Mekamui realigns with Momis as B’ville referendum nears
A 'crazy' blueprint for a sustained literary project in PNG

Red-faced bullies who always shout? Not our cuddly kiaps

Forster - Census patrol  1970s
Census patrol, Pilitu section, Goilala district, 1974


NORTHUMBRIA, UK - During the period immediately before national independence in 1975, there was a popular view of kiaps among Papua New Guinea's extraordinarily vocal academic community.

To them, the kiaps (mainly expatriate bush administrators appointed by the Australian government) were red faced bullies who routinely shouted so hard they looked like they were about to mess their pants.

I think you’ll agree that this photograph, taken on a routine census patrol in the Pilitu section of the Goilala district in late 1974, contradicts such a jaundiced opinion.

The kiap is working with villagers to update their census records beginning with births, marriages and deaths and extending to other village information.

Conducting a census was a core administrative exercise because the information it gathered demonstrated more accurately than other data the depth of a community’s well being - including its general health, social stability and economic growth.

The picture also exemplifies the acute interest village people took in the exercise - especially those who were becoming literate.

They were keen to test their ability to decipher the information being added to perhaps decades of records that were already there in the Village Book.

The kiap, who looks as if he is struggling to categorise something he has just been told, is not bothered by the crowd of onlookers surrounding the table which serves as his desk.

He does not look like a bully - indeed he appears to have encouraged them to stand or sit as close to the centre of operations as it would have been possible to get.

This is how the relationship really worked, not as some vaudeville act of a sergeant-major types cussing and hounding an unenthusiastic and resentful people.

Robert Forster is author of 'The Northumbrian Kiap'. If you want to know more about the book click on this link


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Nigel wasn't a borderline bully Joe, he was a full-on bully.

Unfortunately he was one of quite a few exceptions to the rule. Laiagam was unlucky to have him there.

Joe Herman

I had mixed experiences with kiaps. When I was small, fear still lingered in my village. The adults told us to keep away from the kiaps. The dominating feeling was that the kiaps would either punish us or take us away.

The feelings were reinforced while watching the road between Laiagam and Kandep being built. Everyone was required to work on road constructions and other government projects.

The police rounded up those who did not show up and beat them up or thrown in jail. This fear drove my movements and always remained and watched from the peripheries of the center of activities.

As I got older, l lived at Laiagam station, about twelve miles from my village and witnessed some of the changes that were occurring. In particular I remember individual kiap’s interactions I remember.

First, I thought that the kiap, Mr Van Ruth at Laiagam, was a borderline bully. At times he would set his dog on us and we ran in all directions. He had the late Paul Lare and three medical orderlies thrown in jail for making loud noises while walking past his residence. They were heading home after drinking at the local tavern.

Mr Lare was a radio announcer who was based in Mt Hagen doing some recording with the school children. When Mr. Lare did not show up, we went looking for him the next morning and found out he had spent the night in jail.

Mail and freight for the expatriate community was flown in by airplanes operated by Territory Air Line. Driven by curiosity we watched from a distance these airplanes landing, unloading and taking off. The dirt airstrip and the post office became the communication centers for the expatriate community.

One day, in front of the office building located several yards from the airstrip, I heard Mrs. Van Ruth say, “arrest him”. At her command, several policemen grabbed a local driver and threw him in jail. She thought he was driving too fast in front of the office.

Second, several years later while in high school, Mr. Stewart Armstrong at Wapenamanda, introduced us rugby league, and was our coach. He was one of my best motivators. Eventually it set me on a trajectory that led to my playing school representative rugby both in PNG and Australia. The popular “Ipatas Cup” rugby league program in PNG, sprouted from the seeds planted by Mr. Armstrong.

Third, in the late 1970s, I needed a kiap’s signature on a government form. So, I went to Laiagam one Sunday afternoon and knocked on his door to obtain the kiap’s signature.

I had never seen him before. Looking rather irritated, he greeted me with “f…. bloody”, which seemed normal vocabulary because they all spoke like that. Yet he grudgingly signed the document for me.

Fourth, in the early 1980s, I got to know Mr. John Forrest(?) who was working with the Madang Provincial Government. I found him to be one the most professional and courteous persons.

At the time I was working in the private sector and Mr. Forrest helped me secure funding for a primary school, a clinic, and a vocational school in the Upper Ramu Valley.

He knew the system well so he pointed me in the appropriate direction if he could not assist directly.

Garry Roche

I have to admit that I was not very aware of much negative criticism of kiaps or of the kiap system. I guess my own opinion was very much based on the generally very positive experience I had of kiaps both in the Jimi Valley and in the Mt Hagen area.

In the Jimi, Jack Edwards, Ken Logan and Rod Cantlay dealt very fairly with the people as far as I could see. In the bush situation we all helped each other whenever we needed to.

In Hagen, while I did not personally know Mick Foley that well, he had a good reputation. Ross Allen once gave a talk to us missionaries and I was happily surprised at how positive he was about the people themselves. (Sometimes we missionaries could get too negative about the people).

I knew Bernie Mulcahy both when he was in Minj and later in Hagen. I met him years later when he was doing some work with Oilmin. If I remember correctly former kiap Ian Thompson also was involved with Oilmin.

At the same time I do remember that some of the kiaps I knew were critical of Tom Ellis and he was seen by some as trying to stop any movement towards independence.

Some of the Moresby based criticism of the kiaps may have come from similar circumstances.

I do think that before independence the Local Government Councils were very much grass-root based and were working very effectively. The councillors were seen to have integrity.

But later when Provincial Government was introduced, they somehow lost their effectiveness. If the Provincial Government system could somehow have continued to uphold the integrity of the LGCs things may have been different.

Politics and political development can be chaotic. I am tempted to ask Robert Forster was he thinks of Brexit!

Robert Forster

One of the consistent inputs shaping my efforts to construct a coherent understanding of my short time in a now extremely distant PNG was relentless academic vilification of the kiap system.

And I too think PNG’s newly post-independence governments created avoidable problems by dismantling a structure which effectively connected villagers with government and government with villagers.

Anyone who doubts this should consider the blanket and universally successful, pre-independence introduction of the new PNG flag.

Insight into the depth of this hostility began in 1971 with the Waigani playlet that was highlighted by Phil.

At the time I thought no big surprise because students will always challenge the establishment and have fun at its expense.

So I had still to discover that both they, and their Chief Minister, were being pounded by a battery of crusading Australian academics to purge pre-independence administrative structures from the national system.

Insight began in 1972 when I met one who immediately attracted attention because he was walking up the steps of Minj Sub-District Office as if they had been poisoned.

It continued a couple of years later in Moresby when the same man flounced from the hotel table we were sharing the moment he discovered my job.

Then there was the adviser from the Australian National University who I met elsewhere in Moresby sometime later and who verbally clawed me like a cat as soon as she too had identified my line of work.

Poetry challenging kiaps and the kiap concept flowed from the Waigani campus as well.

“Sorry brother, sorry more,
In this country you Kiaps were the boss before.
We ourselves are now prepared and straight.
We too impatient and cannot wait.
We people of this place here.
Wish that you would clear.
O sorry brother, sorry friend.
We are burdened with much pain.”

Robert Wilson

Wow, thanks for posting this extract Philip, a real eye opener and I suspect highly exaggerated!

As a didiman from 1972-79 and choosing to remain in private enterprise until 1986, I worked with, shared accommodation and business with kiaps during my 16 years.

Not once did I see or even hear of behaviour to the extent listed. My memory is of mostly harmonious, courteous interaction between the white gavman and villagers with perhaps at times a testy exchange but that was a two- way road.

I remember apologising for being wrong on more than one occasion. I never felt myself losing respect by admitting fault or being prepared to compromise.

Philip Fitzpatrick

A lot of Australian kiaps stayed on well into the 1980s. It seems that was about the time when lawlessness and other problems decided many of them to eventually leave. Some went into business in PNG but others returned to Australia.

I wonder if it's possible to put a date on the death of the kiap system or did it, as Ross suggests, die a death of many cuts.

Ross Wilkinson

I stayed on after Independence but at the end of 1981 decided to leave, even after being given an offer to sign on for a further three years.

During that time the kiap service as I knew it continued, albeit with subtle changes. The view that the kiap system ceased at Independence is not correct.

There were two points of view about our service, those of the radical minority at UPNG, as has been reported, and the silent rural majority and it was the former who caused change to occur.

However, this change was both gradual and slight so as to give the rural people the idea that it was business as usual.

Before my time the department had changed its name to alter the words “Native Affairs” to “District Administration. I was employed as a Cadet Patrol Officer but shortly after that title was changed to Assistant Patrol Officer which was the same title that junior national officers were called who were being trained as junior kiaps.

Soon, the Department of District Administration disappeared and was absorbed into the Department of the Administrator. But for us in the bush it was still business as usual.

However, in 1971, the powers-that-be began to separate us with the creation of the Office of Local Government and those of us who were Council Advisors were separated and removed from direct control by our ADCs.

Also, about the same time, a decision was made to remove our Police powers where a regular RPNGC officer operated and only allow us to exercise those powers outside the regular Police districts.

With the decision made at Canberra to move towards Independence, the interim step of self-government was proposed to occur on 1 December 1973. All government departments recognised that more national officers needed to be promoted into senior positions and set up Localisation Sections tasked with selecting suitable applicants for accelerated promotion.

Oh, and there was another name change for the department and we became responsible to the Chief Minister.

But, within these constraints, the kiap system continued and, with Independence, it was business as usual except for the impacts of the name changes and other minor operating procedures.

Districts became Provinces and Sub-districts became Districts. District Commissioners became Provincial Commissioners and Assistant District Commissioners became District Officers-in-Charge.

The Provinces then became “self-governing” under a Provincial Assembly that initially comprised the members of the former Provincial Regional Councils’ Assembly. It adopted a constitution and held elections. It appointed a Senior public servant known as the Provincial Secretary and became responsible for the employment of all public servants in the Province.

The former Provincial Commissioner became the senior public servant and became known as the Administrative Secretary. But the kiaps continued with the same role that they always had.

My last field posting was as District Officer-in-Charge of the Saidor District in the Madang Province in 1979. My last position was District Officer at the Provincial HQ in Madang and working as the Executive Officer for the Administrative Secretary.

On 31 December 1981 when my contract expired and I left PNG, the kiap system was alive and well. However, as I have not been back since and haven’t seen anything online about its role, structure and how it operates today, I can make no comment.

In relation to Robert’s quotation from the play in Port Moresby, I can recall being annoyed on one occasion when a village did not appear for its rostered turn to continue construction of Derim airstrip.

I sought out the councillor and told him in no uncertain terms that I expected his people to attend, which they duly did.

I don’t believe that I went red in the face and I certainly didn’t shit my pants!

Chris Overland

Duncan Kerr told himself a story about kiaps and colonial PNG generally in the 1960's in order to justify accelerating the granting of independence.

Supporting an award to kiaps would be inconsistent with that story, so he would feel compelled to oppose such an idea.

We are invested in a particular set of ideas about PNG that may or may not reflect reality and he is not different in that sense.

Paul Oates

While that maybe Keith and it in no excuses any disrespect shown to any invitee at an official luncheon, none the less, when I attended Parliament House with Chris Viner-Smith, Duncan Kerr was the only politician on either side of the House who directly spoke out against the Kiaps receiving any recognition. I'm not sure why, but perhaps this explains his perspective on Kiaps per se? Scott Morrison as you know, raised the matter and Jason Clare actually pushed the matter.

Our own collective PNG Attitude submission has also received no recognition from the Australian Government even though, through your good graces, it was assembled and co-ordinated with every good intention.

Paul Oates

Let's face it Phil, those in your so called UPNG camp were hopelessly out of touch with the conditions in rural PNG at the time. Duncan Kerr had never served in the PNG bush for example and yet believed he knew what the average PNG person wanted.

What academics in both Waigani and Canberra wanted was not what the people were telling us. We were just the meat in the sandwich.

That situation has persisted until this day. While our knowledge and perspectives are just intentionally allowed to atrophy, to even refer to them seems like an anathema as we have constantly found out, much to our chagrin.

Yet, while we still endure, the bond between our two nations is still there.

When I was PNGAA president 10 or so years back, I asked Duncan Kerr, by then Labor's federal parliamentary secretary responsible for Pacific affairs, to address the annual Christmas lunch to which an eminent guest speaker was customarily invited. He received an impolite, even hostile, reception, his speech heckled and frequently interrupted. Afterwards I was abused by some of those present for inviting him. I'm afraid this low calibre conduct by returned PNG expats was reciprocated in the attitude of many politicians and others to the worth of their views and attitudes on PNG. They were simply not taken seriously. I too had second thoughts, and not long after this incident resigned as president of what I saw at the time as a naive and rather sad organisation. I think it's worth contemplating whether those who had been in PNG often did not help their cause by presenting a less than professional and measured approach to successive Australian governments - KJ

Paul Oates

When I was in my 'formative years' although some may suggest they are still persisting, I often wondered why my father never talked about the war. I believe I now understand more as to why?

Unless you'd been there, you couldn't possibly understand what it was like. It just doesn't translate.

I think Chris has pinged one of the possible reasons why the PNG government has never moved to recognise the work Kiaps did in developing their nation.

Phil alluded to the gap in translation in his writings where the present day PNGian asks? "What was it like in the old days?"

What many don't understand is why we continue to even attempt to pass on our experiences? Is it a vain hope that someone, anyone really, will learn from them?

It must seem really puzzling to a present day PNGian given the credibility gap that has developed and is constantly expanding.

Philip Fitzpatrick

A very salient comment Chris.

I can appreciate the new PNG leaders looking for a different narrative but I still have trouble with the vindictive nature displayed by certain academics at UPNG and elsewhere.

Whether they were feeding into the new narrative or simply venting their spleen is still unclear, especially since it still goes on well after its usefulness has passed.

By 1975 there was also a fair core of PNG kiaps on the beat who were doing a good job. Fair enough to target the white colonial kiaps but why throw the baby out with the bathwater?

With the national kiaps there was a chance to modify a proven and effective system to suit the new nation. The UPNG push didn't help that option much.

This makes me think the new leaders saw the system as a threat to the personal power they hoped to achieve more than anything else.

Chris Overland

The kiaps that I worked with were a very eclectic bunch indeed. They came from diverse backgrounds and, to the best of my recollection, none of them engaged in shouting or bullying behaviour.

That said, it seems vanishingly improbable that there were not instances of red faced shouting and bullying. We all have not our finest hour from time to time.

I have previously written about the mythology of the kiap, which gave them a certain glamour, both in their own eyes and that of the broader population.

This mythology conferred a power and prestige upon them that allowed a few hundred widely dispersed men, with perilously few resources, to exert effective control over millions of people.

In the run up to independence, PNG's educated elite wanted and needed an alternative narrative to that which had grown up around kiaps.

For them, it was important to disempower kiaps, to reduce them to mere human dimensions, as a first step towards creating a new narrative that allowed them to assume power and authority in place of the kiaps.

I think that this was and is a pretty consistent theme in the transition from colonial rule to self government: the colonial regime must be delegitimised in some way to create space for a new regime to arise in its place.

So new mythologies are created that, for example, show the "founding fathers' as having virtues that they may not have actually possessed.

The USA is an exemplar of this in the way that it gives almost biblical status to the Declaration of Independence, while the French revolutionaries Declaration of the Rights of Man remains central to France's conception of itself as a nation.

I think that this is the context within which playlets were created that depicted kiaps as mere blustering bullies. The aim was not to depict objective reality but to create a new story that better suited the needs and ambitions of an emergent nation.

We humans live within an imaginary world of ideas as much as the real, natural world. We constantly tell ourselves stories about religion, economics, national identity, fashion, music, relationships between races and between men and women and so forth.

In so doing, we use the law, marketing, politics, traditions and social conventions to help create the virtual reality in which we prefer to live our lives.

So, it is totally unsurprising that some Papua New Guineans embarked upon the task of destroying the kiap legend and equally unsurprising that we old kiaps are bent upon keeping that legend alive.

After all, it was our reality for a time and most of us treasure it still.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Robert has previously discussed this issue on the exkiap website.

In one entry he refers to a 'playlet' that he saw in 1971 at UPNG. These were popular events that were staged at the outdoor amphitheatre at UPNG in those days and usually involved short one or two act plays, often with political overtones.

I vaguely recall attending or reading the play that he refers to in his entry and have been trying to track down its author but without success so far. I initially thought John Waiko might have written it but I can't find it in his records.

Here is an extract from Robert's entry. If you recognise the play and know who authored it please let me know.

A burly figure dominates the right side of the stage. He wears heavy boots, khaki shorts, a bush shirt and a slouch hat.

Standing next to him is a smaller, slighter man. He is a junior kiap – being shown how to conduct himself when speaking to village people.

On the left side of the stage is a group of villagers in lap-laps or shorts.

The kiap is haranguing the villagers. He says:

“You knew I was going to conduct a census today. I sent a message two days ago. But now I’m here only half of you have turned up. This is no bloody good.”

There are two layers to village reaction. An ameliorative spokesman responds on their behalf. At the same time village onlookers make audible comments among themselves.

The spokesman says:

“We are sorry kiap. Our problem is that we have already made an arrangement with the people from the next village to dig a new pipe track so we could bring fresh water closer to our homes.”

His fellow villagers react with visible approval.

The kiap responds loudly with:

“You people are always the same. You are disobedient. You are big-heads. When a kiap says he wants you here on a nominated day you should be here.”

Villagers react by saying.

“Look how red his face is.”
“Isn’t he noisy.”
“If he shouts any louder he will burst.”
“Look at the veins on his neck.”

The spokesman says:

“We are sorry kiap. We know the census is important but having fresh water close to our homes is important too. I have a suggestion.

"If someone is not here because they are digging the pipe track, or cooking food for the men who are working, I will tell you everything you need to know.”

His fellow villagers again react with visible approval.

The kiap turns to his assistant and says:

“These bush kanakas are all the same. No one is digging a pipe track. They are still sleeping in their homes. They are being lazy. I am going to show them who is boss.”

The village people react badly to “bush-kanakas”. Some are audibly shocked.

The kiap turns to face the villagers and shouting at the top of his voice says:

“No one is working on a pipe track. You are lying. They are being lazy and sleeping on their beds. I am fed up with your disobedience. You are ignorant. You are lazy. I am the government and if I say something you must do as you are told. I want the missing people here immediately. If you call out now they will come.”

Reactions from the villagers include:

“If he shouts any louder he will shit himself.”
“Yes, it is going to dribble down his leg.”
“He is the one who is being ignorant.”
“I wish these arrogant white people would clear off back to their homes.”
“You are right. They have been here too long.”
“Tell him to go. We want to run our country ourselves.”

Robert asked: "The big question is: Was the anti-kiap sentiment paraded by the students justified or was it a fabrication, encouraged by the same academics who were advising the Somare government, with not a single cliche left unturned?

"Another might be - Have I made it up?"

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)