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The old priest & the young councillor

Alois Alapyala Yolape (right) speaking with Paul Kurai at opening of new Leptenges churchDANIEL KUMBON

WABAG - Alois Alapyala Yolape often thanks Fr George Schubbe publicly, even though the priest is dead, for playing an important role in getting him elected for the Monokam council ward in the Ambum Valley 57 years ago.

Recently, he again acknowledged Fr Schubbe at a new church opening at Leptenges near Sirunki, where his late mother was born.

Alois Yolape thanked the priest for getting him elected and showing him how to live a straight Christian life.

He said he was unhappy when the first church building was destroyed during prolonged tribal warfare at Leptenges, located right on the Highlands Highway, a near Wabag, the provincial capital.

Alois Yolape was elected when just a young man, married and father of one small child. He hadn’t yet learned to speak Tok Pisin.

He has served the Tit people of Monokam since then, relinquishing the post to a younger man only at last year’s council elections.

Back in 1963, at his first election, he had supported Cr Kurai Tapus to be elected first president of the newly established Wabag Local Government Council.

Alois Yolape was very much a village man, living in the same conditions he was born into when kiaps and missionaries began to penetrate the remote Ambum Valley.

In 1938, regular contact had been established when kiap Ian (IFC) Downs made patrols from a base in Wabag where an airstrip was being built. In 1941 a permanent patrol post was established by John Clarke but it closed during World War II only to reopen in 1946.

In May 1949, a patrol conducted by Assistant District Officer Peter K Moloney found that the people in the Ambum Valley displayed more interest in his expedition than the people of the Tarua and Sau watersheds.

“No signs of recent fighting were seen and our camps were visited by men from all parts of the valley which would indicate that a friendly feeling prevails among the different groups and hamlets,” Moloney wrote in his report.

As the patrol moved on to the Sau valley, they found that this area had been given little attention since the Wabag sub district was in operation, although during the war an aircraft warning wireless station was operated from near Puman.

When an ANGAU patrol was attached there in 1945, the patrol officer was wounded by an arrow. Moloney didn’t explain why but mentioned that this isolated area was where escaped prisoners sought refuge.

“The natives of the upper reaches occasionally visit Wabag and the valley (Sau) is a favorite refuge for escaped prisoners and wrong-doers,” Moloney said in his report.

At the time of Moloney’s visit, a certain E Rowlands was prospecting for gold at the head of the Timun River, which is the main northern tributary of the Sau River. Moloney noticed there was no fighting in the area because of the prospector’s presence.

As the patrol pushed on into the Tarua valley, Moloney saw that the area had previously never been patrolled but was visited during the war when troops were moving to and from the Sepik River.

Alois Yolape grew up in the Ambum valley during the war. “When I was a young boy, I saw many aeroplanes flying in formation past us all the time. They were like parrots. We often saw them flying over us from there (north) and down that way (south). Later, I found out these were not birds but war planes,” he said.

In an animated voice, sometimes punctuated by laughs and giggles, he related what it was like when he grew up at the point of first contact with the outside world:

“We still lived in primitive conditions when the kiaps and missionaries came to my area like expatriate couples do – together. Everything they introduced to us was new.

“We were using stone axes to break firewood, sharpened sticks as spades to make kaukau (sweet potato) mounds. We used these same sticks to dig drains and clear land to build our houses.

“The womenfolk were stung by nettles and suffered injuries sustained from thorns from the type of vine called ikilumbi kenda which easily penetrated their bare skin. They had scratch marks on their bodies, their hair was scuffled and untidy when they returned.

“They had to go into the thick forest to gather the vines to make nuu (string bags) and yambale (aprons) for us men to wear. For the women to cover themselves, we planted a certain type of reed called ‘kura’ which grew well in swampy places so they could make grass skirts for themselves.

“The kiaps and missionaries came to us and asked us how we chopped firewood. We demonstrated with our stone axes and they showed us steel axes.

“We demonstrated how to make fire using friction called ‘irakepa’ and they showed us a box of matches. They showed us mirrors when we told them we used to stare into pools of clear still water to see our faces. Everything they brought was appealing.

“They told us to give up our old ways and learn to accept new things. They gave us salt to taste and it was sweet. We very much wanted these new things they brought.

“There were no roads. And imagine, these strange people had been walking long hours or even days and months to reach us.

“It surprises me why these people were not killed and eaten in Simbu and Hagen as they walked up from where they came from.”

Alois Yolape saw his valley gradually open up. A road was built into the area. Mission stations, schools and health centres were established. The colonial Administration appointed ‘bosbois’ to supervise work gangs who gathered firewood, poles, kunai grass, vines and other materials to build houses in Wabag:

“Kurai Tapus was our bosboi, his influence extending far down into the Sau and Tarua valleys. He used to praise me for organising my people for bringing all these things to Wabag. We helped build the airstrip, school, hospital and houses for the policeman and others to sleep in.

“Aeroplanes came and dropped food supplies and other goods from the air. I used to marvel and imagine how all these new things were happening so suddenly. Nobody told me anything like this would happen when I grew up in the village. Everything was completely new.

“The fish and rice they gave us was sweet tasting, soft and tender in the mouth and easy to swallow. They told us that all these things will be brought to our villages if there were good roads. And so, we began building roads with our bare hands.”

Bosboi Kurai Tapus liked Alois and his people. He would cook rice, boil tea and invite Alois to join in the meals at Kaiap village. They became good friends. Kurai was given a ration by the administration and was able to share it with special friends like Alois:

“I used to go and harvest cabbages and English potatoes for Kurai. He would hold a mirror from the ridge and when I saw it, I would flash mine back in his direction to show I was on my way with the food.

“When I arrived at Kaiap, he would praise me and say ‘You are a good man, a man who gets things done on time. And you bring lots of produce too. You are my friend.’

“We worked together to build the Meraimanda road, the Londol road and organised the men to pull and drag huge logs to build bridges. We also built the Wabag to Sirunki road. We were always close and remained very good friends.”

When the new Wabag Local Government Council was established in 1963, Kurai Tapus was easily elected councillor by the Kamainwan people of Kaiap and Sakarwan people of Kasi village.

Alois Yolape hadn’t even thought that he might contest to represent his Tit clan of the major Sakalin tribe. Three other men – Tit Karato’s father, a man named Pakigin and Tapukae showed interest. People were ready to accept any one of them as their new councillor.

The evening before voting, Alois was in the hausman (man’s house). It was hot and he went outside to cool himself. But then it started to rain heavily. He grumbled that it fell just as he began to enjoy the fresh air.

The men inside the hausman jokingly said to him that the rain was a blessing, a sign that he might be voted as their councillor:

“Some of my men – Kapo, Poali, Pyala and others - good-humouredly said: ‘The rain is bringing our council ward seat to you.’

“Then all of a sudden I saw a person with a hurricane lamp approaching the hausman. I saw that it was Saima from the Timtim clan. He was the catechist at the Tsikiro catholic church further down the Ambum Valley.

“Fr Schubbe sent me, he said. He asked to know who is contesting our council ward. We mentioned the three names. But he said: ‘Fr Schubbe wants you to contest also. That’s why I’ve come in the rain. Go tomorrow and announce that you are the fourth candidate’.

“I didn’t believe him. I hadn’t made up my mind to contest. I was very much a bush kanaka still wearing traditional dress – woven bush string apron and tanget leaves held together with mena kenda marapu (a string rope belt). I didn’t know how to speak Pidgin either, just a pure kanaka with a thick head.

“How can I become a councillor?” I thought. But yet, next morning, I did exactly as Katakist Saima instructed me to do. After casting of votes and counting completed, Lakayari the government interpreter made the announcement that the first three contestants did not win but the one who decided only last night is the new councillor-elect here.

“I was happy but still full of doubt. How was I going to speak to people in Tok Pisin? Where was I going to get European clothes to wear them in public. These were the type of kanaka thoughts that filled my mind.

“But I realised, Fr Schubbe had planned everything for me. He sent word for me to go down to Tskiro catholic mission where he gave me soap to wash myself, a mirror to see my face, a towel to dry myself, scissors to trim my hair and new clothes to wear. I was a different man altogether. I felt light and happy.”

One of Cr Alois Yolape’s first duties was to take his people to the first Mt Hagen Show the same year he was elected in 1963. His people praised him for having looked after them well on the trip:

“I made sure we were fed well and ensured we stayed together. At Pausa in Wapenamanda, where we rested for the night, a young couple was caught fornicating. They did not deny it when they were brought to me.

“I said we were too far from home to discuss the issue. I did not think punishing them was the right thing to do given the circumstances. It wasn’t a rape case. I told them to come on the trip as man and wife and later, when they returned from the show, the man can pay bride price. Many people thought my decision was fair and wise.”

When he went for his first council meeting in Wabag, Alois met many of the influential men who helped the kiaps – Naa Tau of Londol, Apakas of Birip, Yaru of Par, Timun of Irelya, Tambai of Sakalis, Kurai Tapus of Kaiap, Malye Pekol, Yol Kem, Tit Pirai, Lakwei Wape, Apupin Karapen and many others – all forceful public speakers, well-built and powerful men in their tribes.

But why did Fr Schubbe involve himself in local politics to get Alois Alapyala Yolape elected a councillor?

When Fr Schubbe came to the Ambum Valley for the first time, he had made friends with him. When he searched for land to establish an outstation and a church, he found some in the hills.

Fr Schubbe went there regularly to hold services and hear confessions. But he must have been feeling tired walking up and down the steep hills.

Alois explains how he gave Fr Schubbe new land:

“One day he asked me to look at him. He was carrying his shirt in his hands. ‘Just look at me’, he said. ‘I am exhausted climbing the rugged hills’.

“Sweat was dripping like water on his slim body. He asked me if I had any land closer to the new road being built passing through Monokam.

“I replied that we had given all our land at Monokam to the government but there was just a small portion left. I could give it to him if it was OK with him. Fr Schubbe was happy.

“He had come to hear confessions of the people but put it off for another day. We took off down the hill almost immediately. Timtim Saum, the catechist accompanied us.

“I showed him the land when we finally got there. Fr Schubbe immediately took out his wallet and searched in it and found some coins and gave them to me.

“’Why are you giving me this money?’ I asked.

“’For being generous and giving me this land,’ the priest said.

“‘But I can’t accept it, I gave you for free so you and I can stay here forever,” I said.

“’Hey plis, yu kisim (Hey, please, take it),’ he said. I did not want to upset him so I took the money. When I counted the coins, it added to four dollars."

They built a big church on this new piece of land beside the road. Bishop George Bernading travelled from Mt Hagen to open it. Alois Yolape asked him for a permanent priest to be stationed at Monokam catholic mission. He told the bishop that Londor in the headwaters of the Ambum River and Tskiro further down were very far apart.

But the bishop said a priest could not be posted at Monokam. Fr Schubbe from Tskiro would keep coming up to celebrate mass:

“But for me personally, he said he would send me a ‘kanda kunja’ (cane) and a ring so I could look after the church.

“I waited and almost forgot until the council elections came. And who else could appear but Catechist Saima who came with Fr Schubbe’s instructions for me to nominate at the last minute.

“I won and it seems as if this was the promise Bishop Bernading had made. The kanda kunja and ring signified government positions of power, not the church. It was clear to me, God was behind the scene.

“I knew God had used Fr Schubbe to convince me to nominate. From then on, I have always encouraged people to go to church and send their children to school. Many a times I have been challenged but I always won. I volunteered to retire during the 2019 council elections."

Paul Kurai overlooking Monokam  just visible in the valley. Fr George Schubbe's territory
Cr Paul Kurai overlooking Monokam just visible in the valley. Fr George Schubbe's territory

Alois Alapyala Yolape said the person who took over from him, Cr Daniel is related to him. They are from the same family unit. He was glad he had stepped aside because Cr Daniel is now the president of Ambum Local Level Government.

“He has lots of respect for me. He told me I would still get my allowances. I am happy a good man took my place.

“I am convinced Monokam will continue to expand. We have a primary school, elementary school, health centre and several Christian church denominations operate side by side.

“And Jacob Luke, owner of Mapai Transport is from Monokam, Tit Karato, Captain Mark Neah, Kenneth Korokali, Paul Kiap Kurai, Clement Tare and many others are all from the Ambum Valley.

“Most of the councillors whom I met in Wabag in 1963 have died. We did a lot of work for no personal gain. Young leaders must follow in our footsteps.

“The people must not take marijuana, alcohol, homebrew and not waste long hours around card games. They must be active, work hard and follow in our footsteps to bring change to our villages, districts and province.

“If young people want to live long, they must respect others, work hard at what they are good at with humbleness and humility. Pride must not come first in your lives. Even if you don’t belong in a church, just fear God and acknowledge that He is real.”

The veteran former councillor said people must see the examples of Jacob Luke and Cr Paul Kiap Kurai. They work day and night to set up multi-million kina entities but they both know that they won’t take any of the wealth with them. The two men fear God.

“With the money they make, Jacob Luke helps the Lutheran church in a big way and Paul Kiap Kurai helps the Catholic church. May God continue to bless them,” Alois said.

Alois Alapyala Yolape strongly believes his Christian faith has enabled him to live long and stay healthy for a long time.


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