The Kukukuku: Chips MacKellar

(Published Una Voce, March 1999, page 7)

Malcolm (Chips) MacKellar
1953-1955 CPO Daru and Lake Murray (Western District)
1955-1956 P.O. Mount Hagen (Western Highlands District)
1957 ASOPA Long Course
1958-1964 PO at Madang and Bogia: ADC at Saidor (Madang District)
1964-1968 ADC Esa’ala, Samarai and Trobriand Islands (Milne Bay District)
1969-1970 Queensland University – B.A. (Anthropology)
1971-1972 ADC Kaiapit and Menyamya (Morobe District)
1972-1974 Enga District, District Court Magistrate, Wabag
1974-1980 District Court Magistrate, Ela Beach Court House, Port Moresby

J K McCarthy in his Patrol into Yesterday stated that “the Kukukuku tribes had a deserved reputation as the most bloodthirsty and vicious in New Guinea.” And this description of them was still valid when I lived among the Kukukuku in the early 1970s. Sinclair in The Outside Man said the Kukukuku “roamed a vast domain of windswept mountains and open grass valleys from the Papuan Gulf to the Morobe gold fields, so totally dreaded by their neighbours, that the very appearance of a raiding party of the little men … was sufficient to panic entire districts.” And he was right.

In the centre of the heartland of Kukukuku country was the Government station of Menyamya. The station straddled the hub of a four spoked wheel, a crossroads for pedestrian traffic spilling out of each of four river valley systems which converged there, on the grassy river flats. It was the frontier of four traditionally hostile groups; a place of suspicion, where tempers flared, and people clashed in periodic outbursts of violence. And although not one Kukukuku ever attacked any of my patrols or ever raised a finger in anger against me, they treated each other with the utmost savagery and brutality.

The Kukukuku had the most amazing value system. For although life to them was cheap, property was sacred. For example, one brother might kill another over a simple dispute relating to which of them should go and fetch the firewood. Yet, at the same time that this dispute was in progress there would be stacked along the road beside their house, a heap of government shovels, picks, axes and other road making equipment which neither of them would ever dream of stealing. In fact, the Kukukuku often left their own personal items of value beside a road for safe keeping. The theory was that as it was a Government road, nobody would steal from the Government, so the safest place to leave anything of value was beside a road.

In fact, at one time, the lock on the Government store broke, and I never got around to replacing it for about six months. In the meantime, the door banged open and shut in the high winds of Menyamya, revealing all our prison rations and road tools and a hundred other items of value. The Kukukuku could have crept into the store one night and stolen the lot, yet nothing was ever taken. Finally I was goaded into fixing the lock because I thought the auditors might have taken a dim view of my unsecured assets.

But like charity, which begins at home, so does violence among the Kukukuku. A Kukukuku girl tempts fate, simply by getting married, and doubly tempts it if she becomes a co-wife. The probability of a Kukukuku girl passing through life without ever being stabbed, beaten or grievously injured, either by a co-wife, somebody else’s wife, or her own husband, is nil. There is no chivalry among the Kukukuku.

So if they did this to their own loved ones, in their own families, you can imagine how they treated strangers. Violence to the Kukukuku was part of life.

Menyamya was the only station I was ever on where the police were relatively ineffective outside the station boundaries. They were terrified of the Kukukuku, and for good reason. The Kukukuku tactics of surprise, ambush, and arson were easy for the Kukukuku to arrange, and almost impossible for the police to prevent.

Even when pursued, the Kukukuku could easily evade the police by bounding up and down the grassy slopes like mountain goats, and they could hide in their mountain grasslands simply by curling up inside their bark cloaks, like a turtle. In totally open country, with no trees around for miles, half a dozen Kukukuku could be huddled in their bark cloaks nearby, and you would never know.

Unless you were also a Kukukuku, that is, and I very soon learned how to administer law and order in the high grasslands of Menyamya. Working on the principle of setting a thief to catch a thief, I achieved some remarkable results. On one occasion the police in Lae were searching for a particular Kukukuku wanted for a brutal murder there. He fled back to Menyamya, thinking that in the remote wilderness which he called home, he would be safe from arrest.

And he would have been, if I had used traditional police methods to search for him, because he simply would have outsmarted us, and outmanoeuvred us.

So I called in one of the Tultuls and asked him did he know this man. Yes, said the Tultul, but nobody knows where he is. I opened the safe and put $20 on my desk.

“You can have that, if you bring him to me.” I said.

“OK,” he said, “We’ll go and kill him, and bring him back here tomorrow.” He said it without hesitation, believing that I was sending him out on a typical Kukukuku raid which, according to their custom, only had one intended consequence, and that was the death of the person sought.

“No,” I said, “If you bring him back dead, I won’t pay. You must bring him in alive, totally unharmed.” The Tultul looked at me as if I had gone insane.

“Alive?” he queried, “Why? It’s easier to bring him back dead.”

“I know it is,” I said patiently, “just take him prisoner.”

“Prisoner?” the Tultul asked, unable to believe his ears, ” We don’t take prisoners, Kiap. You know that. We kill our enemies.”

“I know that,” I said, trying to reason with his Kukukuku logic. “But he is not your enemy or my enemy. He is wanted by the police in Lae, and we need to deliver him there alive.”

“OK, Kiap,” the Tultul said, with total disbelief in the strange ways of the Government, “We’ll bring him in alive.”

And they did.

And he was not the only Kukukuku I paid to keep alive. During the national elections, we had to take photographs of our candidates, so that they would be easily recognised by the voters. I sent word for all the candidates to come to Menyamya to be photographed, and they all came, except one. And as the deadline drew near for the printing of the ballot papers with the photographs thereon, the Chief Electoral Officer was frantic. He called me twice a day from Moresby, asking for the photograph of the last candidate.

Knowing this candidate must have received my urgent messages, I could not understand why he did not come to Menyamya for his photograph. At the same time, I was curious at the continual presence of six Kukukuku warriors observing the station from the height of a grassy knoll, across the river, beside the road to Wau. I did not see any connection until one day two of the warriors visited my office. They were fierce looking little men, grass skirted, bark cloaked, each with a bone through his nose and a stone club in his belt.

“We thought we better tell you, Kiap,” one said, “you can stop waiting for that candidate, because he won’t be coming in.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because he stole my wife, and he knows I will kill him.” And in a few quick words he told me that they had been staking out the entrance to the station, waiting for the candidate to come. But the candidate you see, who was also a Kukukuku, knew that they were waiting for him. So, for as long as they laid in wait for him, I would not get my photograph.

It was pointless trying to tell a Kukukuku not to kill anyone, on the grounds that murder is wrong, sinful, or unlawful. The missionaries had been doing that for years, with no success. For the Kukukuku, murder was an ordinary consequence of their ordinary violent life. But they would listen to reason.

“I can see we both have a problem,” I told the warriors. “You want to kill him and I want to photograph him, and for as long as he knows you are waiting for him, he won’t be either photographed or killed.” They nodded in agreement. I tried my Kukukuku logic again by suggesting that we work together to solve this problem. But how can we solve it together they asked.

Simple, I said, if you go away long enough to let him come into the station, I will photograph him here, and you can kill him when he leaves. Good idea, they agreed, and they rejoined their comrades on the hill to convey this news.

Next day, the warriors were nowhere to be seen, and the frightened candidate scurried into Menyamya where I took his photograph, one day before the deadline.

The Chief Electoral Officer was relieved, and that drama was now over.

But of course I still had the other problem, of how to keep the candidate alive. The warriors were still out of sight but I knew they were lurking in the grass somewhere, just off the station, waiting for the candidate to leave. The candidate of course also knew that.

So I called him into my office and told him of the deal I had made with the warriors on the hill. He thanked me for helping him to have the photograph taken in time, then asked nervously how he could now leave the station alive. “We’ll make another deal with them,” I said.

I mounted my horse and rode off the station along the road to Wau. I stopped near the grassy knoll and waited…and waited…and waited. After I had been there about an hour, three Kukukuku heads popped up out of the grass nearby. “Well, Kiap,” one said, “we heard you have taken the photograph. When will he be leaving the station?”

“I have another problem,” I told them. “If you kill the candidate, it will annul the election in this electorate, and we will be forced to have a by-election for Menyamya after the main election has been finalised. Can we make some arrangement to let him live, at least until after the election?” They talked about this for a while in their own language, then suddenly, the aggrieved husband said, “Six dollars.”

“Six dollars?” I confirmed, “to let him live until after the election?” And they nodded in agreement.

Don’t laugh, because it was not funny. It was deadly serious. Remember that for the Kukukuku, life is cheap. So if they don’t care about killing people, it is just as cheap for the Kukukuku to save a life as it is to take one.

I happened to have some money in my pocket at the time, and I counted out six dollars. Still astride my horse, I passed it over to the nearest warrior. Then it was their turn to have a problem. “We don’t want you to pay, Kiap,” they said, “we want him to pay.”

“He will pay me,” I said, “before he leaves the station.” And he did.

And I watched from my office window, as he took the longest half mile walk in his life, as he passed the grassy knoll where he knew that they were lurking. It was all part of their cunning strategy you see. He knew it would have been easy for them to kill him, and for him it would then have all been over quickly. But to let him live, was to let him suffer, for he would never know when that swift blow from the stone club would come. And for them, it was the best six dollars they ever had.

They let him live, long after the election, and years later in Port Moresby he thanked me for saving his life with six dollars. But even then, he was not to know in the windswept grasslands of Menyamya where his life was just as cheap as anyone else’s, when death would come swiftly from a single blow of a Kukukuku stone club.

A Kukukuku stone club is one of my most cherished possessions, a souvenir of how cheap life there really was. I was sitting at my desk at Menyamya one day, looking out the window towards the Papuan border, when two Kukukuku warriors approached each other on the footpath outside my office. They were in traditional dress – bark cloak, grass skirt, and stone club. And as they passed each other on the footpath, one said something to the other, then, as quick as a flash, whipped out his stone club from his belt and smashed the other’s skull like an eggshell.

As the dead man dropped to the footpath, police on duty at the office rushed at the assailant and arrested him. Moments later, they brought him into my office, together with the blood stained club.

With two Chimbu policemen towering above him, one on either side, each holding him by one arm, this fierce little man stared defiantly at me. No doubt he was taking comfort from the certain fact that if this incident had occurred off the station, no number of policemen ever would have caught him. For out there in his mountain domain he would have bounded up the slopes like a mountain goat, never to be seen again. But here, on the station, isolated from the protection of his windswept grasslands, he was powerless before the law. Powerless, but unafraid.

As there were so many witnesses to this incident, I did not bother to caution him. Instead, I only sought a reason.

“We all saw that,” I said to the Kukukuku warrior, “why did you do it?”

“Well, Kiap,” he said in Pidgin, in words to this effect “I don’t really know him, but I said hello to him as he passed. When he didn’t reply, I thought maybe he did not hear me, or maybe he did hear me but did not reply because he might belong to a clan which is a traditional enemy of mine. If that had been the case, he might have tried to kill me. So I killed him first.”

“You mean you didn’t know if he really would have killed you?” I asked.

“I didn’t know,” he said, “but I couldn’t take the risk. So I killed him before he could have killed me.”

You see, it was not a case of kill or be killed, it was a case of kill lest you might be killed. It was the Kukukuku basic philosophy of survival, and I had just witnessed life at the edge, Kukukuku style.

“You’ll go to jail for this,” I told him gently.

“I will,” he agreed, “but I will live, and he has died, and it could have been the other way around.”

And it could have been. But neither he, nor you and I will ever know, and for a Kukukuku, it doesn’t matter anyway.

But in the land where life was cheap, property was sacred. That stone club of course became a court exhibit, and after the court was over, I wanted to keep it as a souvenir, but I did not want that Kukukuku to think that I had stolen his club. So the day before he was due to be taken to the Corrective Institution at Lae to serve out his sentence, I called him into my office and showed him the club.

“This is your club,” I said to him, “and I should give it back to you when your sentence is finished. But I will be leaving Menyamya soon, on transfer to Wabag, and I won’t be here when you come back. In any case,” I added, “I would like to take your club with me, as a souvenir of Menyamya. If I can buy it, I will leave the money here in a bank account for you when you return. Will you sell it to me?”

“No,” he said, and momentarily I was disappointed, until he continued, “I will give it to you, Kiap.” And then he added, “you might need it some day.”

And he was right, because it was that club which inspired this story.

And that club hangs on the wall beside me as I type this page, a lasting memory of the Kukukuku, and the windswept grasslands where they lived; where living was harsh, and life was cheap, in some of the most magnificent mountain scenery in the world.



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