An unwanted Christmas present
Back to the future in Solomon Islands

Pingeta’s daughter & bigman Kurai Tapus

Kumbon - Wigged villager  Wabag patrol post  when Kurai Tapus was a bosboi (Fryer Library UQ)
Wigged villager at Wabag patrol post when Kurai Tapus was a bosboi (Fryer Library, University of Queensland)


WABAG - Her voice was like the sound of angels singing joyous melodies in the starlit Bethlehem night in celebration of the birth of Jesus in a manger on that first Christmas Day.

In January 1946, in a very different place, a similar earthly celebration took place in a lonely pulim anda (birth house) among the casuarina trees at Kaiap village, where a young mother sang a victory song when her son was born.

In the hausman (man’s house) the occupants were surprised to hear the distinctive cries of a newborn baby accompanied by the mother’s lullaby.

The lyrics flowed freely around the hausman as if a gentle breeze had picked them up to distribute the message that Tukim had given birth to a son.

Tukim was the daughter of Pingeta – the Piao Kumbin chieftain who had been gunned down by the Leahy brothers in 1934 as the journey of exploration came upon the Enga warriors.

Tukim is said to have burst out singing with the unsevered umbilical cord still dangling between her legs and the baby crying and kicking as if demanding to sing with her.

Neneo ame Tole ambo yaklao
Sambe wuah erean
Pulukai aene lama laa

Men from Neneo chose me -
this girl from Tole and exhausted
all their wealth to pay bride price
Tell them, the baby is a boy-child

Kumbon - It's likely Tukim was dressed like these Wabag girls in the 1960s when she carried her brother to safety
It's likely Tukim was dressed like these Wabag girls in the 1960s, when she carried her brother to safety

She composed the lyrics to express the high emotions of victory and self-worth. Tukim felt as if her heart had burst open like a dam.

How relieved she felt to earn her rightful place as the first wife of the local leader Kurai Tapus. She had been unfairly treated by some of his relatives who mocked her as undesirable.

They felt the short ugly girl was no match for Kurai’s seven foot frame.

Chris Pendon did not see the couple marry but heard people discuss their disdain for Kurai after, against their advice, he chose her.

Kurai knew his people were wrong to assume physical beauty as the basis to select a lifelong partner.

He told them to go direct to Tukim’s house and ask her to put on her best bridal gown and then accompany her back to Kaiap village so marriage arrangements could proceed.

Kurai was determined to marry this girl. He knew Tukim was a worthy choice. She had saved her brother, Waip, when their father was killed by the Leahy brothers 12 years before.

At the time, Kurai was a young bachelor and knew her story well. Tole was not far from his Kaiap village.

Perhaps like all adventurous young men, he himself had gone to see the Leahy brothers’ camp and had witnessed the shooting of Pingeta. He probably ran for cover like everybody else.

He heard how Tukim carried her brother Waip to safety and hid in the bushes for three days thinking the strangers were still lurking in the village to shoot them.

Their own mother had abandoned them in the stampede as people fled in shock when the shooting started. She must have seen her husband killed instantly in the deafening barrage of gunfire.

Nobody had ever heard of the existence of such destructive sticks that spelt death when they were pointed at people. Everything happened so fast and an eerie feeling of emptiness settled over the deserted village.

Meanwhile, Tukim and her brother Waip hid. They were too terrified even to search for food. They wondered where all the people had gone. It seemed they were the only humans left in the world.

Kumbon - Joe Tamlane (centre) with son Morris (left) and a relative  Mt Hagen
Joe Tamlane (centre) with son Morris (left) and a relative,  Mt Hagen

Later, as things returned to normal, Tukim was the talk of the ridge top villages. She was brave and fearless to have carried her brother to safety and people marvelled that they had managed to stay alive without food.

Nobody knew what happened to their mother. She hadn’t made her way to her Bi tribesmen in the Ambum valley. Most likely she drowned in the Ambum or Lai rivers. Or perhaps lost her mind and wondered off somewhere. Her disappearance remained a mystery forever.

Now orphaned, Tukim and Waip’s father’s only brother - Uncle Pyari - took them into his household.

Kurai Tapus was determined to marry this brave girl. Her physical appearance didn’t matter. He was a man who judged not on physical beauty but how a woman conducted her life and her ability to perform domestic chores.

He knew Tukim had demonstrated beyond doubt her ability to adapt to tough situations like tribal war or famine. He decided Tukim was the right choice.

Not long afterwards, Kurai took Tumbiam from the Kombro tribe as his second wife. But she died in childbirth a couple of years later.

Tukim adopted Tumbiam’s two sons as her own, bringing the total progeny to six, including three more boys she gave birth to later. It was hard work but Kurai’s four sisters helped take care of them.

Of all Kurai’s eight wives, Tukim remained a prominent figure. Her first son, whose birth prompted her to sing the victory song on 1 January 1946, is Joseph Tamlane Kurai. He built the very first permanent residence at Kaiap for his father where his eighth and final wife, Kipaukwan, stayed with him.

Before Tamlane was born, Tukim never enjoyed a happy moment. People ridiculed her when she followed Kurai to a feast, compensation payment or singsing. It was difficult for her to ignore glaring stares or nasty giggles behind her back.

But Kurai loved her. He was happy he had married her. When Tumbiam died, Tukim took care of the two orphaned boys with extra care and attention, even keeping her own boys at arm’s length at meal time.

Joseph Tamlane and Mathew Kandamane, the first born son of Tumbiam, were probably born in the same year. Both are now 73 years of age.

Kumbon - Cr Paul Kurai at Tsikiro catholic mission where his father met his last wife Kipaukwan
Cr Paul Kurai at Tsikiro catholic mission where his father met his last wife Kipaukwan

Kurai had married their mothers at different times in 1946 - one year after John Clarke reopened Wabag patrol post to resume civil administration after the war.

Mathew Kandamane remembers his father was called to Wabag by the colonial kiaps to help the Administration build roads, bridges, latrines, classrooms, aid posts, government stores and rest houses and to plant grass.

Patrol reports have yet to be located that might show when exactly Kurai Tapus was appointed a ‘bosboi’ and when other government titles and awards were bestowed on him in his over 20 years of service to the colonial Administration.

He had travelled widely to places like Lae, Rabaul, Port Moresby and maybe to Sydney in Australia which gave him knowledge which he brought back home. He would encourage the young children to go to school.

On his first trip, policemen struggled to fit him into the small plane because he was so tall. They had to force him inside. He sat, head bent forward, all the way until they landed.

In 1963, Kurai Tapus was elected the first president of the newly established Wabag Local Level Government Council. He served for only three years before Timon the Apulin councillor took over.

Tapus Kurai, local leader, former ‘bosboi’ and Wabag Council president, is said to have selected names for all his children, especially his nine sons - Joe Tamlane, Mathew Kandamain, Timothy Kakuru, Andrew Aie, James Balus , Paul Kiap, Bosko Kurai, George Kiuku and Warao Kurai.

The names he chose reflected Kurai’s personality, tastes, values, background and experiences as well as the dreams and ambitions he had for all his sons

According to Laura Wattenberg, author of ‘The Baby Name Wizard’, when a child is born, the name reflects more on you than him. "The name doesn't belong to you--you're making the decision because your child can't do it for himself--but what you choose does say a lot about your personality," she writes.

Kumbon - Cr Paul Kiap building Ribito Hotel in Wabag  which his father worked hard to develop
Cr Paul Kiap building the Ribito Hotel in Wabag which his father worked hard to develop

Kurai’s first son, Tamlane, means a steady flow of material wealth and food unable to be consumed and the surplus bound to rot.

Kandamain means to oversee others.

Kakuri means to possess traits of leadership that require organisation and the ability to draw people together.

Aie refers to the cassowary feather headdress and connotes strength and power.

Balus means an aircraft or road. Kurai gave this name to the son born when he was supervising the construction of the Kompiam road.

Paul Kiap was so named to remember Kurai’s time with the kiaps.

Bosko was named to remember he was appointed a ‘bosboi’ by the kiaps and put in charge of others.

Warao means people would follow.

And finally, Kiuku was named when he saw many people come to Kaiap all the time and their feet seemed to cause the ground to tremble.

James Balus Kurai says his father, as well as tall, was a heavy set and very strong man. When he adorned himself in traditional finery for a singsing, the human hair wig and birds of paradise headdress would make him look as if he was 8 or 9 feet tall.

None of his nine sons bear any semblance to Kurai in physical stature. His subjects feared him because he had a fierce face. He was tough, it is true, but in reality he was a gentle giant - humble, kind and fair like any ordinary man from Wabag.

James Balus said his father married eight wives. His mum was the third. The wives lived in harmony in his father’s harem – never an argument. All the wives and their children shared the food equally.

And Kurai father treated them equally, except the last born, Kipaukwan. She stayed with him in a separate house – the first and only permanent house built for him by his first son, Joe Tamlane. She was the only one who could make his tea in the big cup.  

Joe Tamlane, the son of Tukim, the first wife, trained as a correctional officer and saved enough money to build his father the permanent home. He felt his father deserved to end his illustrious career in comfort.

Kipaukwan was looked upon by all his other wives as different – a ‘nai enda’ (modern woman), she behaved like the women who lived down at the government station. She wore dresses, knew how to cook rice and make coffee and tea and put the right amount of sugar in the cups.

Above all, she conversed freely in Tok Pisin with the policemen, kiaps and other ‘nai’ people in Wabag.

James said all his father’s other wives lived together in harmony except two who left his dad’s harem. One was his own mother who married another man from Kaiap.

His father forgave them both and allowed them to start a family. Kurai knew he was a busy man and perhaps the two women needed attention more than he could afford.

Kumbon - Malipu Barakau  who married Monica  third daughter of Waip Pingeta's son
Malipu Barakau who married Monica,  third daughter of Waip Pingeta's son

Kurai demonstrated the same power and fairness when he had to settle disputes or other issues affecting his people.

One day he was walking towards Taikwas on the Kompiam – Ambum road when he approached a junction near Yambu Health Centre. Unknown to him, a man was selling cooked pork.

One mischievous bystander said to the pork seller: “Look, the bosboi is coming.”

The pork seller did not respond.

But the bystander told Kurai Tapus that the man selling the pork had mocked him by saying, “I am not selling this pork to the bosboi.” Kurai was upset.

“Is that true?” Kurai demanded.

When the pork seller did not respond, Kurai took this to mean he was guilty. He ordered the man to surrender his bag of pork to him. He distributed it to everybody present. As they ate, he told them to respect authority at all times.

But after Kurai was gone, the pork seller destroyed property belonging to the man who reported him.

When he heard this, Kurai went back to the road junction next morning and summoned the two men to appear before him.

The pork seller explained that the other man had told lies and that Kurai had wrongly taken his pork. When witnesses confirmed this testimony, Kurai asked the other man if he had lied. He admitted his guilt.

Kurai ordered him to bring a large pig to compensate the aggrieved man. Then he waited until the liar brought the pig and paid his penalty for causing trouble.

All the people present felt their bosboi had made a fair decision. Such decisions made him popular throughout Enga Province.

It is true that the attributes of good leadership become ingrained in the bloodline.

Monica, the third daughter of Waip, the brother Tukim saved at Tole in 1934, married Malipu Balakau, the Enga regional member and Papua New Guinea communications minister who was gunned down in Mt Hagen in 1989.

When Kurai Tapus and Tukim Pingeta got baptised at Sari catholic mission, their new christen names were Joseph and Maria.

Maria’s third born son, Paul Kiap, took his father Joseph’s place as Kamainwan councillor in 1979 and has remained since.


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Daniel Kumbon

Thanks Fr Gary Roche and 'Kiap' John Gordon-Kirkby. Both of you are part of PNG's history. May your good names live on. And wish you both well wishes this festive season.

John Gordon-Kirkby

In Pingata's Daughter, once again Daniel Kumbon has used his mastery of the written English language to paint an expanded word picture of his own local legendary Enga personalities and events, placing them in the context of historic first contact and subsequent rapid socio-political developments.

Because his society is now hugely impacted by the outside world, it becomes equally important that these texts be recorded for posterity in the pure Enga language itself before that be lost to future generations.

I hope that there have also been sound recordings of made of these beautiful songs.

Garry Roche

Daniel - The name Kurai sounded familiar to me and when I saw the photo of Cr Paul Kurai at Tsikiro church I realised who it was.

I remember meeting Paul Kurai frequently in Hagen when I was based in the Hagen town parish between 1999-2005. I remember him as a friendly person, and at the same time an inquisitive person. He was eager to explore the unknown.

I have visited Tsikiro, but a long time ago when Fr George Schubbe was still based there. Thanks for this interesting account.

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