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Radio review: The Witch Hunts of Papua New Guinea, and The Walk

08 June 2018


REBECCA is a witch doctor. She has a scar on her right temple which, she says, lights up when sorcery is afoot. If you ask her who was responsible for the failure of your crops, or the illness of your child, the chain-smoking sage will puff into a jar and identify the culprit in the plume.

What you do with that informa­tion is up to you — she is just a service provider, and is admirably candid about her motivation: “My spiritual power is opened up by money.” She gets paid the equivalent of more than £100 for an accusation.

We met Rebecca as part of Emily Webb’s remarkable documentary for the World Service Assignment strand. The Witch Hunts of Papua New Guinea (Thursday of last week) reported on sanguma in Papua New Guinea: a belief in witchcraft which has resulted in a rising number of vigilante attacks and killings.

The government official interviewed at the end of the documentary admitted that there was a problem, but that he had a resource-allocation problem. Meanwhile, policemen like Peter spend their off-duty hours responding to distress calls, mostly from spinsters, widows, and the unpropertied.

It is for the sociologists and anthro­pologists to work out what is going on underneath all of this; and why it should be on the increase now. The job this programme undertook with such effectiveness was to tell vivid stories, such as that of Jenny, who has been persecuted because her children’s friend became ill and died after they played together. Her accuser is her own brother-in-law: a teacher with good English: articulate, and, in many respects, perfectly rational.

It would make great daytime TV, except that, even on The Jeremy Kyle Show, they do not allow family members to go at one another with axes.

Tensions less dramatic but none the less deep-rooted lie along The Walk: For richer, for poorer (Radio 4, Saturday), taking the presenter, Cole Moreton, from Harrods, in Knightsbridge, to Grenfell Tower.

In the course of his three-mile walk, we were transported from what in estate-agent jargon is called a “lateral duplex”, valued at £12.5 million, to the burned-out remnants of council flats. From start to finish, life expectancy apparently drops by 14 years.

These are observations that should for ever prick our consciences. But they are familiar enough not to prick our attention; and we could, after all, take the walk ourselves, or something similar, equipped with the same smartphone app as informed him and us of house prices, average household income, and the like.

The missing constituency here was the rich people, perhaps because so many of these lateral duplexes are unoccupied for large parts of the year. It was left to the estate agent to tell us something of how the other half live — and how she will refuse to sell to super-rich clients whose requirements include windowless basement rooms to house their staff.

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