A policeman remembers: The post-independence kiap system
21 April 2019
DAGUA – In recent times there have been a number of articles and commentaries about kiaps and the Papua New Guinea kiap system in PNG Attitude.
So I decided to ask my liklik papa Mathew about his opinion and observations of kiaps as he worked as a policeman in the early years after PNG gained independence from Australia.
In 1976, Mathew Wasel Sigimet of Urip village, East Sepik, joined the Royal PNG Constabulary (No 6717) and served as a constable until early 1984 when he left the service.
He was deployed to Konedobu, Port Moresby, as a new recruit from Bomana Police College in early January 1976 not long after PNG’s independence.
He then spent six years part of the Sector Patrol Unit, a policing concept trialled in Port Moresby as an independence gift from Australia.
In 1982, Mathew was transferred to the Southern Highlands and served as a constable in Tari until early 1984 when he left the constabulary.
He said the kiap system was still in place from 1975 to the mid-1980s. When he was transferred to Tari in 1983, the English kiap there was a Mr Ben Probert.
Probert was most likely in his sixties with a white crop of hair. He was very active and smart in his role as the namba wan kiap in Tari. His namba tu kiap was Vincent Atusa from Bogia in Madang Province.
Mathew said the namba wan kiap and namba tu kiap in Tari cooperated well together.
Since PNG was already independent, the namba wan kiap tended to delegate most of his duties and responsibilities to the namba tu kiap. It was like in-house training, preparing the namba tu kiap to take on the role of the namba wan kiap.
Mathew said the kiap system was very effective in government administration. He observed that the kiap was like a jack-of-all-trades: policeman, magistrate, treasurer and mediator. He said the kiap system was fail-proof unless there was bad weather.
Whenever there was a complaint, the policemen and namba tu kiap travelled together to attend to the problem or settle village disputes.
The incidence of crime at that time was very low, usually only two or three cases in a month – most involving toktok bilong stilim pik, toktok bilong meri and toktok bilong graun (pig theft, women and land).
The kiap would be the magistrate and organise a sitting at the Tari courthouse to hear the cases. Depending on the number of arrests, proceedings were heard quickly and this minimised any back-log of pending cases.
When a family quarrel or land dispute arose, the kiap would attend to these disputes and act as the mediator. Either the police or kiap’s vehicle, whichever was available, was used to attend to cases.
The kiap was also responsible for public servants’ pay for policemen, health workers, teachers and others serviced by the government station. The government pay-run came on a Talair government charter and payments were made at the namba wan kiap’s office.
In their work, the kiaps were ably assisted by local police, tanim tok (translators) and was kanu (boatmen or canoe-men). They made the work of the kiaps easy in enforcing the law, communicating with locals and moving by river or sea.
In 1983, Sub-inspector Dick Mune of Chimbu became the first policeman to be posted to Mendi in the Southern Highlands.
The kiaps were eventually moved from their role as policemen. The constables who once worked under the kiaps now found themselves in a new structure under the command of a police sub-inspector. After this change Tari police cases were brought to Mendi for court hearings.
By 1985, local sub-inspectors were posted to different districts, taking over the law and order functions once performed by the namba wan kiap and the namba tu kiap. This change also saw local magistrates hearing court cases instead of kiap magistrates.
After 1986, there were no Australian kiaps in Papua New Guinea and the local kiaps were absorbed into the provincial government system, some becoming district administrators or assistant administrators.
namba wan kiap – officer-in-charge
namba tu kiap – second-in-charge
Talair – Territory Airlines, an airline company that operated in PNG in the 1960s and 1970s
toktok bilong stilim pik – settling a dispute involving pig theft
toktok bilong meri – settling a dispute involving love affairs or relationships
toktok bilong graun – settling a dispute involving land
Note: The rank of Sub-inspector had since been decommissioned from the Royal PNG Constabulary
Dear Raymond and others. I have read this article with interest. I am a second year PhD student researching the collection of ethnographic material now in Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, UK.
I am researching Ben Probert as he (and his ex-wife) donated a collection of over 100 objects to the Museum in 1994 and 2008.
If anyone has any information about Ben and his time in PNG I would be glad to hear more. Email address: [email protected] Many thanks.
Posted by: Polly Bence | 22 May 2021 at 12:02 AM
Came to this a year late but I knew Ben when he was Assistant District Commissioner at Koroba 1977 and then variously through the years after he took over in Tari when I went back to Huli land.
Great guy, wit and kiap too. He was always very kind to me and responsible for choosing my field site. Wherever he was stationed he ran the best butchery in PNG.
Perhaps the best story was when Andrew Wabira was the local member and put in a toilet in a bush shed and then came to Ben to ask "How come my urine and excreta doesn't disappear like yours?"
Posted by: Laurence Goldman | 13 December 2020 at 04:54 PM
Thank you Phil for the second photograph with its interesting posers. I'll leave the analysis to you.
Posted by: Raymond Sigimet | 23 April 2019 at 10:05 PM
The bloke in the middle looks like he's looking for 'Divine Inspiration'. Perhaps they were lost, Phil?
Posted by: Paul Oates | 23 April 2019 at 11:35 AM
I think the Ialibu photograph was taken by Phillip Hazelton or someone he knew. Phillip posted it on the exkiap website as a kind of joke.
I've seen other photographs in the same vein. I remember one (or several) taken at Nomad River in which Craig McConaghy, Geoff Smith and someone else posed themselves with maps etc making out they were great explorers.
Not sure what the intent was but maybe a psychologist can explain.
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 23 April 2019 at 09:41 AM
Thank you Arthur for your tale and the other commenters for enlightening me as well as the readers.
Keith, thank you as well for publishing this narrative related from memory. It has now become clearer for everyone, with due respect and in memory of Mr Ben Probert and those who served with him in Tari.
Maybe a second edition would suit well this brief history. Mr Ben Probert and not Proberts and an Englishman kiap and not Australian (paragraph 6).
Thanks Ray. A photo has been added and corrections made to the original article - KJ
Posted by: Raymond Sigimet | 22 April 2019 at 08:24 PM
I was in Tari 84-85 when Ben Probert was OIC there. If you rang his office near 1600 a voice would answer with ‘Benny’s Woodyard!’ spoken in a delightful West of England twang.
If you didn’t recognise his voice you would think you had a wrong number and end the call I was not put off and would say, ‘Good afternoon Ben’ and we would then have a chat.
One day he badly injured himself and fellow expats wanted blood donors. I gave my blood-type to the guy doing the ring-around but was told mine and Ben’s was incompatible.
I asked “Why not get any local person to donate?” It was then that I learnt hepatitis was endemic in the valley and they were scared of making Ben’s condition worse.
One incident involving the police was when a local lad from the far side of the airstrip pickpocketed a bilum at the usual crowded market.
He ran like the proverbial bat chased by a couple of coppers around Huli traders and headed for the airstrip’s boundary fence.
Youth and agility on his side he cleared it in one stride like a Grand National winner and sped off across the runway to clear the fence on the other side.
Sadly the coppers were unable to repeat his jump and stood gasping for breath as the rascal stood taunting them with a two finger salute and what I guessed were some Huli swear words.
Like all places I worked in PNG I have some varying memories of each. The best side of a highland’s post was you had access to great veggies. Whereas the Gogodala was sacsac tasol! Yet with plentiful abus from glorious barramundi to crocodile and even deer.
Posted by: Arthur Williams | 22 April 2019 at 07:16 PM
Thank you Ross for the information.
Posted by: Raymond Sigimet | 21 April 2019 at 10:40 PM
Ben Probert was an Englishman who was a mature-age recruit in 1970 aged 40 years. He returned to England a number of years ago and died there in 2016 aged 86.
His obituary on the ex-kiap site stated he remained as a kiap for a number of years and then worked for mining companies until retiring.
Vincent Boama Atusa was appointed a Trainee Patrol Officer in February 1971 and spent his early years in the East Sepik District.
Posted by: Ross Wilkinson | 21 April 2019 at 03:06 PM
Phil, those who took over from the Australian administration after independence like Mathew, my father and others always express this nostalgia of the "taim bilong waitman".
They talk about the "taim bilong hamamas" then compare it to the present state of affairs in PNG, especially the breakdown in family and lack of respect from young people.
When they talk about their time working as public servants during the independence era, they praise the efficiency, work ethics and discipline they learned from the "waitman".
Concerning the kiap Proberts, Mathew gave the name Proberts but I initially suspected the name to be P. Roberts. Maybe, a reader can provide the correct information.
Posted by: Raymond Sigimet | 21 April 2019 at 02:54 PM
I remember seeing an article about Probert (Tom?) being the last white kiap in Tari - aged and with white hair
Posted by: Ray Weber | 21 April 2019 at 02:13 PM
An interesting article Ray.
It would be good to see more articles in the same vein with people like Mathew who were around in those early days. Not just policemen but other public servants too.
One question you should have asked Mathew was what he thought about the kiap system and whether it could have been continued on in the provinces.
I haven't heard of a kiap called Proberts but there were a few Roberts around in those days. Perhaps someone might remember who was there.
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 21 April 2019 at 10:59 AM
To try and beat the avalanche of indignity, the servicemen pictured are actually not all Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary.
Those pictured (L to R) are Constable Temba from Suwetine village in the Kua valley of the Hube Census Division, Pindiu area, a visiting Hube local of the then Pacific Islands Regiment, a visiting Hube local in the Corrective Services and Constable Paulus from the Madang area.
They were photographed at the official opening of the Mindik Base Camp located in the Kua valley of the then Pindiu Patrol Post area.
Mindik was eventually expanded into a small outpost with a school and other services.
Thanks Paul, the caption has now been corrected - KJ
Posted by: Paul Oates | 21 April 2019 at 09:37 AM