The Bal Kama story: Quite a journey so far
10 February 2022
NOOSA – In March 2020, Bal Kama – from a village near Gumine in Chimbu Province - was awarded a doctorate by the Australian National University for his thesis, ‘Reconceptualising the role of the judiciary in Papua New Guinea’s ‘home grown’ constitution’.
Covid being the great party wrecker of our time, it was only on Tuesday this week that there was a graduation ceremony at which Bal was presented with his testamur - the legal document verifying that a high qualification has been legally conferred.
“It felt like a proper closure to my academic journey,” Bal said. “I’m thankful to the ANU’s College of Law for the opportunity to be part of its esteemed institution.”
Bal, 34, was recently appointed as a senior solicitor in the Environmental Defenders Office in Canberra. He is also a fellow of the Department of Pacific Affairs at ANU.
His journey to this week’s formal ceremony began in humble circumstances but in a family, like so many families in Chimbu, who wanted the education they had not received to be given to their children.
In the years I spent as teacher in Chimbu in the mid-1960s, I experienced this hunger for education, a phenomenon I have rarely seen elsewhere.
“Life as a village kid was filled with adventure but also limited in opportunities,” he said.
“My father was an interpreter (tanim tok) in the colonial era.
“But despite being subsistence villagers, my parents encouraged my siblings and I to pursue further education.
“The closure of this journey has helped me reflect on the support and challenges that helped me reach this milestone.”
After growing up in the village and doing his initial schooling in Papua New Guinea, his older brother, John, who had moved to Australia for employment, brought Bal to Australia to complete senior high school.
He found part-time jobs as a cleaner and groundskeeper to pay his school fees. After receiving the Higher School Certificate, he was admitted to the University of Canberra where he completed a double degree in law (where he secured honours) and in politics and international relations.
It was not all plain sailing. He spent nine weeks in hospital, including sitting for university examinations beside his hospital bed:
“University was difficult financially. I worked two, sometimes three casual jobs whilst studying to pay for my university fees and expenses.
“I was blessed to receive financial assistance from some very kind individuals who heard about my challenges.
"And I received a scholarship from the University of Canberra Law School at crucial a time when I was about to give up on studies.
“Growing up as a Christian helped me overcome these and other events on my academic journey. For me, it was a matter of Divine providence and blessings.
“If faith had not been part of the equation, I think things would have gone in a different direction.”
From university, Bal completed a graduate diploma of legal practice at the Sydney College of Law.
He then put his study into practice, working variously as a legal consultant for United Nations Women in PNG, a tutor at the University of Canberra Law School and a volunteer for the Aboriginal Legal Service in Canberra.
Bal had become interested in constitutional law when he researched the 2011-12 constitutional crisis in PNG for his honours thesis as a law student:
“The crisis entailed PNG having two prime ministers for seven months and open conflict between judges and politicians.
“The honours thesis gained a positive reception, including being invited to present it at the Australian Law Council.”
And it motivated Bal to more deeply explore constitutional law.
“I wanted to understand more about the nature of judicial power in PNG after the 2011-2012 constitutional crisis and how it may differ from the Australian constitution given the close legal and colonial history of the two countries.
“As one of the world’s leading research institutions, the Australian National University was the perfect choice.
“I was also attracted to the ANU’s strong focus on the Pacific region.”
Bal was admitted to study for a PhD in the university’s College of Law, the thesis in its final form demonstrating that legal doctrines applied in the Anglo-Australian settings should not be unquestionably applied to PNG, or by extension to other Pacific countries:
“Starting a PhD after completing undergraduate studies was daunting at first,” he said.
“It was a significant step-up in terms of the pressure for critical thinking, juggling different ideas and the wide span of reading expected.”
“Higher degree research provides a lot more independence and freedom – with no rigid timetables or assessments.
“Supervisors provide regular feedback but as there is no grading it demands a higher level of self-discipline and motivation,” he said.
“It also requires the ability to reach out to staff and colleagues when faced with any obstacles.
“I was fortunate to receive an ANU research scholarship whereas it was more challenging at undergraduate studies as I had to work multiple odd jobs to sustain my studies."
A few years into his doctoral studies he survived a plane crash in NSW.
“In 2016, three friends and I were on a light aircraft sightseeing along the Sydney coastline.
“On our way back to the airport, one engine cut out and we had to crash-land in a paddock.
“While none of us were injured, the traumatic experience always reminds me of how fragile life is.”
His PhD research set out to reconceptualise the nature of judicial power under PNG’s constitution and its interaction with the executive and the legislative arms of government.
The thesis drew on the constitutions of Australia, India, South Africa and Kenya to inform its findings.
It pointed out that PNG’s home-grown constitution was “a constitutional ingenuity in which the judiciary does not have a strictly legal function – it also has an overtly political function”.
He also proposed that the doctrine of separation of powers be redefined in PNG to reflect a highly liberal judiciary as a ‘fourth arm’ of government.
And he said constitution needs to be recognised and engaged with as a transformative document; that would change the lives of the people in whose name it was conceived and promulgated.
The thesis was awarded the 2020 Hank Nelson Prize for the best international doctoral thesis on PNG.
“I am very grateful for the dear support of my family and that of certain other people who were part of the blessing and who have been pivotal," Bal said.
People like Lorraine Hendra, the CEO of Sydney Blinds, who, when a desperate Bal arrived at her office uninvited, generously agreed to sponsor his first year of university. Lorraine had just met him for the first time that day.
He also said that Professor Murray Raff, former Dean of the University of Canberra Law School, had generously provided him with a scholarship that allowed him to continue his studies.
And he singled out for mention his PhD supervisors Professor James Stellios, Anthony Regan, Professor Ron May and Assistant Professor Susan Priest.
“As Chair, Professor Stellios was very instrumental in driving my project to the end and I am greatly indebted to him.
“There have been many generous individuals who gifted finance and other support during my academic journey,” he said.
“Their generosity became my motivation to stay focused and it inspired me to start the Kama Foundation scholarship program in Papua New Guinea, named in honour of my father.”
The foundation was established in 2013 to support village children with their education.
“The resourcing of the foundation is small but its intent is to inspire capable village kids to strive to realise their dreams,” Bal said.
“It’s important to stay focused on your ultimate goal, and to keep an open mind that could be different ways of getting there.
“And it’s important to always be aware of where you’ve come from and use it as a guiding lamp.”
Bal is married to Sonja Kama and they have a two-year old daughter, Victoria.
Sonja, a communications officer with Palliative Care Australia and a writer, has New Zealand Maori heritage and a Vanuatu upbringing.
Like Bal, she is a Seventh Day Adventist, although they were married in a traditional wedding ceremony in PNG.
Bal’s sister, Dr Shera Kama, was formally accredited as PNG’s first national endodontist two months ago.
This skilled dental speciality came after seven years of clinical training and post-graduate studies in PNG and overseas.
“Growing up in the village, Shera and I would encourage each other to work hard despite our challenges,” said Bal.
“Shera has been a role model to village children who looked up to her as a mentor.”
Although Bal has already covered much ground, the bulk of his life’s work still lies ahead of him and it would seem to be heading towards the higher echelons of the judiciary.
He wrote in 2017, well before James Marape became PNG prime minister, Bal wrote of the challenges facing Seventh Day Adventists who took on political careers.
“Failing to deliver or succumbing to corruption and mismanagement will not only jeopardise their political reputation but also harm the positive Adventist image admired by voters,” he wrote.
“As ambassadors of the Adventist faith, their actions or inaction can generate distrust among the people and ultimately become a hindrance to evangelism. This has been the case with Adventist politicians in previous governments.
Having Adventist politicians in parliament is a win for the Church [but] not all assistance or support from political actors should be counted as blessings—churches need to be cautious when seeking political assistance that it does not discredit the Adventist faith or undermine state institutions.”
Dr Bal Kama has made that most magnificent journey from a PNG village to attaining the best credential a good education can offer.
PNG is distinguished by having many men and women who have made this journey: people of real quality, who are wise and who have strong moral conviction.
It should not be too forlorn a hope that the Bal and Sonja and Shera Kamas, and so many other people of substance I could name here, will one day force their way through the morass of political preference and tribal decree.
They will apply their skill and ethics to put their country on a better course, one designed to elevate those village kids of whom Bal was once one and build them the country they deserve.
In support of Daniel's account and of Bal's activities in being self reliant and sufficiently provisioned, it reminds me of Dr Noel Loos's story of how, when he was employed by James Cook University in Townsville, he became acquainted with a gardener at that main campus.
From that encounter, friendship grew and comprehension evolved and from the gardener's recount of his home place of Murray Island (Mer) in Torres Strait,came increasing awareness of precedence and the ownership of the land of Australia.
Edward Koiki Mabo was that gardener, and his effect was revision of Australian law.
For folk who don't know Noel, see:
Amazing what comes from a little cultivation.
Posted by: Lindsay F Bond | 12 February 2022 at 09:26 PM
Congratulations Dr Bal Kama. You, your brother John and sister Dr Shera are truly inspirational.
Your story of how you worked part time as a cleaner and groundskeeper to earn some money to pay for your higher education reminds me of my own time as a young high school student doing Form One at St Paul's Lutheran High School in Wapenamanda in 1972.
I used to clean the flower beds of teachers' houses on weekends to earn 10 toea an hour to buy soap and the occasional weekend movie show at the dining hall.
I also worked as a cleaner during term breaks for an electrical firm in Lae where I did Form 3 at Lae Technical College in 1973.
I opened my first bank account with $60 paid to me by Mr Turner, co-owner of Dave and Turner Electrical which used to operate at Top-town.
Indeed, if students of the 'now' generation can work hard to help contribute towards their own education instead of depending too much on their parents, wantoks and the government, they can certainly reach the top.
Once again congratulations, Dr Bal Kama and Dr Shera Kama.
Posted by: Daniel Kumbon | 12 February 2022 at 08:34 AM
Already I'm a fan of articles bearing the name Bal Kama, and now thoroughly so, from acquaintance with the ardour from Bal in attaining accomplishments and academic recognition.
So much reporting from PNG is of disarray at the base of mountains. This report of the journey for Bal touches on the highest peaks.
Posted by: Lindsay F Bond | 11 February 2022 at 09:39 AM