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Death of a giant: A tribute to James Arba MBE

James Arba MBE - authentic, wise and down to earth


KUNDIAWA - It was on the last day of January that Philip Kai got the news that his brother and tribesman, retired public servant James Arba (pictured), had just passed away at Sir Joseph Nombri Memorial Hospital in Kundiawa.

“I wasn’t prepared for that and was shocked. It was the saddest day of my life,” said Philip, “as I looked upon James as an elder brother who I turned to for prudent advice. Now he is gone forever.

“James was an authentic person, full of wisdom and down to earth, and so easy to talk with.

“He has gone to his Father’s house where there are many mansions for him to rest.”

Philip notified Arnold Mundua, also James’ friend and colleague, and together they have compiled this tribute to a great Simbu man who beat all odds over a period of 72 years.

The late James Kagl Arba MBE was born on 10 March 1951 in the humble village of Akemake, 5 km west of Kundiawa.

He was born to Bruno Onguglo and Clara Maina from the Egu clan of Endugla tribe near Kundiawa and was the second born in a family of eight girls and a boy.

James was born in colonial times when evangelical work by the missionaries in the PNG Highlands was at its peak and government services were slowly beginning to reach the hinterland.

There were not many schools and education was unpopular among the communities of Simbu.

The nearest school to his home was the Catholic Mission run St Joseph Primary T School in Mingende, 5 km further to the west.

His parents were determined to have him educated and walked with James to Mingende, where he enrolled and did his preparatory classes in 1957 and 1958.

After this was completed, James’ paternal uncle, who worked as a company supervisor in what is now Jiwaka, took James to Banz where he completed Standard 1 at St Anslem Primary T School.

From 1960-1962 James completed Standards 2, 3 & 4 at Fatima Primary T School, just outside Banz township and, after these four years living with his uncle at Banz, in 1963 James returned to Simbu.

He continued his primary education at Holy Rosary Primary T School at Kondiu, completing Standard 6 in 1964.

Kondiu was later upgraded to a high school by the De La Salle Brothers, and these days is Rosary (Kondiu) Secondary School.

There were no high schools in Simbu at that time, but James was privileged to be selected to attend St Xavier High School on Kairuru Island near Wewak in East Sepik Province.

It was his first time to travel out of the Highlands for the coast and there were many things that were his firsts: first aeroplane flight, first sight of the ocean, first ride in a boat and many more.

From 1965 to 1966 James completed his Forms 1 and 2 education in that school then in 1967 he was sent to St Fidelis College in Alexishafen, Madang, to complete the remainder of his schooling in Forms 3, 4, 5 and 6.

At St Fidelis, James became a student leader, on one occasion leading a demonstration protesting against the colonial administration’s land acquisition program.

As a result of the protest, the late American black priest, Fr Raymond Caesar, a lecturer at the college, was wrongfully arrested and blamed for instigating the protest.

A contributing factor to his arrest could have been that this was the period that the civil rights movement  and black consciousness were arising in the USA.

After completing Form 6 (Grade 12) at St Fidelis, James entered Holy Spirit Regional Major Seminary at Bomana outside Port Moresby for priesthood studies.

He studied theology and philosophy but after four years decided to discontinue.

In these years before PNG’s independence there was a rush to educate and train Papua New Guineans and there were many opportunities.

In 1974, James found himself at the University of Sussex in England, studying subjects related to the informal urban sector and public relations.

Upon returning from England in early 1975 James was attached to the Public Service Commission, working under the chairmanship of Philip Bouraga who recognised James’ potential and selected him for a special mission to Chimbu.

Here he took a lead role in a study, ‘Chimbu Issues in Development’, in partnership with the Australian National University.

Fresh from England, James undertook the preparatory work and consultations with stakeholders.

The ANU team, led by Diana Howlet and including Elspeth and Robin Hide, arrived in Chimbu and were briefed by James Arba.

Them, together with Simbu team members Barunke Kaman and Henry Bi, the study was commenced.

After six months of intense work, the book, ‘Chimbu Issues in Development’, was published in December 1976.

The publication became the reference book for educational institutions in PNG, serving as a blueprint and guide for development workers.

After the study, James was assigned to work under Barry Cready, a senior officer in the colonial Administration. With independence looming he needed to learn fast as most of the kiaps and other Australian public servants would soon be leaving.

With only a few educated elites in Simbu, James was needed most in public administration leading to independence. He never refused any task and was admired for his way of motivating people to be involved. He believed in teamwork and collective ideas.

As a kiap himself, James learned all the aspects of public administration from the Australian kiaps including land investigation and acquisition, census work and resolving tribal conflicts.

After independence in 1975, he served extensively in Simbu Province - Karamui/Nomane, Gumine, Sinasina/Yongomugl, Kundiawa/Gembogl and Kerowagi.

In his capacity as District Administrator, James often recalled that his posting to district level was never a demotion. He applauded that going back to the district gave him wider scope of district administration and reaching out to where the bulk of the population lived.

“I am glad and happy to learn about how to administer district from our colonial Australians who were front runners of pacification from 1933 to 1960,” he would say.

James achieved many things while working in district (now provincial) administration. He assisted Education Minister Kobale Kale to prepare the cabinet (National Executive Council) submission for three high schools in Simbu at Gumine, Muaina and Chuave.

In his role of provincial planner he was initially assisted by Canadian volunteer, Frank Bea, in providing advice for then premier Siwi Korondo, who advised James to plan for 20 years and beyond emphasising education as the number one priority. Hence, Simbu became a leading human resource provider to PNG as it remains today.

James Arba was appointed executive officer of the committee that organised Independence Day celebrations in Simbu, reporting to the chairman of the national committee, David Marsh.

This led to a climactic event when the Prince of Wales (now King Charles II), visited Simbu for the Independence Day celebration on 16 September 1975.

James drafted the invitation letter on behalf of the people and was privileged to have dine with Prince Charles in Kundiawa at Premier Hill along with two other prominent Papua New Guineans, the late Jerry Nalau and the late Sir. Iambakey Okuk.

From 1985 to 1986, when the Simbu Provincial Government was suspended, James was recalled to assist Florian Mambu, the caretaker administrator, as his Executive Officer.

In 1992 James attended the Administrative College, receiving a Diploma in Public Administration.

Upon his return to Simbu, he worked as the field coordinator of provincial affairs, setting up a radio network for effective communication into districts and rural outposts.

He was also involved in training village court officers and peace and land mediators.

From 2007 to 2010 James was elevated to senior lands officer and served in the Lands Department, working on the Highlands Highway rehabilitation improvement program. As the lands acquisition specialist for Highlands roads, he assisted a number of private companies until the program was completed in 2015.

So from 1975 to 2017 James served the Simbu Provincial Administration with distinction in his capacity as Provincial Planner, District Administrator, District Officer-in-Charge, Lands Officer, Village Court Officer, Peace Mediation and many other jobs where he was needed.

He also served on many boards and was deputy chairman of Simbu Education Board, chairman of Kondiu Rosary High School board, member of the Gumine, Muaina and Kerowagi high school boards. He was the deputy chairman of the Simbu Savings and Loan Society and a member of the Melanesian Council of Churches many other smaller organisations.

James suffered a stroke in 2020 and, sadly, in 2021, he lost his wife who was close to him. During these years he stayed for most of the time in his house and led quiet life with his children and grandchildren until his passing on 31 January.

The late James Arba was a devoted Catholic who lived life to the fullest. He was always around when Simbu needed people like him to chart the course for Simbu and set the foundations of a well-governed province.

James did what he had to do for the betterment of Simbu and the people owe him a debt of gratitude for his contribution to the development of the province.

He is a great lost to his family, clan, tribe and Simbu as a whole.

Phillip Kai, also from the Endugla tribe, says he was the first educated elite of his clan and will be remembered as the icon who set values and standards for all to follow.

He walks tall amongst us and is a giant who died poor and humble. He is survived by eight children (four sons and four daughters) and 14 grandchildren.

We admire your personality, your humility and your wisdom. Despite hardships you walked long distances, crossed many rivers, flew over mountains and valleys and sailed over rough seas to unknown places to learn from the white men and come back to impart your knowledge and skills to us.

May the Angels in Heaven welcome you and may God grant you eternal peace.


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