The lessons of childhood
Maxie koros long Jemma

Sir Iambakey Okuk lives on in Rome, or so the legend says


WE Papua New Guineans are sometimes a superstitious lot. Despite living in a technological age with the majority of us professing to be Christians, we still believe in spirits, sorcery and kastom beliefs.

Some of our traditional beliefs and superstitions actually identify us to specific ethnicities, tribes and clans. Our superstitious nature also creates a perfect environment for fantastical stories to evolve and be retold, over time becoming our legends and myths.

Our superstitious nature has also resulted in a few urban legends that continue to cause awe, inspiration and fear. They have been in existence for many years and pop up in people’s everyday conversation.

According to Wikipedia an urban legend is “a form of modern folklore consisting of fictional stories with macabre elements deeply rooted in local popular culture. These legends can be used for entertainment purposes, as well as for semi-serious explanations for random events such as disappearances and strange objects. Despite its name, an urban legend does not necessarily originate in an urban area.”

A few weeks back, travelling on a PMV bus along the Sepik Highway from Wewak to Maprik, passengers began discussing the legacies of past national leaders. It was interesting to listen to people expressing their views and showing they had not lost touch with our country’s short political history.

While discussing the late Simbu leader, Sir Iambakey Okuk, a passenger related that the great man, contrary to having died according to the government, is still very much alive but imprisoned in the Vatican in Rome.

I heard this legend about Okuk being alive on various occasions since I was in community school in the early 1990s.

The repetition of the tale got me thinking about this great national leader so I did some online reading to find out about Okuk’s life and his death and why he is very much still alive in some people’s consciousness.

Sir Iambakey Okuk, a former deputy prime minister and opposition leader, died of liver cancer in 1986. At the time of his death, he was a government minister and he was to be the first PNG national leader to be given a state funeral.

His body was flown to major towns for viewing before being buried in Kundiawa. Sorcery was suspected and riots erupted as people mourned his premature death. The sense of loss demonstrated has not been experienced in PNG since.

This urban legend about Okuk postulates that he did not die as claimed by the government but was kidnapped and taken out of PNG and imprisoned somewhere in the Vatican.

The main evidence adduced by proponents of this legend is that, during the state funeral until his burial, his body was protected by the police and the military and no one, not even his immediate family members, was allowed to view the body.

It is claimed the body in the coffin was a wax dummy of Okuk and not the man himself.

The legend claims that, as a leading highlands politician coupled with his outspokenness on issues and brilliance in political manoeuvring, his skills were noticed by a shady Vatican organisation and his death was faked after he was kidnapped to serve the Vatican in Rome.

People who believe in this legend will tell you that Okuk and other brightPapua New Guineans who have died, are locked up and guarded while serving their sinister masters and cannot return because these shady people have injected them with mind-changing chemicals, brainwashed them or changed their physical appearance rendering them unrecognisable to even close family members.

Even if they returned, they would not be recognised. They can still speak Tok Pisin or Tok Ples but everything else about them has changed.

Most often, they will stay for only a few days in hiding trying to make contacts with family members but they have to return to Rome because their masters will hunt them down and kill them.

What it is they are doing in Rome is not disclosed, only that, they are all working on something very secretive that concerns world governments.

Other urban legends that did their rounds while I was growing up include the tales of the botol meri, the organ thieves in unmarked tinted vehicles, female-cat-shape changers in boarding schools and others.

I think the urban legend of Sir Iambakey Okuk’s immortality will stay around for quite some time yet. 


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Michael Aglua

When some one influential dies at a younger age than his expected age of death, then legendary stories will begin to eventuate which is normal in Melanesia. The Simbus believe the similar thing happened when Kondom Agaundo died in a car accident at Daulo Pass after attending an official meeting in Goroka in August 28th 1966. They said that the Whitemen have taken Kondom away to Australia or somewhere else. They believed that during the last day Kondom resurrect, will carry the cross and come with Jesus down from the mountains of Guiye-Waiye. It is also interesting as Kondom Agaundo, Iambakey Okuk and Peter Waieng who are all political leaders of Kundiawa-Gembogl District of Simbu province died in the month of August. Kondom died in 1966 and Iambakey died in 1986. This is about 20 years in between which is a bit similar to coincidences between two great American Social Democrat Presidents; Abraham Lincoln and John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Michael Aglua UOG.

James Aniau

I learnt that the late Sir Iambackey Okuk was one of the PNG politicians with a very high IQ. He had great public speaking and debating skills.

Most people love him for his quick and wise decisions. I learnt that he made decisions on the purchase of Air Niugini and the construction of Okuk Highway.

There was a rumour that the public were prevented from touching his corpse which raised a belief that the real Iambakey Okuk must have been taken away as a political advisor by some Europeans.

Philip K Morre

Conspiracy theories continue and they are not from our cultural heritage but from neo-contemporary culture that originates from cultic dreamers and some religious fanatics. Some religions seem to have a persecution complex.

Vatican City is not a prison camp for where great leaders like Sir Iambakey Okuk are detained. Some cultic dreamers and fanatics need to see psychiatric doctors to psych-drill their brain so that they will come to their senses.

Palma Mondo

He is my uncle and I believe he is alive because I heard that story over and over in the village and my grandparents also told me about his legacy.

Sir lambakey is not dead because, when his body was brought to Simbu for the funeral, it was protected by the police and military and no one, not even immediate family members, was allowed to view the body.

If someone finds him, please post his picture so we can know.

Brian Pung

Great leader.....Sir Iambakey Okuk.

Philip Kai Morre

People needed to be educated scientifically to do away with the conspiracy theory that Iambakey Okuk is still alive in a Vatican prison.

Iambakey Okuk is dead and gone and people shouldn't make nonsense just to get attention.

Johnson Tololo

Was he prime minister of PNG for one day?

Hi Johnson. Iambakey Okuk served as deputy prime minister for a period and it is possible, in that capacity, he did sometimes act as prime minister - KJ

Steve Gallagher

Sir Iambakey Okuk was one of the nationalist politician of PNG during the of Cold War between communism and democracy.

US foreign policy during that time was to contain communism from spreading across the world. US uses all means to stop communism.

Sir Iambakey probably was a victim of the cold war if he at one time supported communist ideology.

This is just my conspiracy theory.

Just what we need, Steve. Another conspiracy theory! - KJ

Bernard Singu Yegiora

Grew up with this story. Some said he had seven brains that is why he was taken away..

Bomai D Witne

I think such myth is a legacy of first 'contact situations' and stories attributed to them.

The people have always interpreted events based on their own experience and world view.

The Simbu people have interpreted arrival of first European missionaries as return of their dead ancestors and the first plane as 'big bird'.

From 1930s when Simbus' 'first contact' experience began to until 1986 is 56 years. Over this period, not much has been done to improve education, communication and other developments that would expose Simbu to the outside world.

Therefore, many Simbus continue to interpret and create assumptions on events based on their limited knowledge and worldview. You story was common immediately after the death of Sir Iambakey Okuk.

Raymond Sigimet

Thank you Mathias, please do post if you find it.

Raymond Sigimet

Thank you Garry for your first person account of Sir Iambakey Okuk. I believe that if not for his sudden passing, he would have contributed a lot to PNG politics in his own ways. He was sometimes described as controversial as a leader by his peers.

Jack, thank you for your tale which borders on the theme of this written piece. Perhaps you could order the events and submit to PNG Attitude as a record of this urban tale.

I find these urban legends interesting as they are uniquely PNGan and when analysed, they can also be seen as conspiracy theories or such. I grew up with some of these modern folklores and I believe they must be recorded or studied as annals of our modern identity and literature.

I might submit another urban legend piece sometime later.

Thanks once again for your comments. I appreciate that.

Mathias Kin

Yes I have heard this story many times in Kundiawa. To make the matter more intriguing, some family members did not actually view the body of the late leader. It was only seen through the small head glass of the casket. I have something somewhere. I'll find it and post.

Jack Klomes

Thank you Raymond for that piece. It made me retrieve a story that was buried at the back of my mind about a "white person" married to a women from But Village along the West Coast of Wewak.

The story is that that person after living for some years in the village with his wife died and since everyone including his wife do not know whom to contact they decided to arrange the funeral themselves and bury the body in But Village. The body was brought to Boram Hospital morgue.

The next day the But Villagers went to pick up the body at the Morgue but to their surprise the Morgue attendant advised that the body was taken away during the night! This is how the episode about how the boy was taken from the morgue during the night unfolded.

A plane landed at the Boram airport between 10pm and 11pm in the night under the cover of darkness. (It was told that the plane did not stop in front of any hanger but taxied to the dark end of the airport.)

A famous Sepik politican (named) and his son escorted by a number of big burly men who were fully armed emerged from the plane and drove all the way to the morgue.

There they picked up the body and quietly left no one was informed of their arrival and no explanation was given and that was the end of the story.

I heard that story over and over in the village told by many different people, that story usually pops up when they start to discuss politics.

I was always fascinated with that story. Anyway thanks for that informative piece and, yep, I have heard those stories told around village fires. Listening to and old person telling such stories beside the fires is an experience in itself!

Garry Roche

I remember meeting Iambakey Okuk twice, once at a meeting in the YC at Rebiamul, Mt. Hagen, and another time at a smaller meeting in Kamunga village near Hagen.

What struck me on both occasions was that he was doing more listening than talking.

Before that I had had the impression that Iambakey was a very vocal politician, and he was. But in these meetings he was listening, listening, listening.

It showed me another side of Iambakey. Yes, there were riots at his funeral, in POM and also I believe in Kundiawa.

The coffin was brought to Hagen and the event there was quite peaceful, school children lined the streets and there was no trouble.

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