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Paiga Then: History

Paiga and Kuru

Kuru is an incurable degenerative neurological disorder that is a type of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy found in humans. It was first described in Western medical literature in the late 1950's and was endemic to the Fore speakers, including the people of Paiga, and to those in villages into which they intermarried.The word kuru is the Fore word "kuria/guria", 'to shake', a characteristic of the progression of the disease being that person's limbs beign to shake uncontrollably. People also laugh uncontrollably and the disease was also called laughing sickness.

It's now considered a transmissible prion disease, like CJD. It's generally agreed that the disease spread rapidly among the Fore after it's first presentation (the particular origin being undetermined still) through what's called endocannibalism. It was ritual practice among the Fore to eat their dead relatives. Kuru was 8 - 9 times more likely to be prevalent among women and children and it's thought that this may have been because while men ate the best 'cuts' the women and children ate the rest of the body including the brain where the prion particles become concentrated.

Endocannibalism declined as a result of its banning by Australian administrators (PNG was an Australia protectorate after Wolrd War II until its independence in 1975) and the influence of Christian missionaries, and so new cases of kuru declined also. But the incubation period of the disease is 14 years, with latency periods reported of up to 40 years. As a result, people were still dying of kuru well into the 1970's. Most older adults you meet in Paiga have had some relative (often parents) who have died of kuru.

When kuru first appeared among the Fore it was put down to sorcery. It was this that led to the translocation of Paiga, according to the elders. Paiga used to be a single village in a valley below the ridge on which the Community School now stands. A time came when the elders conferred and decided that the only way to protect the clan from the sorcery was to separate into four family groups and move to four different areas of their ancestral lands. Hence, Paiga now is a collective name for these four villages.

The new clinic that has been built at Paiga has a room dedicated for use by the Kuru Surveillance Team working through PNG Institute for Medical Research (IMR).

[To read more about kuru and a fascinating exploration of medical research within gift/exchange relationships both between the investigated and the investigators, and amongst investigators themselves, I unreservedly recommend The Collectors of Lost Souls: Turning Kuru Scientists into Whitemen by Warwick Anderson.]

Paiga and World War II

The other history told in Paiga has to do with World War II. The story goes that the village, unlike other parts of PNG, was absolutely untouched by the war. The only things that happened were that occasionally they would see planes flying overhead. One time one of these crashed somewhere nearby and that that was how metal for tools came into the village - some people went out there and hacked the fuselage to pieces to fashion axes.