Paul Oates: A look in the mirror
The legendary PIM & me

Paul Oates: A kiap’s progress

Paul Oates as a young kiap - "Paul’s easy-going relationships with the people he’s working among shines through," Phil writes


Small Steps Along the Way by Paul Oates, independently published, 2019, 241 pages, ISBN: 9781707077939, available from, $AU22.03, including postage or AU$2.91 as an eBook, from Amazon in the USA or download without cost from the strapline at the top of this page. Many thanks to Paul Oates for making it freely available to our readers

TUMBY BAY - We’ve been talking about the potency of literature on PNG Attitude for many years now and how it contributes to the creation story of communities and nations alike.

Further to that has been the notion that literature actually forms a society’s view of itself and reflects upon how it develops in the future.

You have to know where you came from to know where you are going. Those who know their past will walk more confidently into the future.

Papua New Guinea’s past is effectively divided into distinct epochs: pre-colonial; colonial; and post-independence.

These epochs are intrinsically linked and flow back and forth, bringing meaning to each other in telling ways.

At the moment the lack of a cohesive post-independence literature is troubling to many thinking Papua New Guineans, especially its writers.

It is in this context that I recently had the pleasure of editing a new book by Paul Oates about his experiences as a kiap in the formative and crucial years just before independence.

What struck me about Paul’s account are the similarities with my own experiences as a kiap. I don’t doubt that other old kiaps will make the same observation.

This commonality of experience is important to record, both in its mundanity and in its exceptionalism.

Small steps CoverThe simple day-to-day activities of a kiap in Morobe can speak volumes, not only about how and why things were done but also about the overriding motives of the Australian administration and the ordinary Papua New Guineans who were effected.

The detailed descriptions Paul offers are unique to that period and will never be repeated. They range from building his own house and garden to the construction of bridges, roads and airfields.

In every account there is a palpable sense of innovation and making do under an austere and ignorant hierarchy in Canberra.

There is also a profound sense of two disparate groups, expatriates and locals, working together hand-in-hand for a common cause.

Paul’s easy-going relationships with the people he’s working among shines through his writing in a way that every old kiap and PNG lapun will recognise.

There is also drama and tragedy in the book. The loss of a good friend in an aeroplane crash is particularly heart rending.

So too are the last days of his wife and family in Port Moresby when their house was broken into and all their possessions stolen, followed by the stoning of their car by a bunch of drunken raskols.

Then there is the inevitable problem of fitting back into Australian society. Not many old kiaps managed that transition well, myself included.

Despite all this, Paul’s account, in all its manifestations, is related with a sense of humour and a firm appreciation of the ridiculous.

It is a good story and for those who have read his numerous contributions and comments on PNG Attitude and want to understand him a little better it is essential reading.


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Dave Ekins

Well done, Paul - it is very evocative reading and I'm inspired to follow suit in some shape or form. Would need to commission someone like Phil to cast a beady eye over it, of course.

Paul Oates

Interesting note about moustaches, Arthur. Apparently the British Army required men to grow facial hair until the First World War.

I often wonder if the close association the Brits had with India had an effect since some Indian men have moustaches that are well over a meter long but keep them curled for convenience.

Our association with PNG certainly changed us. I guess you had to be there to understand.

Arthur Williams

Well done, Paul. Glad you've got it printed for us and more importantly for those of your family and others interested in knowing, 'What was he doing up in PNG?'

Wow! Paul's retired but judging by that early kiap photo when he looked so young he can't be old enough to put his feet on the verandah rail.

No wonder some old islanders used to criticise kiaps saying, 'Masta emi nogat mausgras!' Mind, my old dad disliked both moustaches and beards and would say of them: 'Why cultivate on your face what grows wild on your backside!'

I agree with Phil in his reflections on Paul's book that doing time in PNG alters people and I was lucky to have almost another 30 years of life in the PNG after my very short term as kiap.

I often feel that I am just marking time here in Wales and even try to quell the gut feeling that somehow those years have made me unsuitable for 21st westernised living.

I read and hear of the alleged problems or stress that every Pom from kindergarten to old age are supposed be suffering and feel like screaming at the google box: 'You ain't got a clue about the other world.'

My youngest daughter came back with me in 2008 having never used a double-decker bus, a train, pedestrian crossing or even traffic lights. Yet within months just under 15 years old she could very quickly negotiate her travel on transport or around Cardiff streets by herself. I'd hate to put my similar aged grand-daughter back onto Rose's island.

Finally in the hysteria of climate crisis I am amazed at the wasteful society that surrounds me. In my youth we used to joke at the very rich changing cars because the ashtrays were full.

Yet I'm amazed when visiting recycle centers to see what the British idiots are throwing away. If only there was some economical way of filling a few overseas container with some of it my wife's clan or even the tribe would make use of all it many times over.

Sori lus tinting! Mi maus-wara planti tumas.

Joe Herman

Phil and Paul, I downloaded the file and have started reading. Thank you very much for sharing.

Jordan Dean

Congratulations Paul. I've downloaded the book and will read through.

Garry Roche

Phil, and Paul, I downloaded the file. Many thanks. I have only started reading, but can relate well to his experience of malaria. I had a similar experience.

Daniel Kumbon

These are the sort of books that need to be on the bookshelves of every library in PNG.

These are stories written not after a research but first hand information from the people who built this country.

The young generation need this information from books like this written by kiaps, planters, teachers, missionaries, explorers etc. It's part of their history.

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