ROBERT FORSTER | CHRIS OVERLAND | Ex-Kiap Website
ROBERT FORSTER - The informal group photo of our ASOPA intake at Four Mile Camp in Port Moresby resurfaced about six months ago to illustrate a PNG Attitude article entitled ‘Kiaps: Ol narapela kain man who built a nation’.
We really were a scruffy lot. I have since wondered what the institutionally trained, corporate human resources specialists who police most of today's company recruitment would have made of those trainee kiaps.
There would hardly have been a straightforward CV amongst us. I estimate our age range at 19 to 41, I think 11 of the intake of 39 were married; seven born in the UK, one in Canada and two were Vietnam veterans. Perhaps half had secured a tertiary qualification.
The article described kiaps in general, not us in particular, as “an odd mixture” whose primary capacity was expected to be an ability to “experiment, improvise and innovate” within a testing working environment.
However despite being tagged “strange, effective and rare” it is now thought many of the younger kiaps who had to launch a second career found it difficult to find immediate mainstream employment when they began to return from Papua New Guinea after 1975.
It is said that personnel officers regularly rejected them without interview on the grounds they really were misfits and it was difficult, even impossible, to categorise them. Other objections centred on them being unlikely to “fit in” and more likely than other applicants to have “restless feet”.
I was among those who faced these problems and in my case it took the best part of four years before they were overcome.
So I would not be surprised if a high proportion of younger ex-kiaps began their post-PNG careers either as self-employed businessmen or were forced to tough it out on the margins of career-based corporate employment.
I also wonder, now that most of us have retired and take pensions, how many were able to pursue strong careers or become successful businessmen in their own right.
And then, for my own amusement, I try to imagine the reaction of a selection of the modern HR specialist or recruiters who finds themselves faced with applications from people who in their recent working past had been as hairy, scruffy and individualistic as the motley crew in our photo.
I suspect they would not have been impressed - to which I think most of us would have responded by saying "your loss mate" before moving on.
CHRIS OVERLAND - I take up the point made by Robert Forster about how kiaps were seen as “an odd mixture” and described as “strange, effective and rare”. These comments, together with those about how difficult it was for some of us to find suitable employment after leaving PNG, resonate very strongly with me.
I have previously written (in PNG Attitude) about the organisational culture that prevailed within the Department of Native Affairs and, later, the Department of District Administration.
I suggested it was a culture that valued intelligence, a sense of adventure, physical and psychological resilience, stoicism and courage (or at least no tendency to panic) in the face of adversity, and a strong orientation towards doing whatever it took to get a job done.
Many of the “hero” kiaps of the past - such as Jack Hides, Ivan Karius, Jim Taylor, J K McCarthy and many others - embodied these characteristics to one degree or another. I argued that, as a consequence, there was pressure upon new recruits to uphold the standards of the past and demonstrate they were what Bob Bell succinctly described as “the right type”.
As a very young man entering the kiap service in 1969, I do not think that I properly understood just how odd a bunch we actually were. I would hesitate to say that the men I met during orientation training at Kwikila were misfits but, with the benefit of hindsight, we were a pretty eclectic bunch.
There was, so far as I can recall, no recognisable common trait except possibly a vaguely expressed sense of adventure and, perhaps, a slightly absurdist sense of humour.
There also did not seem to be any rhyme or reason in who would ultimately prove able to adapt to the demands of a kiap’s life.
My first posting was to the Gulf District which, by common agreement, was regarded amongst my intake as the worst possible place to be assigned except, possibly, the Western District. All those swamps, crocodiles, mosquitoes and mud, glorious mud, were regarded with undisguised horror.
The highlands were the place to be as far as my intake was concerned and that is where they almost all wanted to go. The Trobriand Islands in Milne Bay ran a hot second, for reasons that were as obvious as they were erroneous.
I was accompanied to Kerema by another young man who, by chance, happened to be from my home state of South Australia. He was, like me, only 18 years old, and straight off the farm. He was posted to Malalaua whilst I initially remained in Kerema.
By the time I returned from my first short patrol some six weeks later he had already fled south, a victim of “culture shock”. This was, I discovered, not unusual: it really took a certain type of personality to cope with the demands of the job and, I think, the sheer strangeness of life on an outstation.
Anyway, fast forward five years and I am in a plane flying out of Popondetta, going finish. I had no idea what I was going to do with myself when I got back home. I was leaving because I knew there was no future for kiaps in PNG, not because there was something better I wanted to do. I would surmise that many other ex-kiaps were in the same boat.
In fact, in a very real sense, I never got home. The place I had grown up held no attraction or interest for me and my family had moved elsewhere. I felt oddly disoriented and detached back in Australia and really struggled to find any connection with the place.
My school friends had moved on with their lives and were busy pursuing study or careers. They could not relate in any way to my experiences in PNG and were, frankly, after some initial curiosity, indifferent to them. I understood this but it tended to isolate me: it was as if five years of my life was rendered meaningless.
Getting a job proved to be a problem because I did not fit any known set of employment criteria. Sure I could read, write and add up, but my work experience simply had no parallels in an Australian workforce.
In desperation, I applied for a short term commission in the RAAF, where my paramilitary type background would make some sense. I also sought entry to university as a mature age student (at 25) as well as a job in the South Australian public service as bursar of a high school at Whyalla, 350 kilometres north of Adelaide.
To my amazement and disbelief, and after being unemployed for six months, all on the same day I was offered a commission, entry to university and a public service job. I ended up knocking back the commission, deferring entry to university and taking the public service job.
I only got this because I was willing to live and work in Whyalla which, in SA public service terms, was the equivalent of the Gulf District (only worse).
I will not dwell upon the details but suffice to say I was very good at the job I was asked to do and soon allocated many more responsibilities than had originally been envisaged. While my relations with the people I worked with were usually excellent, I soon ran into trouble with the bureaucrats in the department’s central office.
The essence of the problems was that I was strongly oriented towards getting the job done as quickly and efficiently as possible using whatever means necessary, while they were strongly oriented towards following “due process”.
Unlike in PNG, where a radio conversation with the DC or ADC was enough to initiate a patrol or some other action, there was an exceedingly lengthy, slow and paper driven process for decision making.
Opportunities for taking independent action were negligible: what mattered was following due process and that meant writing a succession of memos and minutes that followed a majestic route up and down the “chain of command”.
Patience is not my middle name, so I rapidly developed enhanced kiap-type skills at variously short circuiting, subverting or simply ignoring what I regarded as cumbersome and unnecessary processes and rules. I did whatever it took to get the job done.
My immediate colleagues and bosses absolutely loved this but various shiny bums in the central office regarded me with undisguised loathing. For this reason the powers that be decided not to confirm my permanency after six months service owing to what they deemed to be my “poor interpersonal skills”.
My immediate reaction was to say “fuck you” and resign so that I could take up my place at university. My then boss, who went on to become the Director-General for Further Education, persuaded me to keep my head down for three months while he sorted things out. So I sat fuming for that period but behaving nicely, while he did as he said he would and convinced the Director-General to ignore other advice and make me permanent.
As soon as my permanency was confirmed, his first instruction was to resume my previous activities.
So, despite initially being a very poor fit within the SA public sector bureaucracy and very frequently, the odd man out, I was able to go on and have a very successful career, retiring as chief executive of a major metropolitan hospital.
I learned to play the game better than most and achieved zen mastery of the dark arts of bureaucracy. Yet, despite this, I never felt as though I truly belonged: I always felt slightly out of place and out of time. This feeling has, if anything, grown more pronounced as I have got older.
I suppose that such feelings are not unique to me or to ex-kiaps generally. War veterans are one obvious group who sometimes really struggle with reconciling their war time experience as soldiers, sailors or airmen with those of their post military lives.
This may also be the case for others like doctors, nurses, commercial pilots and so forth, whose work life experiences are quite unlike those of most people.
However, my suspicion is that the collective description of kiaps as “strange, effective and rare” is probably pretty accurate. Of course, I could be deluding myself, seeking to find specialness in myself that is, in fact, not really there.
Maybe it would be more accurate to say that ex-kiaps are mostly ordinary people who had the good fortune to be able to see and do extraordinary things.
Whatever, my time in PNG left its indelible mark upon me and, I believe, upon anyone else who did the job for any length of time.
I am very grateful for having had the chance to work as a kiap in PNG and count myself amazingly fortunate to have done so during the dying light of European colonialism.
We collectively made history and that is no small thing.