Horse race gambler turns millionaire

Weekender
PEOPLE
Paul Kurai with some of his workers.

DANIEL KUMBON
AN OBVIOUS sign of embarrassment and guilt appeared on Paul Kiap Kurai’s face as he recalled how in Mt Hagen 27 years ago he had been blindly betting on horse races and, over a three-year period, lost all his savings.
“They said I was a good gambler,” Paul said. “The one who bet on the right horse and always won.
“I thought they were telling me the truth and kept playing.”
Between 1993 and 1996 he led a wasteful life which nearly destroyed him and his family – including small children from his first and second wives.
Although he was unemployed, he did not notice his savings dwindle as he kept betting on horses with strange names which were racing at Eagle Farm in Brisbane and other racetracks in Australia.
At times, Paul won up to K1,000, but his bank account never saw much benefit. One day in 1996 he saw he had only K200 in the bank.
It was then he made a desperate decision that was to change his life forever. After it, he never looked back.
In 1993 he had suffered two simultaneous blows that probably triggered his habitual gambling. First, he left his job as a senior recruitment officer at the Porgera Joint Venture mine. Then his first wife of 10 years who bore him two children, left him when he married a second wife.
The first wife was a teacher and had been the one to provide food and financial security when Paul left his job.
Theirs had been a good relationship but there was a big problem that led to their painful separation.
Paul Kurai wanted more children but his first wife was content with two – a small girl and an adopted son.
It all began when they both visited a family planning clinic to seek advice on how to space their children. But a poorly trained health worker had giventhe wife wrong medicine which permanently damaged her reproductive system.
“It was painful but we separated. I wanted more children. I patiently waited for over 10 years but when no child came, I openly planned to marry a second wife. She didn’t like it and left me,” Paul explained.
He married Assumtha from Londol, also in the Ambum Valley. She bore him three boys and four girls who currently live in Australia, occasionally travelling home on vacations.
But in those years before he could send Assumtha and their children down south and go on to marry more wives and have more children like his father before him. Paul Kurai was on the verge of self-destruction.
With his lifetime savings evaporated and only K200 left, he became depressed. He found it hard to imagine how he would raise a growing family. Everything was dark and dangerous. He was on a collision course. It seemed there was no sun in the sky.
Paul firmly feels that if he had taken to drinking at that point, it would have destroyed him completely. But somehow, he remembered there was a heavenly father who loved him. And in 1996 he pleaded with God for divine mercy and direction.
“I prayed to God and asked him if he had created me to end up like this,” Paul said.
“I asked Him where I was leading my family to and beseeched Him for forgiveness, to show me my real purpose in life and guide me along the right path.”
Paul recalled that when he went to sleep that night, he had two pleasant dreams.
“I saw my father come to me,” he related. “I thought to myself, how come he was still here when he had died in 1980.
“My father told me he had prepared two supermarkets for me which were half full. I had to fill them to the rafters and look after them.”
When he awoke his mind felt light and free. It was like watching a mountain peak emerge through the fog in the early morning sunlight exposing a real splendour.
Immediately after that experience, Paul went to Wabag, almost aimlessly. At a street corner, he overheard some people discussing an advertisement about a building project that had been tendered by the Department of Enga administration works unit.
He rushed over to Keas, where the unit operated from, and boldly told the expatriate manager that he was a jack of all trades and could get the job done within the required time frame.
The manager told him to pay a K100 tender fee like everybody else. Paul rushed to the bank in town, withdrew half of the remaining balance of his account and paid the fee that same day.
That evening, Paul went home satisfied. He felt he had bet his money on the right horse this time.
His standing in the community as a councillor, his educational qualifications and previous work experience as a kiap and recruitment officer gave him the edge over competitors and he won the K9,000 contract.
He was required to build a small staff house and a clinic at Pipkungus Aid Post in Laiagam.
The department would supply all the building materials and Paul had to provide the labour. He didn’t have to possess trade skills; he just had to coordinate and manage the project, hire the carpenters and pay them.

Poor workmanship
It didn’t take long for him to find out that the carpenters he engaged were not properly trained. They had lied about their work experience. And he had exhausted his last remaining K100 to buy rice, tea and sugar for them.
Sensing that his contract was in jeopardy, he braced for the inevitable. Then, the foreman appeared at the building site unannounced and was so unhappy with the work he ordered the buildings pulled down.
The carpenters hadn’t correctly pegged and laid out the foundations.
“What type of work is this? Where are you illiterate carpenters from? Do you know how to build houses? This is an important hospital project. Pull it down now,” the irate foreman had shouted at the top of his voice.
Paul had to calm him down and defend his contract. In front of a gathering crowd of villagers, he walked up to the foreman, smiled and reached out to shake his hands, asking him to please speak in the Enga language and lower his voice a bit.
Paul told him he had recruited the wrong carpenters and pleaded for a second chance.
“The foreman was lenient,” Paul said. “He had pity on me and allowed me to continue the project. He showed my carpenters how to lay the foundation according to the plan – and taught them new skills too. Some have remained with me since.”
The foreman was James Tipitap from Aipus village near Wabag. He was an experienced tradesman and visited the site regularly and helped complete it within six weeks.
“If James reported us, my contract would have been terminated. I would not be where I am today. I owe it to him,” Paul said.
When the project was completed Paul received K9,000 and paid K3,000 to his underserving carpenters who could have cost him his contract and reputation.
He gave James Tiptap some money too to show his appreciation for understanding the situation Paul was in.
Unaware of James Tiptap’s involvement, the expatriate manager was impressed with Paul Kurai for having done a fine job in record time and offered him another contract to build a staff house at Yango Health Centre in Laiagam.
Paul picked up K12,000 after successfully completing this second project in 1997.
Coincidentally, project officers from the Porgera Joint Venture were impressed with Paul’s work. It seemed the expatriate manager from the works unit had recommended him to company officials.
Sensing the potential in the construction industry, Paul flew to Port Moresby and registered Neneo Construction with the Investment Promotion Authority.
Having worked for the Porgera Joint Venture he knew that the company followed strict procedures and would offer contracts only to properly registered companies.

Kurai’s first building – Pipkungus Aid Post in Laigam.

Neneo Construction
Now registered, Neneo Construction was offered contracts by the joint venture to build teachers’ houses and classrooms at Sari, Sakarip, Lakolam, Tumbilam, Talum, Yokonda, Kaipale and many other schools in Enga.
The new company expanded and Paul recruited more staff.
Unlike with the horseraces, Paul Kurai got lucky and won more contracts. His reputation for completing successful projects grew. It was the beginning of a stellar business career.
Then his wife, Assumtha, told him she had met James Tipitap, the foreman, at St Paul’s Catholic Church.
“My heart dropped when Assumtha told me James had lost a lot of weight and was in Mt Hagen hospital. I rushed over with some money. When James saw me he cried,” Paul said.
James said nobody was visiting him anymore, not even his relatives. Paul was the only person who had visited him in months. He had been abandoned.
Paul comforted him, gave him the money and he and his family kept visiting James until he eventually died.
Paul does not know where he would be today if James had terminated his first ever contract. He believes he owes his success to him.
One of the major contracts Paul Kurai secured during that period was with the Treasury Department.
They awarded Neneo Construction the contract to build district treasury buildings under the department’s District Treasury Roll-Out Programme in all five districts in Enga and other Highlands provinces.
This project alone brought in a lot of money beyond expectations. With Neneo Construction thriving to a successful business entity not only in Enga but the entire highlands region, Paul Kurai opted to venture into the civil construction industry – building roads and bridges.
From proceeds after eight years of non-stop growth Paul Kurai was able to register K-Star Construction, a subsidiary of the Neneo Group in 2004.
Paul Kiap Kurai was truly blessed and his business was expanding rapidly.

  • Daniel Kumbon is a freelance writer.

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