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Something in the blood – the enduring magic of PNG

Something in the BloodCHRIS OVERLAND

LIKE virtually all ex-kiaps I have met or whose writings I have read, neither time nor distance have diminished my fascination with Papua New Guinea.

Even taking into account the inevitable older man's nostalgia for his lost youth, and the associated tendency to re-imagine the past to edit out less appealing memories and replace them with something more acceptable, PNG exerts an unrelenting and unexpectedly strong grip upon me.

The five years spent in PNG remain the undoubted highlight of my life, excluding only the joys and, sometimes, tribulations of marriage, children and grand-children.

The memories of my time as a kiap remain, so it seems, as fresh and vivid as the day they were formed.

Somehow, miraculously, I have never lost the sense of wonder and sheer delight that I experienced so often in a country whose places, peoples and cultures were as profoundly different from those of my early life experiences as it was possible to be.

From the moment I set foot in PNG, despite experiencing what expatriates learned to call "culture shock", I was completely infatuated with the place.

An initial posting to the Gulf District, with its serpentine waterways, suffocating humidity and relentless rain, did absolutely nothing to dampen my enthusiasm.

I cannot tell you what a joy it was, after a hard year-long apprenticeship, to have become a sufficiently accomplished boatman and canoeist, to confidently navigate the maze of mangroves, rivers and rivulets that separated Baimuru Patrol Post and Kikori Sub District Office or to unerringly find my way to a distant village.

In a similar way, I learned to love patrolling in the mountains. It was always a special joy to rise at dawn and, with steaming mug of tea in hand, watch the sun rise.

I also experienced the pleasures of coastal patrolling, where the main task in transit between villages was to catch enough fish for dinner, not just for the patrol personnel but, ideally, for the villagers as well.

Of course, there were less agreeable things to do, like slogging up and down seemingly endless muddy, mountainous jungle tracks for days on end, enduring a bout of malaria (or, worse still, dysentery) or undertaking the once experienced, never forgotten exhumation of a month-old body.

Also, it was frustrating at times when it seemed impossible to adequately convey to the people the huge potential for their country to be something more than just a place for hunting and gardening.

But somehow memories of the beauty of the landscape, the marvellous flora and fauna, the frequent kindness and good humour of the people and the enduring sense of achievement in doing a hard job well completely dominate my thoughts about PNG.

These days people pay big money for even a facsimile of the experiences that were gifted to me and any kiap, even if we sometimes didn't necessarily fully appreciate them at the time.

Many years after I left PNG, I read a book by Trevor Shearston, Something in the Blood, which is a series of short stories about life in pre-independence PNG.  It made me both laugh and cry, conjuring up memories that I think had, in some cases, been suppressed.

In particular, it struck me that my experiences and memories of PNG had indeed become "something in the blood", which I am incapable of removing even if I wanted to do so.

It seems to me that, in some respects, ex-kiaps are somewhat like war veterans; a "band of brothers", bound together by shared experiences, both good and bad, that are virtually unknowable and unexplainable to anyone else.

This helps explain why so many of us are drawn to participate in regular reunions or read and contribute to the Ex-Kiaps website or PNG Attitude and why we take a quiet pride in the medals lately awarded to us for services rendered.

We all cling onto our memories, neither able nor willing to let go of them, even if the taim bilong masta has long since (and rightly) passed into the shadowy realms of history.

I know that I was a very minor player in the grand narrative that is the history of kiaps in PNG. My achievements were exceedingly modest compared to the men who preceded me and I certainly learned more from Papua New Guineans than they ever learned from me.

Despite knowing this, I hold very dear the memories of my time in PNG and am deeply grateful that I had the chance to play any part at all in the creation of what is, for all its problems, a vibrant nation, still full of promise for a wonderful future.


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Martina Apps

Very interesting to read. There are certain things we did and experiences in life that linger in our hearts and thoughts which we are proud of and cherish for a very long time.

You and all those Kiaps played a very, very important role in the development of our country.

Those of us who were born before Self Government do have those memories as well, the impact of your courage, selfless determination to do what you did, that is; developing our nation, stabilised law and order in the remotest parts of places, villages and provinces, those were the days that we will always remember and cherish in life as well.

Those are the days that I personally experience in my own country what true freedom was like. I can ware mini skirt or dress and walk down the street and not being sexually abuse or raped by my own fellow countryman.

There is a huge gap between the "Kiap era" and 40 Years of Independence. Thank you. I salute you and all those Kiaps.

Rashmii Amoah

A splendid and heart-warming piece, Chris. I admire your long-standing affection, appreciation and positive outlook for the future of PNG. Thank you.

Kevin O'Regan

Chris, well written and so great to see and hear of others' experiences. I was a late arrival in 1984. Fresh from NZ without a word of Pidgin or Motu in me....what a learning curve to adapt.

I come from a big family of 6 brothers and 1 sista and when reminiscing I are often asked "what is the best thing you did with your life"? Apart from marriage and birth of two wonderful children (now adults) it has to be coming to PNG.

I have experienced it all and though at times a rocky ride... oh boy what a ride. I do not regret one single day and in my own humble way feel I have contributed something. Wonderful country, wonderful people.

Philip G Kaupa

Chris you and your brothers are true soldiers who bridged your civilization with ours....How could we easily forget such noble saints? And surely you can't get away from these cultural Shocks...

Dave Ekins

Well written, Chris. You have captured the essence of the emotions and experiences of most of us.

Ed Brumby

A beautiful piece, Chris - you've captured what so many of us feel and remember about our time in PNG.

I especially like your 'Band of Brothers' analogy - a sentiment shared recently when we held the 50th anniversary of our ASOPA graduation.

The bonds of shared experience and the notion that we contributed in some small ways to the 'creation of ... a vibrant nation' have, for me, forged lifelong friendships and provided some meaning for our lives.

I also still regard 'Something in the Blood' to be the best representation of that experience: Trevor Shearston managed, eloquently, to not only retell some of the more outrageous and ridiculous tales that coloured expatriate life in PNG, he also managed to get 'beneath our skins' and delve into the various ethical and moral challenges that we had to confront from time to time.

Daniel Ipan Kumbon

Chris, I was fortunate to meet Bob, the son of Sir Donald Cleland who was Administrator of PNG for many years. I met him in Kundiawa over the Independence weekend during the Crocodile Prize presentations and launching of some of our books.

My book 'Remember Me' is a collection of short stories from Enga Province. The tittle of one of the short stories is coincidentally 'Something in the Blood'.

I never came across Trevor's book but, yes, there is something about PNG that is in the blood.

I exchanged my book with Bob's 'Big Road' published in 2010 which he signed for me. Kiaps played a big part in PNG's development. You guys won't pass easily into the shadowy realms of history that easily.

So long as my children read Bob's book the memories and legacies of the kiaps will remain in PNG for sometime. Thank you.

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