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The story of Joseph, once Kurai

Lutheran Church pastor Ango Panao with his son and grandson
Lutheran Church pastor Ango Panao with his son and grandson


WABAG – “Call me Joseph. I am not Kurai anymore,” Joseph Kurai Tapus said to his friends, associates - and anybody he met - soon after Fr Peter Granegger SVD baptised him at Sari Catholic Mission on 8 April, 1977.

Not many Christian converts are known to have done that, but Kurai made public announcements of his conversion and subsequent name change.

Early one morning he asked Michael Maki, a good public speaker, to accompany him to Wabag town solely to tell people of his new status.

Kaiap village court chairman Henry Yapis said Kurai decided to get baptised after he had tirelessly supporting the Australian colonial government all his working life.

Now, in 1977, he was getting old and wanted to spend the rest of his life helping the church.

As ‘bosboi’ in those colonial days he had supervised the construction of many roads under difficult conditions.

The people used wooden digging sticks to build the roads - Yampu to Londol, Par to Meraimanda, Sopas to Kepsanta, Wabag to Sirunki and Sari to Paimanda.

Kurai, now Joseph, was travelling with Michael Maki on the latter road to tell people of his conversion.

He had also supervised construction of the Lama bridge and the Lai bridge near Sari Catholic Mission, which they named Yosep Bridge after one of the policemen who helped Joseph in his work.

All the bridges had kunai grass roofs built over their wooden structures to keep them dry.

The local people gave odd nicknames to two other ‘yandasingi’ or policemen. One was called Senap (stand up) and the other Onion, probably for being harsh to them.

Then there was Lingham who was referred to by his proper name.

Amongst other duties, the police ensured people came to work on time.

Thomas Tamui, an elder from Kaiap village, remembered how as bosboi Kurai organised the clans who lived along the ridge top to bring firewood, particularly the type of wood called ‘waiyu’, to barter for salt, axes and other trade goods.

“Kurai would ask men from the Bui, Malye, Mune, Sangu and Kalpoe clans to bring the firewood and assemble at Kaiap village before they marched down to Wabag patrol post,” Thomas recalled.

“He made sure they all brought leaves from the ‘yakait ita’ or tokak tree to make salt parcels.

“They sang songs and yodeled down the slope to Wabag in the morning and happily returned at the day’s end with parcels of salt.

“When it rained the men used rainhats called ‘tuli’ made from young pandanus leaves to protect themselves. They walked up the hill quickly to reach home before nightfall, their precious salt carefully tucked in their ‘bilums’ [string bags].”

Kurai even composed a song for the men to sing at such times: “Kiap ame larama ole pitulao / Wapali yuk sakarae kara.”

It can be freely translated as: ‘When the kiap tells us to do something, we follow and get it done. We)must stand watch and discard the old and follow the new ways’.

Kurai also organised the construction of a hospital at Kaiap which was staffed by an aid post orderly, Uncle Pii, one of the Neneo tribal war refugees.

Men from as far away as Londol and Meraimanda in Kompiam brought firewood and building materials to keep the hospital patients warm at night and they built a new ‘nai anda’ [modern kunai house] for Kurai.

Many men came to Kaiap each day and Kurai ensured there was order in the community. He assigned people to keep adequate supplies of firewood at the hospital. He organised work gangs to cut down ‘tatto’ [giant hardwood trees] which grew in abundance on the ridge.

Today old sawmill pits can be seen scattered along the ridgetop where huge logs had been pushed into position and sawn into timber which was then transported on bare shoulders to construct houses at Wabag patrol post.

When Kurai wanted to visit certain groups of people in the locality, he would engage a man named Lyaimbyokon to yodel from the ridgetop to announce his schedule. People always promptly assembled to receive their ‘bosboi’ and hear him speak.

“In those days local leaders used to rub ‘kanaparo molopai anga itana singi’ [lizards that live in the pandanus trees] on their faces. They believed this would make them look fierce and take the form of a lizard’s face. They took advantage of the fear factor to get work done,” said Henry Yapis.

“Kurai appeared frightening indeed, but he was really a kind man. Yet, when he wanted to get work done, he had to enforce the rules with brute force. With help from the policemen he ensured people promptly followed government rules and instructions. He punished those who defied orders, starting with his own people.”

As a child, Yapis saw Kurai imprison the Kamainwan people for two weeks when they refused to participate at the first Mt Hagen Show in 1963.

Then he ordered them to stage a ‘mali’ [singsing] at Kaiap village least they forgot how to perform when the next show came around.

“Kurai beat lazy people with his ‘kanda kunja’ [cane], forced men to carry their wives in public if they beat them unnecessarily and poured hot water on troublemakers until they changed their attitude,” Yapis recalled.

“He also encouraged people to live in peace, respect authority and love one another. He worked really hard to bring change and development to Wabag.”

As he aged, Kurai realised it was time for him to make an important decision in his life and decided to get baptised at Sari Catholic Mission.

Cr Paul Kurai and Dominic Lawton near the new chapel they are building at Kopen
Cr Paul Kurai and Dominic Lawton near the new chapel they are building at Kopen

He understood that the laws of government and teachings of the church were similar to the traditional rules of conduct so familiar to him: do not steal, do not covet someone else’s wife, respect the elderly, leave other people’s property alone were like the rules young men received from elders in the hausman [men’s house].

His own Neneo people had paid the ultimate price in suffering defeat. They lost their village because of the sins of a few individuals who broke the traditional rules established by their forefathers.

Finally, there came a time when Kurai was overwhelmed by a sudden urge to prepare for the next life. He seemed to sense his allotted time on earth would soon expire.

“Not many people saw me get baptised. People must know of my conversion to Christianity. Tell them my new name is Joseph. I am not Kurai anymore.” He instructed Michael Yapis to announce the news to the people that morning.

By dusk, Michael was worn out from yodelling the same message all day long. But Joseph Kurai kept buying him more soft drinks to clear his throat so he could inform more people from Wapenamanda, Laiagam, Kandep and other parts of Enga.

Joseph’s motive was to influence people and change their lives. He had served the government with dignity, power and influence. Many people knew him. But he wished the people to understand that all human beings perish. They did not take their power, fame or wealth to the grave.

Many elders from Kaiap were convinced Joseph Kurai Tapus was no ordinary man. He had started offering pig sacrifices to a kind spirit being named ‘Gote’ who lived in the sky before the missionaries came. 

It was common to appease dead relatives when people fell ill, but Kurai made the offerings for no apparent reason. Nobody knew why or who directed him to make the burnt offerings. Maybe he wanted to have children. (New information has emerged that Kurai’s very first wife died without giving him children.)

Kurai selected Tukim, Pingeta’s daughter, and recognised her as his first wife. But many people did not like her physical appearance. They pressured him to marry a different woman. But Kurai insisted he should wed Tukim, the short girl from Tole.

But immediately after that, he married Mathew Kandamaine’s mother but she died while giving birth to her second son, Andrew.

Mathew says it was during this sad period that his father started to offer pig sacrifices to ‘Gote’ at a place called Kendemale near Kainakungus, the place they had first settled after their village was destroyed.

“This is how my father prepared the burnt offerings.” Mathew explained. “First, he made a raised platform on top of the tree branches. Split wood was fastened to form a table. He placed clay on top to make a firm base to collect the ashes and pig fat.”

Then Kurai lit a fire using very dry wood and burnt the kidneys of a freshly slaughtered pig until every bit was consumed by the flames. This was the sacrifice.

The rest of the pig was cooked in a separate mumu pit and strictly shared amongst the men. He offered separate sacrifices on behalf of the women.

Later, when they moved further up the ridge to Aeioptenges, Kurai is said to have been in contact with supernatural beings early each morning when everybody else was asleep in the ‘akalyanda’ [men’s house].

Mathew Kurai and a few other youths witnessed Kurai’s nocturnal activities. Nobody saw him leave but he always entered through the low door of the hausman.

One day at about three in the morning, Mathew heard his father talk to somebody. He went outside to investigate. He saw a bright light beamed directly at Kurai like a torch or the headlights of a car. No one was with him nor did he see the source of light.

I heard a voice come from the end of the source of light. I didn’t see anyone but my father kept answering, ‘yes, yes, yes’, to the voice. In what language the communication took place, I cannot say,” Mathew recalls.

“When the light went out, I went back inside the hausman and pretended to sleep as if I had seen or heard nothing. But my father had seen me. He told me not to tell anybody until after he died. I think it’s okay now to talk about it.”

From then on Kurai started to prophesy about things that would happen in the near future.

He had accurately predicted that white men would bring cars, aeroplanes and other new things. He had foretold that everything that people used for free like kunai grass, pitpit, spring water, food crops, firewood and other everyday necessities would cost money.

Along the roads people would see rows and rows of people selling sizzling meat and other good things to eat. Their children would cry to have them. People had to work really hard to earn the means to stop their children crying.

At about this time, Kurai was appointed a tultul [government official]. A man named Yoponda Kepa had convinced the kiap to appoint Kurai to this important role. The two men knew each other through the traditional ‘tee’ [trade exchange] system that flourished in the valley.

Kurai was possibly appointed a tultul during the time when John Clarke established Wabag patrol post in 1941, or perhaps when it reopened after the war in 1944.

In 1947 Kurai saw missionaries arrive in Wabag. Lutheran missionaries established themselves at Irelya, Seventh Day Adventists at Rakamanda and a lone Catholic priest came close to Kopen to settle among the Nemane clansmen.

He was Gerardus Alfonsus Maria, better known by Enga people as Fr Jerry Bus.

He had been born on 2 March 1921 to Gerard Bus and Alida Smal in the town of Bussum in Holland. After schooling, he entered the minor seminary of St John the Baptist in Soesterberg to become a missionary. In the fifth and sixth years he was at the SVD house in Uden.

He went to Helvoirt for two years as a novitiate and continued his theology studies in the SVD major seminary at Teteringen and later in the SVD motherhouse at Steyl. World War II interrupted his studies but after liberation he continued studies at Teteringen, being ordained a priest in 1946 and receiving his mission appointment to New Guinea on 20 July of that year.

But there was an inadequate water supply at Kopen and Kurai saw Fr Bus relocate to Sari. Thirty years later Kurai was baptised by another SVD priest, Fr Peter Granegger from Austria.

On the very spot where Fr Bus first settled, one of Joseph Kurai’s sons, Cr Paul Kurai, is building a chapel in collaboration with local priest Fr Justine Ain and Dominic Lawton, the principal of Kopen Secondary School, to commemorate the arrival of Fr Jerry Bus 73 years ago.

Lutheran pastor Panao Ango from Amapyaka in Wapenamanda often saw Kurai when he worked with the kiaps. Panao himself was training to be a pastor at Amapyaka. He is still preaching today from the pulpit even as he nears100 years of age.

Pastor Panao Ango saw Kurai marry his last wife Kipaukwan when she lived near Sirunki Lutheran Mission. She was with the family of her sister married to Kisa or ‘Big Thumb who was a ‘tanim tok’ [interpreter].

“Kipaukwan befriended a young man from Yaibos but Kurai married her instead. I don’t know why the young girl fell for an elderly man,” Panao smiled.

Did he think it was right for a man to marry many wives?

“Look at King David. He had many wives but God used him for his divine purpose,” Panao said. “Joseph Kurai Tapus established peace in Wabag. I believe blessings will continue to flow in the family lineage.”


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Kenny Pawa Ambaisi

Daniel you doing too, too good.

Daniel Kumbon

Fr Casimir Niezgoda baptised me at Mariant CM in Kandep. Indeed he is the only one left in Enga and lives at Par.

And I met Fr Tony Somhorst briefly in Wabag. And almost all of them came to open our new 'kunai' church that Fr Jerry Thies build at Mariant many years ago.

Thanks for the update, Fr Garry Roche.

Garry Roche

Daniel, again you provide an interesting historical account of life in Enga. If these details are not written down they may well be forgotten. By way of information it can be noted that Fr. Gerard Bus died in 2007 back in Netherlands aged 85. And Fr. Peter Granegger died also in 2007 back in Austria aged 73.
Another old-time missionary Fr. Tony Somhorst only recently retired to Netherlands. And as far as I know Fr. Casimir Niezgoda, age 87 this year, is the only oldtimer Catholic missionary still in Enga. He has been there since late 1960's.

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