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Death of Joe Kaowai – man of courage & conviction

Schram - Joe in Venice during his studies in Europe
Joe in Venice during his studies in Europe (Albert Schram)

| Albert Schram Blogspot

VERONA, ITALY - On the night of Monday 14 February, a wonderful friend, servant-leader, educator, and colleague Joe Kaowai passed away in Angau Hospital, Lae, aged only 39.

Joe is survived by his wife Joy, son Alberto and daughter Paulina. As a sign of our special bond and true friendship, he kindly named his son and his daughter after me and my wife.

I met Joe on 7 February 2012 when I gave my first speech as vice-chancellor of the Papua New Guinea University of Technology (Unitech).

The former chancellor has just spoken gloomily in a mixture of Pidgin - which I did not understand at the time - and English about how we had to try to keep the Unitech ship afloat.

I thought this was not a proper way to address incoming, enthusiastic and hopeful students.

Instead, I told the students they had to take their studies seriously because their hard-working, studious peers in India, Europe and elsewhere would compete with them in the job market.

Next, I explained my vision for the future of the university – a vision in which graduate employment, industry support and bringing Unitech into the 21st century by providing access to fast, campus-wide internet would be the focus of my vice-chancellorship.

The students understood that I had come to serve them and not myself or the forever university staff and selfish former university Council and management team members.

At the end of my speech, I said, "Together we can make Unitech fly!"

Joe, who was Students Representative Council president liked this so much he repeated it several times, and got great applause from the student body.

And I became known, of course, as the Flying Dutchman.

Physically, Joe was not imposing, but his exceptional spirit gave him a great presence and he was a natural leader.

He had a tremendous smile which looked as if a volcano had erupted inside, and he laughed loud and often.

He was a true servant leader. His curriculum vitae stated, ‘solving problems for others,’ as his main goal.

I remember a number of episodes that clearly demonstrated his leadership, his tireless efforts to modernise education and his ability to bring people together as a peacemaker.

The student protests in April 2012 aimed to bring about transparent and accountable governance at Unitech.

In Port Moresby, at the University of Papua New Guinea, students were protesting against the anti-democratic Judicial Conduct Act, the first of many attempts by the O'Neill government to destroy democracy in the country.

The protests at UPNG were led by Students Representative Council president Emmanuel Isaac and were successful.

With support from AusAID, I had encouraged both groups of students to coordinate their actions, strategise and assure non-violent behaviour.

In my view, a strong SRC leadership would help end a wild boycott culture and prevent things from spiralling out of control.

As SRC president in 2012, Joe showed exceptional leadership and strong commitment to non-violence.

After several weeks of dithering and evasion by the O'Neill government, hotheads among the Lae students hatched a plan to set fire to the city’s port.

I had been warned by Joe through a series of text messages and was asked to talk with them.

Unfortunately, I was new to the university and unwisely took the advice from unintelligent colleagues that I should not engage physically with the hotheads, who proceeded with their plans.

They loaded three vehicles with barrels of diesel fuel. And only by physically preventing them from exiting through the university gate was Joe able to prevent them from achieving their goal.

Imagine what would have happened - the material damage, the violence unleashed by police on the students. On his own, Joe did what I should have done.

Later Joe had a major role in preventing a worse outcome when Peter O'Neill ordered the shooting of peacefully demonstrating students on the UPNG campus in Port Moresby on 8 June 2016.

Unitech students had also been protesting on the same issue, to convince O'Neill to submit himself to an inquiry into serious accusations of corruption.

Instead, O’Neill abused the Higher Education Act of 2014 and took political control of the universities and silenced the voice of the students by suspending the SRCs indefinitely.

After the shooting in Port Moresby, the rumour spread that a student had been killed. Again PNG was briefly world news for all the wrong reasons.

I had seen on Twitter that a body had not been found in the Port Moresby General Hospital and accepted the offer of Lae Metropolitan Police Superintendent Anthony Wagambie Jr who wanted to talk to Unitech students on campus.

Fearing for the Wagambie’s safety, I went with him, telling the students that this was a good policeman, not the same police who had shot their fellow students in Port Moresby.

Only my office assistant and driver accompanied me, none of my colleagues.

We tried to hold a forum outdoors, but there was too much unrest. Then Joe appeared out of nowhere and decided the meeting would be moved to the university Council room.

This allowed us to hold a productive meeting and the students were somewhat reassured and asked not to take their demonstrations outside the campus. Again in a time of crisis, Joe played a major role.

The thick-headed and illegitimate O'Neill government (2012-19) never understood that people like Joe and myself were important elements in order that PNG’s universities be modernised, which would do much to end the culture of student boycotts which was born out of frustration with lack of progress.

When Joe and his siblings were children, Enga Province was suffering from constant tribal warfare. In order to lower the intensity of fighting, most bridges across the many rivers were destroyed.

In Joe's village children simply miss out on school. But Joe's father decided his children should be schooled.

Although he had no formal education, in those days Engan boys would receive a wonderful informal education in the hausman [men’s house] where values of honesty and respect for others and wisdom were firmly instilled.

Joe's father’s persistence in getting his children a modern education meant a two-hour walk to the nearest school. He carried his children across the rivers on his shoulders.

Several years later, I met Joe's father, who only spoke Engan. Despite the language barrier we had an evening of simple fun at a Chinese restaurant in Lae. We got to know him and his family well.

Joe managed to finish Grade 10 in Enga, but had to do Grades 11 and 12 through distance learning. When eventually he came to Unitech he was 30 years old.

Nevertheless, he proved to be a good student and graduated in the allotted time. After graduation, we became good friends.

I thought him eminently suited for studies in Europe, which had become possible after I signed an Erasmus Mundus program agreement with the European Commission.

Study abroad had also been necessitated because spiteful former university Council members had made it impossible for Joe to find a job in Lae.

This was after the Council had been sacked in its entirety by the then Higher Education Minister because of the extensive fraud and mismanagement of funds.

Schram - Joe KaowaiJoe was accepted for an MBA program in Madrid, Spain, and passed almost all his exams.

Sadly, because of backward Spanish laws, one subject was offered only in Spanish and, though Joe learned to speak some Spanish, he was unable to pass this exam.

As often happens with Papua New Guineans studying abroad, he became part of a group of Christian African students who learned much from each other.

While still studying in Spain, in September 2014 he visited us in Italy, where we were enjoying annual leave while at the same time negotiating a beneficial agreement for Unitech with European universities.

My wife and I will always remember the days spent with Joe at our home, showing him the historical sites of the region, talking about the future of PNG and enjoying the local food.

In September, it is the time of the grape harvest and Joe had developed a great liking for this fruit.

On 14 September 2014, we visited Venice together. It was just a fun day but we also discussed the wisdom and governance of the Roman Empire and the Venetian Republic, being able to see and touch for ourselves what remained of these great civilisations that produced what would become the modern university.

We spoke much about how to bring about a better future for PNG after the obvious leadership failure following independence.

Over the last few years Joe enjoyed a stable and loving family life and relished his job as a trainer with DATEC Learning Centres. This year he started an MBA at Unitech to complete his graduate studies.

He was frustrated that the O'Neill government had rolled back all the positive changes at PNG’s universities and again installed politically connected do-nothings to the Councils and management of Unitech.

However, the torch that Joe lit has been passed on. The younger generations understand that a fake, corrupt university education is worth nothing and does not contribute to nation building.

The final victory will not be for those who try to pervert the democratic constitution of Papua New Guinea and violate the constitutional rights of its citizens.

The country cannot afford to lose clear-headed, servant leaders like Joe Kaowai so young.

He will live on in our memory and we will celebrate his life dedicated to family, education and peacemaking.

As a Christian, he had no fear of death, and his last words were for his family.


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