can be understood in relation to the influence of a charismatic movement that during the 1990s shaped people's religious practices. Charismatic prayer groups started in which people, guided by spirits possessing them, receive the talk of God.

The thesis' theoretical approach is inspired by existential phenomenology and practice theory, stressing a dialectic relationship between culture and human agency. Assumptions about human existence and relations between different kinds of entities develop over time in intersubjective experiences and interactions between self and other. They influence the way humans act and perceive themselves, things, and the world. However, although people are influenced by mutual understandings of their experienced world, they also influence their lifeworld through their actions. They shape it and may change it through their practices in dialectic interaction between what is given and what they actualise by engaging with others and things in the space constituting their lifeworld.

The data for this thesis was collected during a 14 months long fieldwork in Timbunmeli. The main method of data collection was participant observation, supplemented by interviews and group discussions, a household survey, a study about female fishing activities, and a mobile phone network analysis. While focussing on the analysis of people's perceptions of and engagements with each other, Christianity, and things, the thesis also strives to provide insight into socio-political, and socio-economic change in Timbunmeli. Furthermore, the thesis includes personal and methodological reflections about experiences the anthropologist had with her interlocutors that have strongly been influenced by her being perceived as a dead person from the village who had returned in a white body.

The Timbunmeli's understanding of their lifeworld and themselves is characterised by a close connection between the visible and invisible. The spiritual other is crucial for people's wellbeing and strength. Spirits live in an invisible realm that is part of the same existential space as humans' visible realm; from there they influence people's lives. Furthermore, the local understanding of personhood assumes that a spiritual substance, called kaik, is crucial for life. Persons in Timbunmeli are composite beings, embodying different entities and identities. They are composed of maternal and paternal matter, names, as well as kaik that intimately connect them with past and present beings, their cosmos, and its creator, who today is called God. If the connection with the invisible gets disturbed or lost, sickness, death, and destruction of people's environment may be the consequence. For example, present environmental change is perceived as being a punishment from God and a lost connection to one's kaik will lead to sickness and death.

A discussion of people's perceptions of death, rituals of death, and relations with the dead, shows that death does not end Being in Timbunmeli. The kaik comes from the invisible spiritual realm and is embodied in a person's body during life. After death it returns to the invisible part of the world as a spirit of the dead. From there it might return to the living to communicate with them via mediums or to visit them in a new, usually white, body and deliver messages, money, and goods. The dead remain an active part of people's social relations. In fact, people have established a lived relation to the realm of death that seeks to access the dead as a source for change. This is reflected in practices of prayer groups that aim at strengthening their relations with the dead via prayers and offerings. People have always had different techniques to communicate with spirit beings, but today also prayers and mobile phones are means to bridge over into the invisible realm and communicate with dead relatives, who nowadays are understood as being spirits of God.

After converting to Catholicism people had temporarily distanced themselves from former practices and beliefs and came to perceive their own traditional spirits as evil. However, currently a re-interpretation process is taking place that re-legitimates their own spirit beings as spirits of God, and in fact understands God as being an ancestral being as well. Furthermore, a persons' life-spirit (kaik) has been reinterpreted as coming from God. With that the spiritual other is not only part of people's lifeworld, but also perceived as being part of each person – the expressions 'God is in each one of us' or 'God is each one of us' stresses people's claim to be active participants in what they call God's work, an ongoing creation process shaping their world.

The way people engage with God and His spirits shows continuities to their interactions with local spirits in seances and healing rituals of the past. However, while in the past only initiated men were entitled to handle powerful spirits, nowadays mainly women are possessed by spirits of the dead, reinterpreted as God's souls and saints. Women deliver the talk of God, who works through His spirits in their bodies to heal, preach, and talk prophecy. Currently an egalitarian process is taking place, concerning the access to and representation of the spiritual sphere, that offers women and uninitiated men the possibility to extend themselves into a domain that was formerly only inhabited by initiated men; a process that has engendered intensified struggles for male leaders.

By studying practices such as healing ceremonies, rituals of death, prayer meetings, spirit possessions, and the appropriation of the mobile phone and other things, by analysing myths and stories, by listening to, observing, and participating in people's experiences with the visible and invisible other, the researcher has encountered implicit and explicit assumptions that characterise Timbunmeli people's lifeworld and their sense of Being. These premises have influenced the way people in Timbunmeli have made Christianity and mobile phones their own and have to be considered as being rather stable factors in processes of change.

Abstract in Danish:

Afhandlingen udforsker nogle linjer inden for kulturel kontinuitet og forandring i Nyaura (Vest- Iatmul)-landsbyen Timbunmeli, der ligger ved Chambrisoen i det centrale Sepik (provinsen Ost- Sepik, Papua Ny Guinea). Afhandlingen undersoger, hvordan beboerne tilegnede sig kristendommen, specielt den karismatiske katolicisme, og moderne mobiltelefoner. Den paviser, at overleverede ontologiske pramisser har haft indflydelse pa den made, hvorpa indbyggerne tog disse ting til sig, og understreger pa den made kontinuiteten i forandringen. Gennem bon, andebesattelser og mobiltelefoner tilkalder landbyens beboere nu om dage de andelige Andre, som er en integreret del af deres livsverden.

Kristendommen har ovet indflydelse pa Sepik-folkenes liv siden forste halvdel af sidste arhundrede, mens mobiltelefoner forst er blevet introduceret for nylig. Landsbyen Timbunmeli fik adgang til mobilnetvarket i 2010. De fleste af landsbyens indbyggere bruger mobiltelefoner til at tale med slagtninge og venner andre steder, men nogle af dem er ogsa begyndt at bruge dem til at tale med afdode slagtninge. Denne udvikling kan ses i relation til indflydelsen fra en karismatisk bevagelse, som formede befolkningens religiose praksis i 1990'erne. Der blev oprettet karismatiske bedegrupper, hvor folk modtager Guds tale under vejledning af ander, der besatter dem.

Afhandlingens teoretiske tilgang er inspireret af eksistentiel fanomenologi og praksisteori og lagger vagt pa det dialektiske forhold mellem kulturen og menneskers handlinger. Antagelser omkring menneskets eksistens og forholdet mellem forskellige typer af vasner udvikler sig med tiden gennem intersubjektive erfaringer og interaktioner mellem selvet og den Anden. De har indflydelse pa den made, hvorpa mennesker handler og opfatter sig selv, tingene og verden. Men samtidig med at mennesker er under indflydelse af en falles forstaelse af deres oplevede verden, over de ogsa selv indflydelse pa deres livsverden gennem deres handlinger. De former den og kan andre den gennem deres praksis i dialektisk interaktion mellem det givne og det, de skaber ved at engagere sig med andre og med tingene i det rum, der udgor deres livsverden.

Dataene til denne afhandling blev indsamlet under et 14 maneder langt feltarbejde i Timbunmeli. Den primare metode til dataindsamling var deltagende observation suppleret med interviews og gruppediskussioner, en survey undersogelse af alle hustandene, en undersogelse af kvinders fiskeri og en netvarkanalyse af brugen af mobiltelefoner. Afhandlingen fokuserer pa en analyse af indbyggernes opfattelse af og interaktion med hinanden, kristendommen og tingene, men forsoger ogsa at give indsigt i sociopolitiske og sociookonomiske forandringer i Timbunmeli. Desuden indeholder afhandlingen personlige og metodologiske overvejelser omkring nogle af forskerens oplevelser med sine samtalepartnere, oplevelser, som var starkt pavirket af, at hun blev opfattet som en afdod person fra landsbyen, der var kommet tilbage i en hvid krop.

Timbunmeli-folkenes forstaelse af deres livsverden og sig selv er karakteriseret af en tat forbindelse mellem det synlige og det usynlige. Den andelige Anden har afgorende betydning for menneskers velbefindende og styrke. Anderne lever i en usynlig sfare, som er en del af det samme eksistentielle rum som menneskenes synlige sfare, og derfra over de indflydelse pa menneskers liv. Derudover antages det i den lokale forstaelse af det at vare menneske, at en andelig substans kaldet kaik er afgorende for menneskers liv. Mennesker i Timbunmeli er sammensatte skabninger, der indeholder forskellige substanser og identiteter. De er sammensat af materiale fra deres far og mor, navne og kaik, som knytter dem tat til fortidige og nutidige skabninger, deres kosmos og dets skaber, som i vore dage kaldes Gud. Hvis forbindelsen til det usynlige bliver forstyrret eller mistes, kan konsekvensen vare sygdom, dod og odelaggelse af menneskenes omgivelser. For eksempel bliver den aktuelle andring af miljoet opfattet som en straf fra Gud og et tab af forbindelsen til folks kaik, som vil fore til sygdom og dod.

En undersogelse af landsbyfolkenes opfattelse af doden, ritualerne omkring doden og forholdet til de dode viser, at doden ikke er afslutningen pa tilvarelsen i Timbunmeli. En persons kaik kommer fra den usynlige andelige sfare og bliver inkarneret i hans krop, mens han lever. Efter doden vender den tilbage til den usynlige del af verden som den afdodes and. Derfra kan den komme tilbage til de levende og kommunikere med dem via medier eller besoge dem i en ny, oftest hvid, krop og give dem beskeder, penge og ting. De dode vedbliver med at vare en aktiv del af folks sociale relationer. Landsbyens indbyggere har faktisk etableret en oplevet relation til dodsriget, hvorigennem de forsoger at opna kontakt til de dode som en kilde til forandring. Dette afspejles i en praksis med bedegrupper, som straber efter at styrke deres relationer til de dode gennem bonner og ofringer. Folk har altid haft forskellige teknikker til at kommunikere med ander, men i vore dage er ogsa bonner og mobiltelefoner redskaber til at sla bro til det usynlige rige og kommunikere med afdode slagtninge, som nu til dags opfattes som Guds ander.

Efter at de var konverteret til katolicismen, havde Timbunmeli-folkene midlertidigt taget afstand fra tidligere tiders praksis og tro og var kommet til at opfatte deres egne traditionelle ander som onde. Men nu foregar der en omfortolkningsproces, som genlegitimerer deres andevasner som Guds ander og faktisk ogsa forstar Gud som et forfadervasen. Desuden er et menneskes livsand (kaik) blevet omfortolket til noget, der kommer fra Gud. Saledes er den andelige anden ikke blot en del af folks livsverden, men forstas ogsa som en del af hver enkelt person – udtryk som "Gud er i enhver af os" og "Gud er enhver af os" understreger, at folk opfatter sig selv som aktive deltagere i det, de kalder Guds arbejde, en stadig skabelsesproces, som former deres verden.

Timbunmeli-folkenes made at komme I kontakt med Gud og hans ander pa viser en kontinuitet i forhold til de interaktioner, de tidligere havde med lokale ander gennem seancer og helbredelsesritualer. Men mens det tidligere kun var indviede mand, der havde lov til at have med starke ander at gore, er det nu om dage hovedsagelig kvinder, der bliver besat af de dodes ander, omfortolket som Guds ander og helgener. Kvinder videregiver Guds tale, som virker gennem hans ander I deres kroppe for at helbrede, pradike og profetere. Der foregar nu om dage en ligestillingsproces med hensyn til adgangen til og reprasentationen af den andelige sfare, som giver kvinder og ikke indviede mand adgang til at trange ind pa et domane, som tidligere var forbeholdt indviede mand, og denne proces har medfort en forstarket kamp for de mandlige ledere.

Ved at studere praksisser som helbredelsesceremonier, dodsritualer, bonnemoder, andebesattelser og tilegnelsen af mobiltelefoner og andre ting, ved at analysere myter og historier og ved at lytte, til, observere og deltage i indbyggernes oplevelser med den synlige og den usynlige Anden har forskeren stiftet bekendtskab med implicitte og eksplicitte antagelser, som karakteriserer Timbunmeli-folkenes livsverden og deres forstaelse af tilvarelsen. Disse pramisser har haft indflydelse pa den made, hvorpa indbyggerne i Timbunmeli har taget bade kristendommen og mobiltelefonen til sig, og ma betragtes som temmelig stabile faktorer i forandringsprocesser.

Item ID: 48801
Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Keywords: appropriated Christianity, being, cargoism, cell phones, communication with the dead, cultural anthropology, dead, death, God, lifeworld, millenarism, mobile phones, Papua New Guinea, prayer, relations with the dead, religion, ritual, Sepik, spirit possessions, spirits, Timbunmeli
Copyright Information: Copyright © 2016 Christiane Falck.
Date Deposited: 27 Apr 2017 02:42
FoR Codes: 16 STUDIES IN HUMAN SOCIETY > 1601 Anthropology > 160104 Social and Cultural Anthropology @ 100%
SEO Codes: 95 CULTURAL UNDERSTANDING > 9504 Religion and Ethics > 950405 Religious Structures and Ritual @ 50%
95 CULTURAL UNDERSTANDING > 9599 Other Cultural Understanding > 959999 Cultural Understanding not elsewhere classified @ 50%
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