PORT MORESBY - I can still remember Independence Day on 16 September 1975 as if it had happened yesterday.
I had been transferred from Mount Hagen to the high and chilly patrol post at Tambul. The local kiap was from Finschhafen and he felt the cold like me but Temi and my children seemed to enjoy it.
Roland was about five years old by then and our new daughter, Dinah, was about 18 months old. To all intents and purposes they were little highlanders.
I had been promoted to corporal by then and I helped the young kiap organise the festivities. The relationship between the police and the kiaps had been undergoing change since before independence but on a small station like Tambul it seemed to have become more noticeable.
I was quite a bit older than the young kiap and he was still finding his feet when he was promoted and sent to run the station. While we tried to maintain our separate functions I think he secretly saw me as an older mentor figure.
I had plenty of experiencing mentoring young police officers but I had never been in the position of mentoring someone who was ostensibly my boss. It was an interesting irony but thankfully worked out well because the kiap was a sensible young man without any hint of ego.
The first thing we did was hold a flag-changing ceremony followed by speeches by local leaders, some of which were quite confusing, and a singsing on the airstrip. This was followed by the lighting of an Independence Day bonfire in the evening.
It was all a bit confusing for the local people because we had been flying the new Papua New Guinean flag with its distinctive bird of paradise symbol for some time already.
However, on that day we did as we had been instructed by headquarters and briefly replaced it with the Australian flag before lowering it and running the new flag back up again.
In places all over Papua New Guinea people had set up huge bonfires and we had done the same thing. What the people made of the bonfires I’m not sure but I later heard a rumour that many people thought they represented the coming of the prophet that the missionaries had told them all about rather than our independence.
Independence definitely confused many people. I heard that some people thought that it would mean they could move into the houses left by the departing expatriates and drive their cars.
Others of a more pragmatic bent were considering setting up businesses in anticipation of the exodus of expatriates. In the highlands most of these were either trade stores or trucking businesses. Something like this happened in Tambul but it didn’t work out well at all.
There were already several small trade stores in and around Tambul and a regular need for transport to bring goods for sale up from Lae along the Highlands Highway.
As it happened one of the expatriates in the area didn’t seem to have any intentions of leaving come independence.
He claimed to be from Hungary in Europe and said he had fled with his family after the 1956 revolution was crushed by the Soviet Union. He didn’t know anyone in Australia and had decided to stay in Papua New Guinea.
The early years after independence were pretty good for many people. A lot of junior public servants were catapulted into senior roles overnight to fill the vacancies created by the Australians who had left.
I think my promotion to sergeant just before independence had something to do with this because normally I would have had to serve many more years to reach that rank. Hari disagrees with me and maintains that I was promoted on merit.
Hari didn’t fare as well as me, however, and at independence he was still a sub-inspector. I think by then he had gained a reputation as someone who applied the law without fear or favour and that must have appeared threatening to some of the more ambitious aspirants and opportunists in our ranks.
After independence there had been a re-organisation of the police force and the rank of sub- inspector had been abolished. Sub-inspectors became simple inspectors but it was not really a promotion for anyone, just a name change. Hari should have become a senior inspector at least but that didn’t happen.
Like many things it didn’t seem to bother him. He wore it like a badge of honour in fact. It was only Grace who worried about it, not so much because of the pay rise he had missed out on but more so about the status he had not gained.
She knew that, no matter what happened, her people in Hanuabada would look after her and her family but she worried that Hari’s pride might have been dented.
When I said this to Temi she scoffed and said, “What pride? Hari is the least proud and status conscious person I know.” And she was right of course.
An extract from ‘The Unusual and Unexpected Case of the Rise and Rise of Inspector Hari Metau as told by his good friend Sergeant Kasari Aru’ by Philip Fitzpatrick. The book has been made available by Phil for free download here