Return to Papua New Guinea, by George D Oakes, self-published in A4 format, 2019, 97 pages with lots of photographs. My copy from the author cost AU$40 with postage
TUMBY BAY - I’m getting on in years so it always surprises me to learn that old kiaps are still around who were in Papua New Guinea before I was born.
George Oakes doesn’t quite meet that criteria because I was six years old when he first started work as a kiap. Nevertheless we can still claim him as one of the ‘golden oldies’ from that magic 1950s period in PNG.
His account of his life as a kiap is told with modest understatement. George starts at the beginning and finishes at the end. Remarkable as it was, there is absolutely no sign of any attempt to hype or enhance his experience.
George comes from a family of Methodists. He was born at Vunairima, a Methodist settlement near Rabaul, in 1934 and lived there until he was seven years old when he was evacuated to Australia with his mother and younger brother just before the Japanese invasion.
His father remained in Rabaul to complete his 10 years as a Methodist missionary prior to resigning. He was one of the more than 1,000 Australians killed when the Montevideo Maru was sunk on its way to Japan.
George returned to PNG as a kiap in 1954 and served at Mendi, Lumi, Nuku, Pomio and Kokopo before health problems with his son forced him into a career change in 1964.
In that year he began a second career as a business advisory officer with the Department of Trade and Industry in Lae and then Port Moresby.
While he was at Nuku in 1957 he built an airstrip. Without a clinometer to check the levels he invented one of his own using a plywood triangle swinging off a large nail.
He had no radio at Nuku and communication consisted of a line of village garamuts (log drums).
When a patrol was on its way to Nuku from Lumi the drums told him three days in advance and even who was on the patrol.
In 2015 George returned to Nuku at the invitation of a local politician to celebrate the building of the airstrip and PNG’s fortieth Independence Day.
George married his wife Edna in 1958 while attending a patrol officer’s long course at ASOPA. He had met Edna at a Methodist bible camp. Like him she had a missionary background and was born in PNG.
One of the things that makes this book interesting is the confluence of kiap and missionary that George and his wife brought to their work.
Edna had some medical training and also taught in a few of the schools where they were posted. On several occasions she fostered new born children.
At Pomio infanticide was common, although slowly dying out. On one occasion Edna took on triplets abandoned by their mother but despite her efforts they all died.
George and Edna left PNG in 1975. After six months of travelling abroad George started work as the bursar of Barker College in Hornsby, a North Shore suburb of Sydney. He was there until he retired in 1992.
The following year they moved to Woodford, in the Blue Mountains, where they now live.
I’ve got quite a collection of books like the one George has written. His differs a little bit because of the fascinating collection of photographs that go with it.
Most are in colour and come up well on the glossy pages. The larger format also allows for larger images.
These sorts of books are a valuable collective resource.
One day historians will come to appreciate them and perhaps also the role that kiaps played in Australia’s history.