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Did Wi’s good judgement survive?

Robert Forster
Robert Forster as a young man in the PNG highlands, about 1970


NORTHUMBRIA – The photograph  that appears just below was taken nearly half a century ago, in 1971, and the man standing is Wi Kupa.

He was a bigman, the leader of the group of Kuman people whose lived at Kabalku on the north side of the old Highlands Highway near Kerowil in the Western Highlands.

I think it is clear that Wi, ramrod straight and with his face shining with friendship, was special.

Wi Kupa (standing) – a good natured village leader from KabalkuWhen this picture was taken, Wi was helping a clansman prepare for a singsing.

You can see the mirror ready to do its duty and, to the men’s left, the carefully guarded Black Sicklebill bird of paradise plumes.

Wi was a thoughtful local government councillor and a thoroughly decent human being.

I sometimes sought him out to discuss difficult issues, such as, with the colony plunging towards self-government, there was confusion in the villages when the new Papua New Guinea flag suddenly appeared.

But, despite his wisdom, Wi was not without mischief.

While conducting a long, political education patrol in 1972 it was common for the clan we were visiting to greet me and the patrol with vigorous spear dancing.

During these dances, the weapons were frequently flashed within inches of my face and neck.

I would stand my ground and refuse to flinch – although I would have preferred the warriors to aim their spears elsewhere.

So for me, kiap pride was at stake. But as the patrol progressed, Wi spread the news and an inter-clan contest developed to see who could get their spears to pass closest to my throat.

Kabalku village was the last call. So Wi ordered an all-out effort to test my mettle.

I called on every fibre of resolve not to dissipate into a panic stricken heap, but came through without blinking or recoiling.

Wi was pleased that I’d won through.

During the evenings I’d sit alongside tribal leaders and discuss the imminent breakup of the kiap system and what this might mean.

To me, it was clear that Wi, unlike some men of similar age and standing in other clans, was looking for the best way to handle this massive change.

He was always uneasy about cementing his status by being aggressive towards government or his neighbours.

He knew that through quarrels over land boundaries and bride price payments would almost certainly in fights – with resulting bloodshed and destruction of property.

Now, half a century on, I wonder if he was successful? Did his farsightedness and good nature win through?

Or was he overwhelmed by the trend that developed, once independence approached and the kiaps had left ,to regress to the often fierce disputes that were gaining strength elsewhere in the Wahgi Valley?

I write about Wi and other Papua New Guineans prominent during this period of self-government and independence in my recently published book, ‘The Northumbrian Kiap’. You can find the book at Amazon here.


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John Gordon-Kirkby

Thanks Robert ,for this nostalgic introduction to your book.
I shall try to get a copy.
In 1975 I was doing the same work as work as you ,but in The Enga Province .
Met some outstanding PNG citizens..
Some lasting friendships made , but sadly I have outlived most .
En tasol liklik tok save.
John G-K

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