October 2023

Essays

Jo Leahy is laid to rest

By Bob Connolly
Ganiga warrior men performing the ritual dance of the dead at Jo Leahy’s haus krai

Ganiga warrior men performing the ritual dance of the dead at Jo Leahy’s haus krai. All photographs by Stephen Dupont

The filmmaker returns to PNG for the funeral of the mixed-heritage coffee plantation owner who was the subject of his 1980s acclaimed documentary

New Guinea’s highlanders know that when someone dies their spirit lingers among the living, insistent on proper respect being paid and still capable of doing good or evil. So the spirit must be appeased with public mourning, and on a scale that’s the measure of the departed.

Last August, at Kilima coffee plantation in the misty Nebilyer Valley, Jim Leahy buried his father, Johannes, known as “Jo”. The valley responded with a spectacular send-off, led by the 500-strong Ganiga tribe, Kilima’s original landowners and continuing neighbours. Overlooked by Jo’s dilapidated brick homestead, surrounded by straggly, clapped-out coffee trees, hundreds gathered every day for a week to mourn Jo, bestow lavish funerary gifts of cash and pigs, shed public tears, deliver laudatory speeches, and confess their sins of omission and commission.

Especially the sins, because as well as farewelling his spirit, Jo Leahy’s funeral became a week-long tribal mea culpa, a litany of apology, of what ifs and if onlys. Speaker after speaker spoke in this vein, ending with a plea to master-of-ceremonies Jim Leahy, Jo’s successor: don’t abandon us as we abandoned your father. Don’t walk away from Kilima.

Listening to these entreaties, Jim found no difficulty shedding tears with endless delegations marching up to him under the paga, the ceremonial pole carrying his father’s suit, white shirt, tie and framed photograph. A tough, likeable man in his mid 40s – some say he inherited his father’s good points and none of the bad – Jim grew up with the Ganiga, formed close ties with many, revelled in the good times and then witnessed the tragedy of Jo’s undoing.

The yellow coffin of Jo Leahy, followed by Leahy family members, is carried through Kilima plantation


The saga began in April 1933, when Australian prospectors Michael and Dan Leahy first penetrated the densely populated Wahgi Valley looking for gold, in what is now Papua New Guinea’s Western Highlands Province. They were not to know it, but the brothers were spearheading the final large-scale confrontation on Earth between one culture and the exploring representatives of another.

Finding payable gold near Mount Hagen, the Leahys settled down to mine it, surrounded by dozens of warlike tribes who were convinced the newcomers were spirits. Michael developed an interest in some of the young women bringing food to the camp. When shown photos of the Leahys 50 years later, the women said: “That’s Micky Leahy! We had sex together … and then we knew they were men, not spirits! Oh, they were men all right.”

After several years, Michael left the highlands and never acknowledged his mixed-race offspring, including Jo, whose young mother died when he was two. He was raised a highlander on the fringes of Dan’s mining camp, but had nothing to do with his white uncle. “I was terrified of the whites,” Jo would say. “I used to run away when they came.” But when the boy dressed for ceremonies the feathers fell out of his hair. Something was amiss.

When the Japanese invaded New Guinea during World War II, Dan, along with the kiaps (patrol officers) and missionaries, departed the Wahgi Valley. Returning in the late 1940s, Dan took responsibility for the feisty mixed-race teenager they nicknamed “Humbug”, and after a rudimentary education started him on the labour line at Korgua, his newly established coffee plantation in the nearby Nebilyer Valley.

Dan was a tough masta, whose outlook mirrored the era: “There’s nothing in their lives,” he would say, “that was better than what we brought them.” Jo soon learnt the measure of Dan’s regard for him: the extent Jo distanced himself from his tribal origins. Some psychic burden that turned out to be.

After years at Korgua, rising from “shitkicker” to foreman and gradually mastering the ins and outs of coffee growing, Jo began dreaming of running his own plantation. There were dozens by the ’50s, all owned by expatriate Australians, all surrounded by traditional landowners delighted to host these kundulya (white men) with their paying jobs and modern ways. Why not a mixed-race man?

Enter Tumul, Jo’s workmate at Korgua and a clan leader of the neighbouring Ganiga tribe. “You have no tribe of your own,” said Tumul. “Plant your coffee trees on our land – Kilima! Build your home there. We’ll live and work together.”

Jo Leahys sits with his son, Jim, at his Kilima plantation home, 2016

The process was straightforward enough. The Australian kiap established boundaries, bought the block from the traditional owners and leased it to the aspiring Jo for 99 years. Tumul put his “X” to documents he couldn’t read and told the kiap not to pay him too much because “Jo’s my man and I’m with him.”

The ex-shitkicker wept with happiness. Now he would be a planter; now he could marry Rhona, his mixed-race coastal sweetheart. He built a hut at Kilima and toured his 250 acres making plans: an access road, generator and machinery shed, wet factory for pulping coffee “cherry”, huts for the labourers, a seedling nursery. And overlooking everything, atop Kilima Hill, a big brick house for their future family.

And it all came to pass.


When Robin Anderson and I first met Jo in 1980 while filming our documentary First Contact, surging coffee prices had made him one of post-independence PNG’s richest men. A thriving plantation, Range Rover, manicured lawns, Rhona working in her modern kitchen, bedrooms for the kids – Patrick, Jim, Rosita and Diana – all absent at Brisbane boarding schools.

When he heard about us, Jo offered to help, and with him translating, historical recollections filled can after film can. “We thought the whites were the spirits of our returning dead,” said one source. “Later we dug up their toilet holes. How could they be spirits when their shit smelt like ours?” To us, priceless raw material, to Jo, familiar village gossip.

We left him out of First Contact, convinced he was worthy of a film on his own. After several visits to Kilima, the vast disparity in wealth between Jo and the Ganiga was all too obvious, and so was the friction between them. In 1985 we came back, built a hut on Kilima’s boundary and stayed there 18 months filming Jo Leahy’s Neighbours.


Jim Leahy grieving with family at Jo’s haus krai ceremony at Kilima plantation

On the fifth day of the funeral ceremony, 30 kilometres from Kilima in Mount Hagen, a coffin containing Jo Leahy’s body made its way by pick-up truck from the malodorous town morgue to Jim Leahy’s compound. It honked its arrival outside the fortress surrounded by high walls and razor wire.

In 1985 when we came back, Mount Hagen was a reasonably orderly place where police patrolled streets divided by flowerbeds and booked anyone walking on them. Now, from the morgue, Jo’s makeshift hearse had to negotiate rubbish strewn, cavernously potholed roads. The flower beds are long gone, and the police tend to stay in their barracks.

The compound’s duty gatekeeper waved the coffin through, to be greeted tearfully by Jo’s extended family, led by Jim and his sisters Rosita and Diana, who had flown in from Brisbane. Accompanying the hearse were four clan leaders of the Ganiga tribe, a syncretic pastor chanting prayers and flower-decked girls singing traditional laments.

When the weeping subsided, Jim stepped forward and formally addressed the Ganiga leaders: “I give you now my father, to be laid to rest out there on Ganiga land. He’s yours now.” The truck, escorted by LandCruisers carrying the mourners, then set off on the bouncy, 40-minute drive to Kilima, passing giant suspended photos of the deceased. Hundreds lined the potholed road to Kilima, throwing flowers.


After building our hut on Kilima’s boundary in 1985, Robin and I set to discovering what made the place tick, and were soon warning ourselves not to leap to simple conclusions. Fifty years after contact and 10 after PNG independence, the Ganiga remained subsistence farmers with no electricity, sewerage or running water, barely any government services and few children at school. In contrast, Kilima was an oasis of prosperity.

“He said we’d live and work the land together,” lamented Tumul to our camera, but the compact was doomed from the start. Tumul followed one set of rules, Jo another. Penniless, ambitious and tribally knowing, Jo acquired Tumul’s land, worked hard, earnt money and began lavishly spending it, while Tumul sat in his windowless dirt-floored hut waiting for his reward, waiting for Jo to behave as a Ganiga yil nuim (leader, literally “big man”) should. But priorities kept arising. Rosita wanted a piano. “Of course.” Tumul’s son wanted a truck. “What’s that to do with me? Earn your own money, buy your own truck.”

“I never promised anything,” Jo angrily declared when we questioned him about Tumul.

Black and white photo of filmmaker Bob Connolly and Ganiga clansman Joseph Madang during a lull in the fighting, 1990

“For 10 years he’s made millions from our land,” muttered Tumul’s militant fellow clansman Joseph Madang. “Now it’s our turn.” But at Kilima, Madang did not speak for everyone. True, all the white planters had gone by now, willingly or unwillingly seen off by angry men such as Madang. But to most Ganiga, Jo was different. He spoke their language, knew their tribal ways, and they’d come to rely on him.

Every day, visitors would wait by Jo’s door to ask for favours. Money to visit a sick relative, buy a coffin, help with bride price. Jo rarely gave with good grace, and it was hard to watch until you recalled his upbringing. “God helps those who help themselves,” Dan had drilled into him. What Dan valued and Jo emulated was courage and self-reliance. He presented a fistful of kina to elderly Maui, the last of the pre-contact Ganiga yil nuim, sitting stoically in his hut after being sent home from hospital to die of eye cancer. “What would we do, Jo,” said one of Maui’s sons, gratefully, “if you were not here to help us?”

This relationship was more complicated than we thought.


Negotiating Jo’s “access” road required low-range four-wheel drive, and the clan leaders had to hang on to his coffin. On one side were Kilima’s debilitated trees; on the other, rows of charred mossy stumps, bones of an adjoining plantation levelled by fighting axes 30 years ago and allowed to “go bush”. A bold experiment gone horribly wrong.

Kilima’s defunct shed came into view, littered with smashed machinery, doors swinging in the soft breeze. Off to the right was a flat open space once used to dry parchment coffee. Marching around it now were hundreds of slow-chanting Ganiga men and women, daubed in white mud, lamenting Jo’s passing. It’s a safe bet they were also lamenting “the bold experiment” that the hearse had just passed by.

Ganiga women performing the haus krai paga ceremony for the late Jo Leahy


Just as Jo’s death marked the end of an era, so too did Maui’s, 35 years earlier. At Maui’s funeral ceremony, Jo lionised Maui in his speech and distributed a thick wad of kina to the clan leaders, highlighting in fluent dialect the dead man’s wisdom, strength and leadership. And then something unexpected happened, something unparalleled: people began giving gifts back to Jo. “We’re breaking with custom,” he protested. But it went on: trussed chickens, bags of sugar, flour and rice – whatever each giver could afford.

“Kilima was just grassland when you got it,” said Pym, handing Jo 10 kina, “and look what you’ve done with it.” Craggy old Dubai offered a bunch of bananas. “I propose that Jo Leahy take Maui’s place as our premier yil nuim! If I take up arms again it will be for development.”

Angke, thank you” said Jo, deeply moved. “I am honoured. You Ganiga are respected in the Nebilyer, and when our Kaugum gets going you’ll all be rich as well!”

Kaugum?

From the very beginning, Jo the kundulya had considered Kilima his alone and its wealth his to spend. But in his bones Jo the yil nuim had gradually realised this situation to be unsustainably unfair. So, after much deliberation, he gathered the Ganiga leaders and put a proposition to them: a new plantation, jointly owned, to be called Kaugum. The tribe would contribute their land and Jo would develop and manage the venture. And guarantee the development loan. Kaugum’s future profits would be shared by Jo and the 500 Ganiga.

“Money and business is how you lift up your name now,” Jo told them. “Fighting and killing won’t do it anymore.” And when squabbles arose about shares and clan boundaries, Jo silenced them with glittering promises. “Kaugum’s for everyone! You’ll earn millions, travel the world, educate your kids, drink water from a tap.”

Mesmerised, the Ganiga agreed. Papers were signed and the bank loan secured. When we left, Kaugum was covered with neat rows of young trees. Coffee takes five years to produce a commercial crop. That was worth waiting for. We would come back in 1990 at harvest time.

What would the Ganiga do with their newfound wealth?


Jo Leahy found religion in his final years, and a Pentecostal church now stands by the path leading to his house. Hundreds of family, friends and VIPs followed Jim and the coffin inside, and after the pastor’s usual fire and brimstone, a succession of speakers took the floor. You need to make peace with Jo now, learn from these past mistakes, was the general line.

“Reflect on what you did!” shouted one. “Jo was your leader and you failed him. What have you done since? Nothing. Your Kaugum went bush and you never lifted a finger! Now’s your chance, working with Jim, to unite and prosper and build up the name of the Ganiga again.”

Jim seemed in two minds about that.

Black and white photo of Jo Leahy with coffee pickers at Kilima plantation, 1986


On the eve of the 1990 harvest season, with Kilima and Kaugum drooping with cherry, the Ganiga’s leading men – Popina, Gents, Tepra, Kewa and Dubai – gatheredon Jo’s sunny lawn to dine on pig and talk of the coming golden age. The only shadow for Jo was the absence of his family. Rhona had never cared for the unruly highlanders. She and the kids were based in Brisbane now, and had been for a year. This suited everyone but Jo and young Jim, who pined for the Nebilyer’s cool air, green hills and crystal streams.

Several weeks later came the first hammer blow. For obscure reasons the global price of coffee began falling and then plummeted, rendering Kilima and Kaugum uneconomic overnight. The coming harvest would barely cover costs, the pickers would have to work for minimal pay. Jo’s neck was on the line: he owed the bank $500,000 and his fate now rested in Ganiga hands. At a crowded meeting most of the men silently shuffled their feet. Why carry on with kundulya business if it can be wiped out by some malign distant force? Greatly daring (and typically ignored), the women spoke up: “You men are all talk. We do all the work in the food gardens anyway. We’ll pitch in, Jo.”

Angke,” said Jo, and he meant it.

At dawn on the first day of the harvest, Jo watched as a bare sufficiency of pickers spread through Kilima and Kaugum. At least the crops would come off and pay the bills. But one morning two weeks later came the second hammer blow. No one turned up. In the distance Jo saw rising smoke and heard fusillades of homemade shotgun blasts. The casus belli was soon known: several women from a tribe allied with the Ganiga had been raped by raskols from another tribe, and although the Ganiga were not involved, custom usually dictated they help. Usually but not always. Ignoring wiser heads and itching for their first taste of battle, hundreds of young Ganiga had joined a dawn raid on the enemy settlements.

“Why’d you attack them?” shouted Tepra, when the men returned after routing the enemy. “We thought we’d given up fighting!”

“It’s not our affair,” shouted Popina, “so why interfere? You can’t go burning peoples’ houses! Didn’t it occur to you they’d retaliate? Everyone has run away. Who’ll pick the coffee?”

The five Ganiga leaders – all decent, intelligent men – gathered again, on the verandah at the big house, facing Jo who was pale with impotent rage and frustration. Stony silence and then: “This wasn’t just for me. I have my land, you have yours. I wanted to help but now you’re in a tribal war and there’s no one to pick coffee!”

“We didn’t want to fight,” they chorused. “We spoke against it.”

“And were ignored,” rasped Jo. “What useless nobodies. Fuck the lot of you!”

Popina, Jo’s biggest supporter, trudged off shedding tears. As well he might: over the next several months, most of the harvest – hundreds of tonnes of cherry – turned black and rotted on the trees. The fighting eventually died down and a truce was declared, but men had died and villages were burnt. Revenge was in the air and the region remained a powder keg.

Funeral mourners at Jo’s haus krai ceremony at Kilima plantation

In August 1990, it exploded. When a Ganiga was shot dead and his alleged enemy attacker axed, thousands took to the field and the Ganiga were in the firing line. Modern rifles began appearing and killing began in earnest. In raid after raid, Kaugum’s coffee trees were razed, as were most of Kilima’s.

Everyone has a breaking point: Jo packed up and left.

“Kilima and Kaugum – they thought only kundulya could build these things,” Jo told us before flying out to Australia. Now after all my hard work I have to leave. Join Rhona and my kids in Australia. There’s a lot of clever people down there. I dunno if I’ll fit in but I’m forced to go. I wanted to pass Kilima down to my kids, but looks like I wasted my time.” He began to weep. “I feel sorry for my people I’m leaving behind. And all the hard work I done. But I’m the meat in the sandwich now, so what I do? No choice.”

Fuelled by modern weapons, the war continued sporadically for the best part of a decade. With no incoming revenue and the plantations considered unsaleable, the bank began selling off the rest of Jo’s assets in PNG, and did not stop until they’d sold them all.


A suburban house in Brisbane, with nothing to do? Jo was never going to last. Returning to Kilima a year later, he stayed until the day he died, mostly alone, scrabbling a living from his devastated plantation because no bank would touch him from then on. Schoolboy Jim took Jo’s going hard: “Let’s face it, Dad walked out on us. He chose Kilima over his wife and family and left us high and dry.”

The healing began when Jim grew up and moved to Mount Hagen. The two men became close. Jim made good money from various ventures over the years, and in 2020 a lot of it went into partially rehabilitating Kilima. “I did this for Dad,” he says. “I wanted to bring Kilima back to life before he died. This was my parting gift to him, and in 2020 it finally came to life again. Trees loaded with cherries.”

But the 2020 harvest happened to coincide with PNG’s national election campaign. Cashed-up candidates began doling out money to anyone promising to vote for them, so people went around promising their support to one candidate after another.

“Easier work than coffee-picking, so most of Kilima’s crop fell on the ground again,” Jim says. “No fights, no violence, just politics. I lost 650,000 kina [$278,000]. And when it was all over I had the Ganiga back asking for help.”

Still deflated by this blow, and seeing death coming, Jo said to his son and heir: “Kilima was my life. I chose it over wife and kids. Don’t make the same mistake I did, Jim. If you want to take Kilima on, it’s your choice. But know that I release you from here.”

“I’m broken, Bob,” Jim wrote to me just before Jo died. “I love the place so much, and so many of the people. But like I said to Dad, despite what they say, I don’t think they love us back.”

Jo Leahy’s yellow coffin is interred in front of his Kilima home


Evening is approaching on the fifth day of mourning, and the time has come for the final act. They’ve dug the grave just below the house, giving Jo’s hovering spirit a panoramic view out over the beautiful countryside. Young men shovel rich Kilima soil onto the yellow coffin as relatives and friends shed yet more tears, if they have any left. Surely his spirit will be satisfied by now? When the grave is smoothed over, the squadron of LandCruisers sets off back to Jim’s Mount Hagen fortress. Mud-daubed Ganiga women wave them goodbye.

On Kilima Hill, the house that Jo built 50 years ago stands empty, decrepit and silent. Keeping his spirit company, several birds sit on the elevated bowl of a rusting, long defunct satellite dish. In his salad days, Jo watched ABC News every night.

Across the valley, a shaft of fading sunlight glints on a small corrugated-iron roof sheltering the grave of Tumul, who brought Jo to Kilima and never forgot his “betrayal”. Tumul’s dying wish was to be buried in full view of the house, so that Jo could never forget him. I doubt Jo ever did.

Bob Connolly

Bob Connolly is a filmmaker and author. He spent a decade observing the Leahy family in the PNG highlands.

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