Umba, a leader among the Kuman believers, took a courageous and dangerous stand this week after his 2-year-old nephew died.
The death last week was an accident. The boy was unsupervised, and fell into a hole filled with rainwater and died. But that’s not the way most Kumans see it. According to their traditional ways, nobody dies of illness or accident or even old age. Death is a result of sorcery.
So Umba had an idea what was coming when his entire clan -- cousins, aunts, uncles and more -- was told to gather to hear something important.
At the meeting, his brother stood and said, "You women are all witches. We know you are witches and we have gathered here to tell you that you have killed one child already and we don’t want you to kill anyone else! If you do, we will burn you all!"
This is not an idle threat. Witch hunts are literal in the Kuman tribe, as they are in many other places in Papua New Guinea.
But Umba was not going to let that stand.
"After they had talked like this for a while," Umba said, "I stood up and said, ’This kind of thinking is all wrong. We can’t be doing this to our family. The Bible doesn’t say people die from sorcery. These are just lies passed down from our ancestors.’"
Nonetheless, after the family gathering Umba’s sister told him that his two brothers had hired a witch to divine who killed the boy, and the witch accused Umba’s wife, Wari. Umba was thought to be involved as well, and his words at the meeting were seen as implicating him.
Because Umba is a respected man in the village with many supporters, and he stood by his wife -- while many would join in the accusations or simply not object -- he and Wari are likely to be safe at this time, wrote missionaries Will and Kelly Tallman.
"But in the future, if there is more sickness and death, then this will be sure to come up again," they wrote. "Please continue to pray as things can change at any moment. Our hearts are heavy about this whole situation."