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After 50 years, a forgotten friend

John Gordon Kirby  Melbourne 2019
John Gordon-Kirby, Melbourne 2019 - a reuniting with Daniel Kumbon after nearly 50 years


PORT MORESBY - How am I supposed to react when suddenly finding a friend after losing contact for many years?

When John Gordon-Kirby recently commented on an article I had published in PNG Attitude back in 2016, my impulse was to contact him immediately.

It was strange. His comment was about people I mentioned in the article but said nothing about me.

Didn’t he recognise my name on the byline? Or my picture? Had he forgotten me?

Vivid memories of our first meeting surged through my mind.

John Gordon-Kirby was the first white man who had dared to enter our traditional bush material home, stooping through the low door and into the dark windowless living room.

This young man did not seem to care about fleas, cockroaches, smoke, rats or dust. The local people held the view their homes were unfit for a white man, but this white man was not deterred.

I was in the house during school holidays when this well-built man appeared in the front yard. I noticed he was well tanned. To me, his presence was overpowering.

I went outside to receive him and find out who he was. Was he lost?

When I saw rain starting to fall on the Waon Mandaka ridge of Mt Kondo, I invited him into our house. Somebody must have directed him to the house, just a couple of meters from the main road, because it was going to rain.

It was probably figured I was the best person to talk to this strange man in English and Tok Pisin and keep him company until the rain stopped.

In those days, not many people knew how to speak Pidgin in my village except for a few young men who had been to the coast to work on plantations under the Highlands Indentured Labour Scheme.

My own uncle had gone to work on cocoa plantations in Wakunai in Bougainville.

I can’t remember the details of my conversation with John Gordon-Kirby but, when the rain subsided, he left taking the address of my school with him.

The following year, when I was back at the University of Technology in Lae, he wrote me very long letters.

I always tried to respond to his letters. I now see he influenced me to think and express my thoughts on paper. That helped much later when I trained at UPNG to be a journalist.

And recently, on PNG Attitude, I found this man again just as suddenly as he had appeared in the front yard of our home at Kondo village in Kandep, Enga Province.

I saw his name beside comments he made about people I mentioned in that article I published in 2016.

I wrote to him on Tuesday 5 November as soon as I obtained his email address.

John W Gordon-Kirby now lives in Melbourne, Australia, and is aged 83.

At first, he didn’t remember anything about our meeting. I was one of many Papua New Guineans and people from Spain and Morocco he had corresponded with for many years.

It was hard for him to remember everybody after losing contact for so long, let alone somebody he had talked with for just a few hours many decades before.

I sent him a picture of my village showing him where my house stood, the wooden log bridge he crossed over the Lai River, Kondo mountain and the main road (now sealed) that joins Kandep with Mendi.

Soon he began to recall lost memories and started to exchange information and pictures with me.

“This correspondence fills me with nostalgic joy,” he wrote. “I once corresponded by post with many PNG people whom I had met or sponsored. This continued to a lesser degree when email took over. However with the passing of time, they all dropped out.

“Thank you for having made me welcome in your humble home. We must not lose contact again. I am now 83 years old but I enjoy good health and lead an active life.”

Kumbon - Akii Tumu the director of the Enga Take Anda
Akii Tumu, the director of the Enga Take Anda

John told me about how he had assisted Dr Paul Brennan establish the Enga Cultural Museum in Wabag and what a good choice they had made to recruit Akii Tumu to run it.

I sent him pictures of Akii Tumu who is still director of the museum, now renamed Enga Take Anda (House of Wisdom).

I also sent a picture of Dr Paul Brennan and of the Enga Take Anda itself. It was one of many projects John was actively involved in during his 21 month contract as a kiap in Wabag.

He was actively involved in the now defunct Highlands Orchid Centre located in Laiagam. He helped world renowned botanist Andre Miller to give a scientific name to the Enga’s provincial flower – Dendrobium Engae.

John said he helped design the provincial flag which showcases the blooming Dendrobium Engae placed in the centre with a black and green background divided diagonally.

John Gordon-Kirby has indeed lived an active life. He was posted to serve in all regions of Papua New Guinea. One of his personal contributions was to sponsor PNG children to receive an education in Australia.

He sent me a picture of Malai from Baluan Island in Manus who had given him full permission to take his son Simeon to Australia to give him an education.

Veteran journalist, the late Susuve Laumaea, was another of the many Papua New Guineans he helped to pursue an education. John laments the loss of the people he nurtured.

“As far as I know, I have outlived them all,” he said. “The greatest joy is in Susuve’s daughter Annemarie Laumaea who now has an Australian PhD and citizenship.”

Annemarie is presently in America furthering her studies into AIDS and malaria viruses. She and her mother have often visited John and his wife Doreen in Melbourne.

John had no children of his own from separate marriages to two nurses at different stages in his life.

Kumbon - John and Ailsa Kirby - wedding 1976
John and Ailsa marry in the highlands in 1976

His first marriage was to Ailsa, a New Zealander who worked as a United Church nurse at Nipa in the Southern Highlands. Ailsa often went out with him on patrols to do her child welfare clinics.

They tied the knot in a bush material church building in 1976 just after PNG got its independence.

They left in 1978 and went to New Zealand to settle on a farm. They separated in 1983 but remained friends until she died in 2018.

John married a second time to another nurse Doreen. They too were unsuccessful in having children. But they’ve lived a fulfilling life together for over 30 years and continue to do so.

Like many of us in PNG, John is a self-published author. He has written a small book titled ‘The Rise of the House of Morford’, the culmination of his research into how his maternal grandfather rose from relative poverty as a fisherman's son to a businessman of great wealth.

The family has expanded around the world over the decades, each successive generation contributing with distinction in their chosen roles in commerce, the military, academia, the arts the church and civil service.

John has also published a Life Poem about his experiences around the world from the time he was born in Spain, his migration to Australia, marriage and work experiences. He wrote three pieces about his sojourn in PNG from 1961–78 as a kiap. Before that he was in the British Royal Marines including service on HMS Birmingham in 1958.

Here is one of his three poems:


Then Independence Granted 1975

 For two more years we soldier on
“You white fellas go back home
some radicals and rascals chanted.

From villager:            

“O sorri mi no redi yet                   “Sorry we‘re not ready yet
Yu stap, mi pried                               You stay, I am afraid
long dispella Indipendens               of this Independence.
Yu lukoutim mipella moa.”         You look after us more.”

I replied: 

“O sorri prend, mi no inap                 “Sorry friend, I am not able
long halpim yupella nau                    to help you now.
Bel biloing me i hevi                            My heart is aching
Gut bai, na tank yu tru, olgeta.”          Goodbye, thank you truly.”

With heavy heart
we take our leave
and we depart
to start a life anew -
“Over and out.”


But, it’s not ‘over and out’ yet for John Gordon-Kirby. He still leads an active life and we hope to write to each other for a long time.

John still has the fondest memories of his short time in Enga Province. Equally memorable are his times in other parts of the country in his 14 years in PNG’s ‘nambis,ailan na hailan’ postings.

“I enjoy our interaction, so feel free to contact me as often as you wish,” John wrote to me just now.

I will continue to write to him because the information he has about PNG during the colonial administration period is invaluable.


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John Gordon-Kirkby

It’s good to see that this record is still on line.
Now in 2024 I have lost contact with Daniel Kumbon !
Communications with Kandep in PNG are poor , exasperated by vandalism of infrastructure and ongoing tribal fighting.
I would welcome news from him or family.

Gordon-Kirkby John

For the record. As detailed by Daniel Kumbon, my first marriage was in 1974 to a New Zealander, Ailsa Thorburn, an infant welfare nurse with the Nipa Uniting Church.

It was our shared love of the PNG people that brought us together. I was then a kiap at Nipa. Ailsa and I combined patrols and I proposed on one of them.

She told me then that she could not bear a child for me. We considered adopting. In 1978 we moved to a poultry farm in Katikati, New Zealand and I became a NZ citizen.

The marriage was not to last. In 1984 we divorced but remained friends. I returned to remote outback Australia. Ailsa went to Zimbabwe in Africa.

In 1988, then aged 52, I married Doreen, a widow with a teenage son. We are together to this day.

Sadly Ailsa contracted motor neurone disease. I visited her in NZ two weeks before she died in 2018.

Such is life.

John Gordon-Kitkby

I note that I have not acknowledged or replied to Martin Kaalund. My sincere apologies.

In the early 1960s, the Mouk were still a landless seafaring people. They did have a rocky islet ( Mouk island ) adjacent to Baluan island in Manus Province, but no flat or or arable land.

They lived on their large outrigger canoes or on homes built on stilts over the water. They traded fish, trochus and turtles for their other needs.

The then colonial government resumed Langendrowa copra plantation on Rambutso island and I am proud to have been involved in subdividing the plantation and resettling these fine deserving people. Their leader then was my friend Lukas Chaka. RIP.

John Gordon-Kirkby

A big thank you to those PNG folks who have contacted me over the past year or so.

It is heartwarming to be remembered by a few, one from as far away as from Canada, and to be also contacted by others whom I have never even met. I have tried to respond to each in turn.

Daniel Kumbon in particular has honoured me, beyond my deserving, by fitting me into the pages of his book, 'Victory Song of Pingeta’s Daughter'.

It's a must read for anyone with the remotest interest in the evolution of modern Papua New Guinea.

Peter Dwyer

Peter Tate’s Facebook public group ‘Taim Bipo, Photo History, PNG, Papua & New Guinea' posts photos from 1880 to 1975 that have been taken by missionaries, explorers, government employees, health workers and anthropologists etc.

It is very popular, with nearly 50,000 members and with frequent reposts to other groups.

The site has been banned several times because some people are wearing fewer clothes than Facebook deems necessary.

Peter Tate has been obliged to mask the ‘offending’ parts, which in some ways renders obscene that which was never obscene.

Now Facebook is checking the size of the modesty masks.

Today, Peter Tate wrote, ‘I Was Given a 3 Day Holiday by FB for Posting a Portrait of a Woman with Large Black Dots Covering the Nipples. Thanks FB’.

Gordon-Kirkby John

In recent weeks of February 2021 I have been repeatedly blocked by Facebook; at first for hours, later for a whole week because I reposted a historic 1920’s photograph of bare breasted (nipples blanked out) women from Bougainville Island.

Facebook cannot differentiate between precious and beautiful anthropological records and pornography!

To test their consistency, I posted a full frontal picture of Michelangelo’s statue of David and a nude female by Titan.
No reprimand yet!

Has anyone else had this experience?

It has happened occasionally with PNG Attitude, John, and it demonstrates a weird kind of cultural hypocrisy - KJ

Martin Kaalund

Dear Daniel and John - It is enlivening to listen to you both. I have mentioned to John the interest in the Baluan and Tawe dispersal to Rambutso. Could you tell us John why were there landless Mauk?

The first Council was named Nauk, now people refer to it as the Lipan Council.

Could you describe any oratory of Paliau you remember.

Do you have any story of the protest that the Manus working at Lorengau made when Paliau was being charged with collaboration after being arrested in West New Britain. He was released on protest of Manus labourers in1946.

If you are not too busy please tell us what you know. I knew a Piru who remembered going aboard the Sunam with the young kiap.

Please let it flow John. All the long ears are dead. Give us more.....

John Gordon-lKirkby

Coincidentally, it is exactly a year since author Daniel Kumbon and I made contact after an interval of nearly half a century. He was only a teenager then. The friendship established pre. 1975 has grown even stronger. Now I'm even Facebook friends with some of his children and grandchildren !
I am honoured, for Daniel is to devote a chapter of his latest book to this lasting friendship. !
I have also made contact with folks I knew in other provinces in the mid 1960's to mid 1970's.
Thank you PNG Attitude for being such a wonderful facilitator.
I would be delighted to hear from anyone who still remembers me particularly those from Baluan and Rambutsyo Islands in the Manus Province.

John Gordon-Kirkby

21 November 2019 and just over two weeks since Daniel and I made email contact after an interval of over 45 years.

I’ve lost count of the number of email exchanges in these last two weeks.

It goes to prove that a true friendship between kindred spirits is never really lost. I am hoping that we shall meet again in the near future.

John Gordon-Kirkby

Thank you ‘wantok’ Daniel for your kind words.

I did my duty to the best of my ability. I may have had some small positive lasting effects in my various postings in PNG.

Most important to me was the enriching interactions I had with the humble village people who welcomed me into their huts and shared their humanity , stories and the fruits of their gardens with me.

You were just one of many new generation people I briefly befriended. Yes I admit that I had forgotten you during the intervening decades.

Your initiative in contacting me recently has proved that we are indeed kindred spirits.

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