NOOSA – We old Papua New Guinea hands - who remember the country as a colony (though we never so called it at the time) and our service there mostly with deep affection - now share a melancholy time of life.
Even we younger officers (we were all called officers – patrol officers, education officers, health officers etc etc) are charging through our seventies and too often mourning the death of a former colleague or acquaintance.
It’s not unusual for the grapevine take some months to carry that grim news and so it has been with the death of former kiap and district commissioner Gabriel Buanam, who died in Madang on 20 October last year aged 79.
The PNG Post-Courier reported that he was the last of the 15 Papua New Guinean district commissioners who replaced their expatriate counterparts in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Gabriel [known as Gabriel Salu for his first six years of service] was from Korak village in the Bogia district of Madang Province, died on 20 October at his home in Madang.
His career, which began after he graduated from the prestigious Sogeri High School in Central Province, began at about the same time as my own in 1964.
His public service carried him on an upward trajectory through the Southern Highlands, Milne Bay, West New Britain, Simbu, Eastern Highlands, Northern (now Oro) and finally to his home province of Madang.
Gabriel, described as “soft-spoken but down to earth” became the district commissioner (effectively the administrative head) of Milne Bay Province in 1973, replacing the late Kingsley Jackson.
While in Milne Bay, Gabriel and his late wife Dorothy hosted Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh in their family home, when the royal couple visited the province in 1974.
In 1976 his name was mentioned in the Australian press as assisting a project to maintain important wartime memorials that were deteriorating or vandalised.
One of these was the Turnbull War Memorial Park at Gurney, marking the first defeat on land of the Japanese Army in 400 years.
This was an event very close to home for Australians as the action was carried out by Australian troops, the 61st Battalion (Queensland Cameron Highlanders), in late August 1942.
The park also contains the grave of 85 unknown Japanese marines, three monuments and a relief map of the battlefield.
Gabriel made it known that the K2,000 a year required to maintain the memorial in good condition was never provided.
The park is now a popular tourist attraction for visitors to Milne Bay.
During the Queen’s next visit to PNG in October 1982, he was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for distinguished public service, his investiture being held on board Her Majesty’s Yacht Britannia in Port Moresby.
The old people of Tari, SineSine-Yongumul and Kainantu in the Highlands will remember him as the first Indigenous kiap in those areas.
Gabriel returned to Madang as deputy secretary of the Madang Provincial Administration until he retired in 1984.
WITH THANKS TO ARTHUR SMEDLEY AND PHIL FITZPATRICK