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Age did not weary him – the remarkable life of Sir Wamp Wan

Dan Leahy at Mt HagenGARRY ROCHE

A recent contribution to PNG Attitude included a reference to Sir Wamp Wan of the Mokei Nampaka (Nampoga) clan near Mt Hagen, a prominent leader in the Western Highlands Province from before World War II until the 1990’s.

Sir Wamp had travelled both to London and Rome, where in 1972 he met Pope Paul VI, and he was later knighted by the Queen.

He was a strong supporter of the Catholic Mission, although he delayed baptism until 1976 because he had several wives and so.

Sir Wamp’s life covered the entire period of the exploration of the highlands, the colonial era and PNG’s journey to independence, and much beyond. So how old was the great leader when he died in 2007?

In the book First Contact by Robin Anderson and Bob Connolly (1987) there is on page 230 a photo of Dan Leahy with some Hagen people. The caption reads: “A consignment of fresh fish has arrived in Mount Hagen by plane. Dan Leahy shows one to onlookers.” The photograph was taken by Michael Leahy, probably in 1934.

In the February 1937 edition of a United States Catholic magazine, The Christian Family and our Missions, published by Divine Word Missionaries, there is an article by Fr William Ross about events at Mt Hagen in 1936.

The article includes on page 75 the same photograph of Dan Leahy and the Hagen people but with a caption inserted by Fr Ross which reads: “Dan Leahy showing freezer fish to Mogei Wamp, young headman of Nampaga in center”.

One may ask whether these were “fresh fish” or “freezer fish” but what we are interested in is the identification of Wamp Wan by Fr Ross. There is not much doubt that Fr Ross is correct in identifying Wamp.

Wamp Wan circa 1934Older Mokei Nampakae (Nampaga) people shown this photograph identify Wamp and others immediately see the resemblance to Wamp’s eldest son, William Wimp Wamp.

They also believe they can identify the man near Dan Leahy’s left shoulder, it is probably Titip son of Kanapi. Titip was the grandfather of Paul Timbi and Regina Graham.

How old was Wamp when this photograph was taken? There are several clues pointing to the probability that he was already at least in his late twenties.

Wamp had been involved in the war between the Mokei and the Elti-Penambi. One of his own brothers had been killed. Wamp himself even fled to Wurup for a time before returning to Rebiamul.

The anthropologist Andrew Strathern estimated that the war between the Mokei-Kopi-Ulga alliance and the Elti-Penambi ended in about 1926, i.e, about seven or eight years before the Leahy-Taylor expedition reached Hagen in 1933.

If Wamp had been aged 20 at the time the Elti-Penambi war finished, he would have been about 28 in 1934, perhaps somewhat older.

One can note the aumak (row of bamboo sticks) that Wamp is wearing. This aumak denoted the number of Moka transactions in which he had already participated, and indicated that Wamp was clearly more than a teenager.

Sir Wamp Wan in 1984Both Fr Ross and others acknowledged that Wamp Wan was already one of the leaders of the Mokei Nampaka clan by 1936.

As is the custom among the Hagen people, there were also other leaders, such as Ninji Kama and Wundaki Kanimba, both older than Wamp, but the fact that Wamp was already a leader, albeit a young leader, again indicates a maturity of age.

These factors, even by a conservative estimation, indicate a birthdate for Sir Wamp Wan of around 1906.

The photo on the right was taken in 1984 and it is highly likely by the year 2007, when he died, Sir Wamp Wan was already more than 100 years old. 


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Stella Doboi

Sir Wamp Wan will go down in the History books of Western Highlands for his strength to put aside centuries of tradition and embrace what he believed was the right path to take. His courage to accept change, insight to what benefits this changes will bring and the will to see this through is the foundation for Christianity and Modernization in the Western Highlands Province and i am sincerely proud to have had him as my grandfather. Rest in Peace Wuta!

Joshua Tengdui

Such rich cultural heritage of the Mogei Nambka people. Wamp Wan was a great leader for the clansmen, Mogei tribesmen and Western Highlands as a whole. Makes me proud and as a descendant of Ninji I am even more grateful.

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